Ed Note: Today we bring you the final installment of the story of Officers Ann-Margaret Lyons and Pete Tetukevich, who met when they were both assigned to the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit, the NYPD’s 400-strong SWAT team. These officers are just two of 15 extraordinary cops profiled in pages of Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage by American Police Beat publisher Cynthia Brown. Not caught up yet? Read Part I here and Part II here.
When Love Crashes In
It was right before Labor Day in 1991. The No. 4 Lexington Avenue train derailed before entering the Union Square Station at 14th Street. On that day, the 4 train was operated by Robert Ray. He derailed switching from the express to the local tracks about one hundred yards before he entered the station. Transit Authority rules require motormen to travel no more than ten miles per hour when switching from one track to another. Ray had been travelling close to fifty.
Ann-Margaret was in a marked police car near the station when she heard the “10-13” come in over the radio. “It was something about two cops injured at the rear of a subway train,” she said. “There was a lieutenant with me. We flew up to 14th Street and ran down into the station.”
What awaited Ann-Margaret and the other first responders was shocking. The carnage made the station look like a junk yard that had just been bombed. Everything was upside down and burning.
The first car of the ten-car train jumped the tracks as it was clearing the switch. It veered to the right slamming into the wall. Then it veered to the left slashing through a dozen metal beams. The car was sheared cleanly in half. The next four cars derailed with the third and fourth cars sustaining the most damage. The force of the crash propelled them up into the air where they collided together with enormous force before they fell back down in a tangled mess. Some of the cars were sticking straight up in a vertical ninety degree angle from the tracks. Five people died and scores were taken to local hospitals with serious injuries.
Lyons said when she got down there the scene was like a horror movie. She could see there were still people inside the train. “One person was holding on to a pole. Somehow it was still upright. The man was staring straight ahead. He’d gone into total shock.”
She climbed into the one of the cars. “There were wires hanging everywhere. Somehow I got to the man clutching the pole. I think a few of us pushed him through a hole but I can’t remember exactly.”
When the doors wouldn’t open on the second car, Ann-Margaret squeezed through a small opening. Once she got inside, she was able to get several more people out of the wreck. By this time the fire department was on the scene. There were bodies lying everywhere and the temperature had soared over one hundred degrees.
“We were trying to get them onto stretchers and carry them to the triage area for initial treatment before they were evacuated to the hospital,” Lyons said. “There was one thing that happened down there I’ve never been able to forget. I still dream about it. There was a man pinned to the roof of the subway. His head was wedged up and completely crushed by the metal.”
For her work that day, Lyons received an award for meritorious service.
Pete Tetukevich and Ann-Margaret Lyons were both police officers who enjoyed their work serving and protecting the people living, working and visiting New York, no matter the risk. They had yet to meet, but both were developing reputations as gutsy, active cops and their respective bosses were starting to take notice. By 1991 Pete had been transferred to the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit. He was assigned to Two Truck which covers the neighborhoods of the Upper East Side and Harlem.
Among their varied tasks, Emergency Service cops respond to calls when someone is threatening to jump off a bridge or a tall building. On a cold day in December, 1996, Pete and his team were doing their best to keep a distraught man from jumping from his apartment balcony on the seventeenth floor.
When a would-be suicide call comes in, the police who respond know they have to negotiate. “It is a skill,” Pete says, “you learn on the street and from the way you were brought up. “They try and teach this stuff at the Academy but personally I think you really learn how to interact with people, calm them down, convince them to do what you say by dealing with them in real circumstances and by watching cops who have been on the job a long time. I learned a lot from those old timers. Some of them were brilliant when it came to dealing with all kinds of people.”
Saving a jumper is an exercise in finding common ground. It’s an effort to find something the person cares about and get them talking about it. That’s not an easy feat when someone is determined to end their life. If negotiations aren’t working and their instincts tell them the person is going to jump, the officers will try to physically prevent the person from making the leap. It’s called, “going for the grab,” and that’s when it gets dangerous.
When they arrived at the distraught man’s apartment, he was out on a narrow ledge off his balcony. Pete remembers him as a well dressed African-American man who looked like he was in his late 20’s.
“It was a weird scene,” Pete recalled. “He was wearing an expensive suit and a full length, dark gray wool overcoat. He had his back to us and was staring off into the distance. He had one hand on the railing. That was all that was keeping him from falling to the street below.”
In the dining area there were glass doors opening onto the balcony. Pete moved slowly in that direction. He tried to start a conversation but there was no response. “He said very little to me all the hours we were up there trying to help him. At some point we knew I was going to have to grab him and pull him back over the railing.”
The other cops hooked Pete into his harness. “I had no idea when that happened. My total focus was on the jumper. This is a time you have to have complete trust in the people behind you. You have to believe they won’t screw up. If they do, the stakes are pretty high.”
Pete used a tactic he had tried before. He told the man he had a problem and he needed his help. “I had been squatting for over an hour and my legs were cramping up,” he said. “On top of that I was freezing. The doors to the balcony were wide open. It was a cold day and I’d started to shiver. I knew one of my guys left me a jacket but I didn’t want to reach around to get it. I asked the jumper for permission to get up, stretch my legs and put on the jacket. I was completely focused on his body language to see if he was responding to what I was saying. It seemed like a pretty long time, but finally he looked in my direction and told me it was okay to stand up and put on the jacket.”
Now Pete had an opening. “I told him I wanted to tell him something, but I didn’t want the other guys to hear me. I asked him if it was okay if I moved a little closer. By then, I think I was about five feet away. He agreed. I moved out a little further on the balcony. Every time he looked away I would get a little closer. I was near enough to talk to him but he wouldn’t look at me. That’s a bad sign. He was just staring off into space. At some point I realized I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going to get him to come in. He didn’t have the courage to jump, but he wasn’t listening to me either. I afraid we were going to lose him. I put my right hand behind my back so he couldn’t see it and I gave the signal to the cops behind me.”
Time was up. Pete was going to grab the man and bring him back up over the balcony where he would be safe. With as little movement and noise as possible, Pete’s team attached a life line to his harness. If the man decided to jump and take Pete with him, the officers would pull him back with the lifeline. Pete’s life was now in their hands.
Pete was waiting for the moment when the man lost his focus. He didn’t have to wait very long. “In that split-second I sensed he wasn’t concentrating, I reached both my arms over the railing and grabbed him around the waist. It was a big bear hug-type embrace. But he was a lot stronger than he looked and he pulled me right over the railing. Now I’m over on his side, on a small ledge, seventeen stories above the street.”
Pete’s fellow officers would have to move fast to pull him back up. The lifeline lived up to its name and the cops came through. They pulled Pete, whose arms were still wrapped around the suicidal man, back up over the railing. As Pete tumbled to the floor and the man fell on top of him, the team moved in quickly.
“Once I calmed down,” Pete said, “I looked at the guy. He was in cuffs staring at me. I told him he was going to be alright but I could see the hatred in his eyes. He had wanted to die and I had stopped him. In all my years as a cop, that was one of the most draining jobs I ever worked.”
During her career with the NYPD, Ann-Margaret responded to dozens of calls when someone had thrown themselves under an oncoming subway train. “These calls are horrible,” she said. “Body parts are everywhere. A lot of cops throw up the first time they go to one of these scenes. Some people never get used to it.
“There was one man who jumped in front of a train at the Queens Plaza stop. He was crushed from the waist down. I had to tell him he was going to die when we got the train off him. It’s so hard to know what to say. I asked him if he wanted a cigarette. I told him we were going to do everything we could for him. It was terrible.
“There was another guy at the 14th Street stop on the R train. I’m not sure what happened but he was cut in half. The train never stopped. When we got there someone had put the man on a stretcher. We picked up all the body parts we could find, put them in a bucket and carried them up to the street where an ambulance was waiting. When we were going up the stairs this little girl walked by. We tried to block her view but she saw the guy’s leg sticking up out of a bucket. She looked at us, then back to the leg. She totally broke down. We didn’t have time to deal with her, but I still remember her face and her tears. The man was just a torso but he lived for four hours. We watched the doctor trying to save him in the emergency room. I’ve had three of these cases. It’s a very hard part of this job.”
Many tasks shouldered by law enforcement officers are emotionally grueling and death notifications are at the top of the list. Most people aren’t aware that along with responding to calls where people die, another difficult task for cops is notifying a family that a loved one is gone.
“One of the hardest things for me was to inform a person or family that someone they love died,” Pete said. “Every time I had to do this, I was overcome with feelings about my own father. He died when I was young. We get no training how to do this. Even with all the things I’ve been through, giving people this news was the hardest thing I ever had to do as a cop.”
Approximately hundred and sixty law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty each year. When a police officer dies doing his or her job, the community pays them a dramatic tribute. Hundreds, if not thousands, of law enforcement officers in their dress uniforms attend the funeral to show their respect. For days, details about the slain officer and his or her family are the main feature on local television stations and the newspaper. But there are also thousands of officers who are injured every day. The media rarely shows much interest in these men and women who survive but spend the rest of their lives trying to recover after being shot, stabbed, assaulted, or run over.
During his years with the NYPD, Pete Tetukevich was in the hospital so many times he lost count. One injury occurred when he was with Emergency Service on the Apprehension Team, a group of highly trained officers whose mission it is to serve warrants and arrest heavily armed people wanted for serious, mostly violent crimes.
One night his team’s assignment was to go to a bodega in Queens and bring in a man wanted for several killings.
“We arrived at the address where this guy was supposed to be,” Pete said. “My partner and I were the last people on our eight-person team to enter. As soon as we were inside, we saw a man behind the counter reaching down to get something. We assumed it was a gun. Without saying a word, we both reached over the glass counter, grabbed the guy and pulled him back up. Everything was going great. It looked like we had our bad guy but as we dragged him across the counter, the glass broke over my left leg. A large dagger-like shard went right through my calf. My leg was bleeding pretty badly but somehow we got the handcuffs on the guy. I didn’t even have time to check the bleeding when I heard a commotion in the back of the store. I was the ‘cuff man’ so I figured I’d better go see what was going on. I was dragging my leg and holding my hand over the wound trying to stop the bleeding.”
When Pete got to the back of the store, the sergeant was standing in the doorway. He was alarmed to see the blood gushing from Pete’s leg. Quickly, he instructed two officers to get Pete to the hospital, and do it fast. “It seemed like we hit every red light and the bleeding was getting really bad,” Pete said. “It turned out the glass had hit an artery.”
The doctors stitched him up and Pete was sent home with instructions to keep his leg elevated. The four inch long wound needed to clot and the swelling had to go down before he would be allowed to go back to work.
Two days later Pete was bored and he drove to the station. No one wanted to see him back so soon. The swelling was still bad, but the NYPD doctors could see he wanted to get back to work so they ordered him to work the desk for at least two weeks. Fourteen days later, Pete was back on full duty. It took his leg a long time to heal and later he admitted he told the doctors he was feeling better than he really was. He figured his leg would get better sooner or later and he wanted to get back out on the street.
Those who knew Pete’s dad, for whom he was named, would not be surprised to hear this story. Pete senior served seventeen years with the NYPD. He spent fifteen of those years working in the Emergency Service Unit. Pete had just turned thirteen when his Dad became ill. The doctors thought he had lung cancer and ordered radiation treatments. But it turned out the diagnosis was wrong and the treatments destroyed his heart. Pete’s father died over thirty years ago but his voice still gets shaky when he talks about him.
“My father wanted me to join the Air Force and become a pilot,” Pete remembered. “But I’d spent so much time listening to my dad and his friends talk about being cops, that’s all I wanted to do. They were really great guys and I looked up to them. One thing I admired, even as a little kid, was that they knew how to work hard. On their days off they would work on their own houses, work on their partners’ houses, help each other build new houses. They were always working to make a better life for their friends and families.
“For a long time my father’s partner was a Japanese guy, Eddie Yano. Eddie was a small guy and my father was big. Everyone called them Big Pete and the Indian. Right before Eddie died, he called me and said he wanted to come over and tell me about some of the things he and my Dad had been through.”
Eddie was especially eager to talk to Pete about an incident that took place in Washington Heights in the late 1960’s.
“There was a call for a man holding a woman hostage,” Pete said. “When the patrol cops showed up he began firing at them with a high powered rifle. They called in Emergency Service and when my Dad and Eddie got on the scene, they could see the rifle pointed right at them through the opening in the door jamb. Bullets were flying so they dove for cover in a corner of the hallway. Eddie wasn’t sure exactly how long they waited before they decided to go in and get the gunman.
The plan was for Eddie to grab the end of the rifle that was sticking through the door. At the same moment, my Dad would enter the apartment and tackle the guy. They rushed towards the door, but just as Eddie grabbed the end of the rifle, the suspect got off a shot. The force of the shot burned Eddie’s hand but somehow he was able to keep his grip on the gun. My Dad kicked in the door, tackled the gunman and broke his hold on the rifle.”
At “Big Pete’s” funeral in July of 1975, two of his dad’s closest cop friends found thirteen year old Pete and took him aside. “One of them put his hands on my shoulders,” Pete recalled. “They told me they knew someday I would join the NYPD and be an Emergency Service cop.”
The day he turned eighteen, Pete signed up for the test.
Ann-Margaret’s path to a law enforcement career was not so direct. Her only contact with the world of law enforcement when she was growing up in Brooklyn was when they showed up to talk some sense into her parents after they had a fight. “My father drank a lot which caused a lot of problems,” she recalled. “The cops were great. They’d try to talk to them and get them to calm down. If it was really bad, they’d take one of them out for a walk. You could tell they just wanted to cool things down. I always thought of them as people who were there to help.”
After graduating from high school, Ann-Margaret got a job working in the accounting office of a factory. She says the job was extremely boring. Every hour seemed like six.
Despite the fact that law enforcement was still a man’s world and she didn’t know anyone who was a cop, Ann-Margaret signed up for the police test. She was eighteen years old and weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds. She said she never thought about how a woman would survive in the alpha-male culture of the law enforcement. Growing up her friends had all been boys. She preferred climbing trees to playing with dolls and she’d become pretty competitive on the football, softball and soccer fields. When the New York City Police Department called to tell her she was accepted, she quit her job and began the mandatory six months of training in the police academy.
The first time Ann-Margaret saw Pete was in 1992. “We were going for a routine training exercise in the subway. When I came down the escalator he was sitting up on a turnstile. I definitely noticed him. I said hello but he blew me off. I don’t think he even looked in my direction.”
Pete doesn’t recall seeing Ann-Margaret that day. He says the first time they met was a year later when she walked into Truck Two. It was her first day at her new assignment with Emergency Service. “She was wearing a really tight jump suit,” Pete recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, she looks pretty good.’”
Both admit it was not love at first sight, but Pete was curious about the new cop on the team. Once he learned she shared his love of motorcycles and owned a 1993 Harley Davidson Low Rider, he began pestering her to go on a ride. It took several weeks, but she finally agreed.
The day of the ride was cold and rainy, but Pete was looking forward to his first date with Ann. Rain or no rain, he didn’t want to cancel.
“I decided we’d ride to Connecticut,” Pete said. “We left around ten in the morning and it seemed to be getting colder. When we got over the state line I told Ann I was worried she was getting cold. When I suggested we find a motel and have a hot shower, she looked disgusted.” Pete had to face the fact that Ann was not going to accompany him to a motel on their first date. They ended up in a local pub for lunch instead.
When they took that motorcycle ride, Pete and Ann were both married, but neither was happy. “My wife was a teacher,” Pete said. “It seemed like we had less and less in common. She thought life was great and why wouldn’t she? She worked with beautiful young children all day. My view of life was the exact opposite of hers. She never could understand why cops have such a bad view of the world and most of the people in it.”
People who do marital counseling say there are many things that can be done to improve the situation when couples have sexual problems, conflicts over money, issues with the kids, and different ideas about how to spend leisure time. The situation is harder to fix when partners look at life in totally different ways. Having different world views could be the reason so many law enforcement officers end up divorced when they marry someone who doesn’t understand their job.
While Pete and his wife’s differences were making communication hard, Ann wasn’t doing much better. She had been with the same person since high school. Looking back, she says she never should have married him. Everyone expected them to tie the knot and they did, even though she had deep misgivings. The marriage lasted four years.
While it may not have been love at first sight, it wasn’t long before Ann-Margaret and Pete realized they were falling in love. A year after their first motorcycle ride, they were both divorced.
Along with a love of high-risk police work and motorcycles, they looked at the world the same way. Pete says, for him, the best part of their relationship was they liked the same people and laughed at the same jokes. “We’d be sitting around talking and I’d be amazed she felt the same way about things I did. At work, all the people who bugged her, bugged me too.”
After their divorces were final, they moved in together. While no one had seen anything in writing, every cop in the NYPD knew the department did not like officers who were married or even dating, to be working together. Ann was determined to keep their relationship a secret. They both had their dream jobs assigned to the Emergency Service Unit, one of the most exciting, prestigious divisions in the entire department . They knew it might be better if they weren’t in the same squad, but it was what it was and they were confident they could deal with it.
For a while everything was fine. Pete and Ann-Margaret continued to do great police work and no one paid much attention when they always showed up to work together. “We told them we were carpooling,” Ann said with a grin.
To this day, Pete says Ann was the better cop mostly because she always stayed focused. “I remember this one night when we were sitting on the corner of Broadway and 61st Street on the Upper West Side. It was the first thing in the morning and the beginning of our shift. We ordered some ham and eggs and coffee.”
As most cops learn, it’s best to eat right when you are about to go on duty. If you wait and it gets busy, chances are good it’ll be eight hours with no time for food.
“We’d just started to eat when we got a call about a possible suicide,” Pete said. “We were right in front of the building so we threw the food down on the seat of the truck, grabbed the tools we would need to get into the apartment and ran into the building.”
Pete explained with suicide calls, it’s crucial to get in there right away. “Even then it may be too late,” he said. “We used the rabbit tool, a small portable hand pump that spreads the door away from the door jamb. It pretty much wrecks the door so we use it only when there’s a serious emergency.”
They forced the door open, looked around and walked toward the back bedroom. There wasn’t a sound. They pushed the bedroom door open. There, laying on a queen-size bed, was a naked woman with a two inch stab in her sternum. She was sprawled across the bed and she looked dead. The knife was laying at her side.
Pete still doesn’t understand why he reacted the way he did, but he found himself completely distracted by the woman’s wound. “I’d been a cop for years and I’d seen a lot of this stuff. Who knows why I reacted this way. I just kept staring at the hole in her chest and thinking, ‘Wow, that must hurt.’”
While Pete was staring at the woman’s stab wound, Ann-Margaret was checking the other rooms. Cops are trained to never assume someone is dead, unless they have absolute proof. She took it for granted Pete would make sure the woman with the knife would not pose a threat.
“When I went back to the bedroom I could see he was distracted,” Ann recalled. “She could have easily grabbed the knife. It was laying right next to her hand. I started yelling at Pete, ‘Grab the knife, grab the knife.’ It’s a good thing he snapped out of it because when the woman heard my voice, her hand moved toward the knife. She wasn’t dead. It just looked that way.”
For cops to be distracted like that, to loose their concentration for even just a second, is extremely dangerous. It had never happened to Pete and it made him nervous.
Ann-Margaret got on her radio and called for an ambulance. The woman was rushed to the emergency room where the doctors did their best to save her life. “We never knew if she made it,” Pete said, “or why she wanted to die. When you watch these TV shows, sometimes the victim will contact the cops who saved them. The person cries and thanks the officers. It’s all very emotional. I’m not into worrying about getting pats on the back, but it would be nice to know what happened to some of these people you work so hard to help. In all my years on the job I only heard from one victim. A woman I had pulled out of a really bad car accident tracked me down to say thanks.”
The only time Ann-Margaret ever heard from a victim was after she spent two hours on top of the cables of the George Washington Bridge trying to talk down a suicidal man. He finally agreed to come down from the bridge. A week later she received a letter from a nephew of a New York City police officer who was killed attempting to talk a jumper off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1908. Robert Fitzgerald wrote: “Congratulations on a courageous and successful saving of a life. God bless and protect our police officers. This incident reminded me of my uncle, Robert J. Fitzgerald. Patrolman Fitzgerald lost his life on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1908 trying to save a young man from jumping. While climbing on the bridge iron works, my uncle was hit by a trolley car and was knocked from the bridge. His body went through the ice in the East River and was found three months later.”
One day when Ann and Pete arrived at work, a lieutenant told them he had a problem. A homeless man had built a little shanty town in an open lot in the 28th Precinct in Harlem. In addition to his self-constructed village, over thirty of his dogs were running wild around the neighborhood. The residents were not happy. The night before a group of them had met with the police and demanded something be done. The lieutenant assured them he would look into the matter.
Ann and Pete, along with two precinct cops and two lieutenants, loaded up their tranquilizer guns with extra vials of keteset, an anesthetic used to subdue animals. They drove to the lot.
“When we got there it was total chaos,” Ann-Margaret recalled. “Dogs were barking and running everywhere. The stench of dog shit was horrible.”
The police worked out their plan on the way to the site. They would tranquilize the dogs and once they were down, load them into the truck. When the situation was under control, they would drive the dogs to a shelter. When Ann-Margaret saw the number of dogs they needed to tranquilize, she called for a paddy wagon on her radio. They were going to need a bigger vehicle.
“Pete and I both started tranquilizing the dogs,” she said. “Once they went down I picked them up and loaded them into the wagon.”
Despite the stench and the chaotic scene, Ann remembers being impressed with the little make-shift village the homeless man had made for himself. “He made himself a small house with scraps of sheet metal for the roof and plywood for the walls,” she said. “He even had small hot plates for cooking. It was actually set up pretty well. The dogs were causing the problem.”
Several hours later Pete and Ann had tranquilized close to thirty dogs and moved them into the wagon. There were only a couple left. Pete told Ann he was going to climb up on the sheet metal roof. He thought it would be easier to tranquilize the last few dogs from up there.
“I remember looking up at Pete on the roof of the shack,” Ann-Margaret said. “I see him walking out to the edge of the roof. He couldn’t see it, but at the edge, it was just the sheet metal. There was nothing underneath for support. I’m looking up at him thinking, no, he’s not going to walk to the edge is he? Before I can say anything, he was out on the end of the roof. A second later the sheet metal comes flying and Pete is sailing through the air. With an incredibly loud thump, he lands on the ground.”
“I looked around,” Pete said. “I was laying in piles of dog shit with the sheet metal all around me. I could tell I was hurt. All I could think was, well, it’s back to the hospital.”
On Friday, December 8, 1995, Ann-Margaret and Pete were working the day shift. It was a clear, brisk, sunny morning and they had enjoyed their ride into the city. Both recall when they crossed over the George Washington Bridge on their way to the West Side Highway, the Hudson River looked like someone had scattered millions of sparkling diamonds over the top of the water. They parked their Jeep Wrangler and went into the station. The other members of their squad were already there. That day Ann and Pete were teamed up with Henry Medina, Seth Gahr, Pete Conlin and Kevin Flanagan.
Kevin Flanagan cooked up some eggs in the small station house kitchen and was making a pot of coffee when Pete and Ann arrived. By the time they got their gear and checked and locked their weapons, it was just after 8:30 a.m. One hour later, they had barely heard the dispatcher’s voice over their police radios. It was eerily quiet, prompting Pete to announce it must be Sunday, not Friday. Sundays in New York City, especially for cops working the day shift, were the quietest time of the week. Little did they know that in less than two hours, they would be dealing with one of the worst crime scenes in New York City’s history.
The call came in around 10:15 a.m. “Confirmed robbery in progress, shots fired” and the words all cops dread most, “officer needing assistance.” The location was 272 West 125th Street. It took them only seconds to get suited up. The team donned their Kevlar-reinforced helmets and heavy tactical vests. They went to the large Emergency Service truck where the semi-automatics, sub-machine guns, and high powered rifles are stored. They unlocked the weapons and made sure they had extra rounds.
A man armed with a bottle of lighter fluid and a gun, yelling, “It’s on now,” had gone into Freddy’s Fashion Mart, a discount clothing store on Harlem’s bustling 125th Street. Someone called 911 and when two precinct cops showed up, the gunman fired at the officers, pinning one of them down. One officer got away, ran to the street and called in on his radio.
Pete said when their team got to the scene it was total pandemonium. “The gunman was shooting, but visibility was bad so we couldn’t pinpoint his position.”
Their first task was to make sure the cop who had been pinned down was out of harm’s way. As patrol officers crouched in the doorway with their guns drawn to provide cover, Ann and Pete put their ballistic shields in position and walked towards the gunfire. With bullets whizzing by, they managed to get to the officer and drag him back to safety. Then they took cover.
The suspect was still firing from inside the store. “It’s hard to know when it happened because your sense of time gets distorted,” Ann explained, “but at some point Pete and I saw flames start to come out of the building.”
They knew they had to find the back door of the store to make sure the gunman could not escape out the back of building.
As they ran towards the rear of the building, they could still hear the crackle of gunfire. Smoke was pouring out of Freddy’s. The whole place looked like it was on fire. They were concerned about getting the shooter but first they had to make sure people in the adjacent buildings knew there was a fire. If necessary, they would help them get out. Ann rushed to the hair salon on one side, and Pete ran through the apartment building on the other, both alerting everyone about the disaster occurring nearby.
Once they were sure everyone was safe, Ann and Pete made their way to the rear entrance of the store. By this time scores of police cars and hundreds officers, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and even the police commissioner himself, were on the scene. There were fire trucks and ambulances, reporters and photographers, camera crews and helicopters. Smoke was everywhere. Someone cranked up a boom box with rap music blaring and you could still hear gunfire. No one knew if the people inside Freddy’s were alive or dead.
Experienced law enforcement officers agree that at scenes like this, if you get distracted and loose your concentration, you get scared. It’s a vicious cycle with fear leading to confusion which leads to more fear. That’s when the instinct to run from the danger rather than towards it can kick in. It takes enormous discipline and concentration to block everything out except the task at hand.
At some point Pete realized he’d lost track of Ann, but there wasn’t time to think about that. He had to cover the rear of the store. At the back of the building, he saw a stairwell with a slightly open doorway. He hurried down the stairs and pushed open the door. It took a few seconds to adjust to the lack of light. Then something caught his eye. “As I got closer I realized it was a man sitting on a milk crate,” he said. “I figured he was still alive because he was sitting up. I asked him if he was okay but there was no reaction. I bent down to get a closer look and I see blood on his t-shirt. Then I see a hole near the blood. Then I see gunpowder. I said to him, ‘Buddy you stay here. You’ve been shot. You stay here. I’ll be right back.’”
Pete ran back up the stairs and out of the building. The first people he ran into were two EMT’s. He was relieved to see Ann right behind them. Pete told the EMT’s to follow him. “I led them back into the basement to where the wounded guy was still sitting. I told him not to worry. The EMT’s would take care of him.”
Ann and Pete took stock of the situation. It looked as if the man who had been shot crawled out of a space between the ceiling and a water pipe. But the hole was small and they didn’t think it was big enough for someone to squeeze through.
Pete got on his radio, described his position and called for tools, sledgehammers, heavy vests and more powerful weapons.
Armed with sledgehammers and rifles, and joined by Kevin Flanagan, Pete and Ann made their way to the wall. They hoped, once they broke through, it would lead them into the store. They began hammering away. It was giving way when all of a sudden they hit something solid. “It felt like a heavy piece of metal,” Pete said. “We didn’t know what was on the other side, but it wasn’t budging.”
They kept at it. Looking back they both say it could have been seconds, or it could have been hours. They were operating on pure adrenaline. Finally they broke through.
Smoke engulfed them as it billowed out through the opening they made in the wall. They began to choke. “We had to get in there,” Ann said. “We knew there were people who might still be alive. And, there was the gunman to deal with.”
Once they got through the wall, Pete couldn’t see Ann. The smoke was too thick. But he could hear her. “I started screaming at her to get out. She yelled back, ‘I can’t move. I can’t move. I’m caught on something.’ It turns out her heavy ballistic vest was caught and she was trapped. All of a sudden it hit me. Ann could die.”
Neither Pete nor Ann-Margaret is sure what happened next. The lights had gone out, smoke was everywhere, the heat was soaring and the police were disoriented. Ann was frantically tugging on her vest trying to get it off. Finally it broke free. She made her way over to Pete who was completely enveloped in smoke and still screaming for her to get out.
Looking back, Ann-Margaret said it’s hard to describe how hot it was once they got inside Freddy’s. “The heat was just unreal,” she said. “All the winter jackets had melted and there were down feathers flying everywhere.”
Punching a hole in the wall created a draft which made the smoke even thicker. The officers had no fire gear. Pete explained that the firefighters had been told to stay away because of the active shooter who was still present. Until that threat was over, even though there was a fire, it was considered a tactical job for the police. “But there was a fire so they were shooting water on it from outside the crime scene perimeter. You had two different agencies fighting two different problems. By putting water on the fire they were forcing the heat and smoke back towards us. From our perspective, they were creating even more problems.”
The fire department decided the floor might collapse and they wanted the officers to leave the building. But the cops were determined to find victims who might still be alive. “There was no way we were leaving,” Pete said. “They were telling us to get out and we’re telling them we’re not leaving. I remember yelling into my radio, ‘No way. We’re not coming out. We have victims in here.’”
With only their helmets to protect them, Ann and Pete forced their way through the heat and smoke into the store. It was only seconds when Ann came across the first grisly scene. Two young men and two young women were wedged in behind a palette of cinder blocks. They were all dead. As they walked up the stairs to the second floor, the heat was even worse. Gasping for air and making their way through the life-threatening smoke, they found a badly burned man lying on the floor in the middle of one of the aisles. They knew immediately they had their gunman, He was dead. The gun was still in his hand.
Still choking, they stepped over his body. By the cash register they could see what looked like a pile of bodies. When they got closer they saw three young girls. The medical examiner determined later they died of smoke inhalation.
The man in the basement who was shot five times, was an Irish immigrant who had been doing some construction work at the store. After the contractor was wounded by the gunman, he managed to find an opening around the water pipe in the basement and squeeze himself through. He tried to get the other people in the store to go with him, but no one would follow him. Eventually he recovered from his wounds. He was one of two survivors of the massacre at Freddy’s.
Once the fire was out and the last victim was taken to the morgue, it was determined that seven innocent people perished. The gunman, a fifty one year old, unemployed man named Ronald Smith was also dead. When detectives questioned people in the neighborhood about Smith, they said he was angry that Freddy’s, a Jewish-owned clothing store on 125th Street, was refusing to renew the lease of a popular black-owned record shop next store. Freddy’s wanted the space so they could expand. Pete said it was ironic that only minority workers who lived in the neighborhood died that day. “We did our best under the circumstances,” Ann said. “We wish we could have done more. It really hurt we couldn’t save those people.”
It was now early evening. The flames were out but the cops were still hyped up. They needed to find a way to try and get back to normal. Covered with soot and grime from the fire and heartbroken at the tragic loss of life they just witnessed, they went back to the station.
“We decided to stay in quarters,” Ann said. “It was completely against the rules, but I’m not sure any of us even cared. We hunkered down in a corner of the kitchen. Someone had a bottle of bourbon. We found some Styrofoam coffee cups and poured ourselves a drink. We took turns talking about what happened, how we reacted and whether there was anything we could do better the next time. We were amazed we all survived.”
By now, Ann-Margaret and Pete were deeply in love. It had been three years since they had met. They loved their work, their divorces were final, they were living together but confident no one knew they were a couple. At that time, any one of their bosses would agree they were two of the toughest, bravest cops on the force. But something changed after their near-death experience at Freddy’s. They began to worry. It was the beginning of the end of their careers in law enforcement.
Pete felt it first. “Before Ann and I met, I never thought about dying or even what it would be like if I got seriously hurt. I just focused on the task at hand and took care of business. I started worrying almost from the time I met her and it just grew from there. I realized I met someone I loved and wanted to be with. I thought about her all the time. The biggest surprise for me was I started to enjoy life.
“At first the anxiety was subconscious. But as soon as you start thinking I could fall and get hurt, that’s when you start second guessing yourself and thinking about what might happen. You start to worry, you get shaky and then it’s time to go.”
Pete said during his entire career he never worried about his safety. “Neither did Ann. We just went out and did the job. But my attitude changed. I was more cautious and after Freddy’s, I was especially anxious about her. If I was out on patrol and I wasn’t with her, I felt this anxiety. I wasn’t in control. If you know you can control the situation you can do the job one hundred percent. If you don’t feel that, you can panic. If she was in Manhattan and I was in Queens, I knew I couldn’t help her if she got into trouble.”
Pete would admit later his fears were irrational. If anyone he’d worked with could handle themselves it was Ann.
“There was one time she got involved in a car accident out in Queens. I’m thinking I want to go and be with her, but I can’t because nobody knows we were dating. All they knew was that we were car pooling and I knew they would find it suspicious if I ran to her bedside.”
“We were going to a 10-13,” Ann-Margaret said. “A cop was trapped in a car after a bad accident. We took the bridge from Manhattan into Queens. It was around nine o’clock at night. I was driving and it was raining. We were going down 43rd Avenue. We stopped at a light and when it turned green I hit the gas. A cab coming into the intersection ran the red light and we broad-sided him. We started spinning and I remember hitting my head. I got out of the truck but I felt like I was going to pass out. I called in the accident on my radio and that’s the last thing I remember. When I woke up, I was in the hospital. It was weird. We were on our way to an accident and we ended up being the accident.”
The ambulance arrived within minutes after the collision and Ann-Margaret was rushed to Bellevue Hospital. After going through a round of X-rays, they brought her back to her room. She was only there a few minutes when Pete came barging in.
“He was really upset and saying something like, ‘I just knew you were going to get hurt.’ I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ I just wanted him to leave.”
Pete tried to explain. He had cover. Back at the station, when the sergeant asked for someone to volunteer to take Ann-Margaret home from the hospital, Pete said he’d do it. But Ann was still angry. She was alarmed at Pete’s behavior in the hospital room. She knew if anyone heard what he was saying, they’d know they were doing more than carpooling.
Pete didn’t care. He was distraught when he learned she was in an accident and he had reason to be nervous. Even in the alpha-male world of ESU, Ann was considered a real go-getter.
“I always looked at her and wondered how she could do it,” Pete said. “She always went way out of her way and put so much energy into everything. It was like she had to prove to the other guys that she was as good as them. I knew that might be the reason she was always taking so many risks. I told her she should stop being so aggressive. She was a way better cop than most of the guys we worked with. They should be the ones trying to prove they were better than her. But she never paid any attention to me. She just focused on the job, one hundred percent.”
After his outburst in the hospital room, Pete made a serious effort to keep his worries about Ann at bay. But, it was a losing battle. His behavior on the job became more erratic.
Three months after the shooting rampage at Freddy’s, Ann-Margaret and Pete got a call for a burglary in progress in Washington Heights. “When we arrived on the scene, there was a canine officer there with his police dog,” Pete said. “We decided to send the dog in first. He came out wagging his tale, a signal no one’s home. I looked at Ann, she nodded, and we went in for what we thought was one last search.”
“Ann went to the bedroom with Henry Medina. Seth Gahr and I went to the living room,” Pete said. “All of a sudden I hear her screaming, ‘Let me see your hands, let me see your hands.’ She had a fully loaded, automatic, submachine gun. If that wasn’t scaring this guy, it was probably about to be a real bad scene. I ran in and I see her. She’s got this guy at gunpoint. He’s in a closet. I don’t know what came over me. It was all instinct. I barreled across the room, threw myself into the closet and tackled the guy.”
Pete would admit later he had let his emotions get the best of him. “I was under a lot of stress trying to hide our relationship. Emergency Service cops are a very macho group of police officers. The quarters are tight and you’re always in very close contact with the other cops and the bosses. You’ve got people bringing in all their baggage to work and I didn’t want to be adding to the mix. But the truth was simple. I was possessed with the notion I had to do something to save her. I was terrified she was going to get hurt.”
For those not knowledgeable about the tactics that should have been used during this incident, let’s just say that Pete had violated several NYPD protocols. No one was more aware of this fact than Ann-Margaret. If a supervisor had been there, he might have recommended that Pete be disciplined. When they got home that night, Ann looked at Pete. She asked him directly, “What is your problem?”
“There had been many emotions building up over a long time,” Pete said. “We both had to deal with our divorces, and both of us felt the pressure of trying to hide our relationship from the cops we worked with And, of course, I was worrying about her. It was a long list. Increasingly, I couldn’t talk to her about all the things that were on my mind. So, as people do, I began to hurl insults and angry tirades at her.”
Ann remembers that night as a watershed moment. Pete said later, on some level, he knew it was over. “The world changed for me when I met Ann,” he said. “Now, above everything, I wanted to know she would be there in the morning and that she’d be there in one piece.”
He began to face the fact that his lack of focus and inappropriate behavior could jeopardize the lives of his colleagues. That was something he couldn’t live with. He had to decide between the only two things he had ever cared about in his life – his career with the New York City Police Department and Ann-Margaret. They talked all night about the unthinkable, leaving their jobs with the NYPD.
The next morning Ann went to work. Her first call was at Ft. Washington Ave and 176th Street. Someone called 911 to complain about an emotionally disturbed person who was throwing things out the window. When Ann and her sergeant arrived at the scene, they could see a man sitting in the window of his apartment with a Rottweiler sitting next to him.
With guns drawn, Ann-Margaret and her partner ran up the stairs. “I banged on the door and the dog starts going nuts,” she said. “It’s bad to antagonize a dog before you make entry but that’s what happened.”
Two more officers arrived on the scene and quickly they set up teams. Ann and her partner would corner the snarling, barking dog in the living room while one of the officers would shoot him with his tranquilizer gun. But he missed and the dog went into a bigger rage. Ann had a noose. She decided to rush the dog and try to get it on the dog. As she moved in, the dog bared its teeth, leaped up and attacked her.
“The dog went after my hand,” Ann said. “Thank God I had on a thick, leather glove.” As the dog attacked Ann-Margaret, her partner got off a second shot. This time the dart hit the dog.
Now Ann could focus on her hand. She looked down and saw blood pouring out of her glove. She waited until she got in the ambulance to remove it. She worried if she took the glove off back in the apartment and the finger fell onto the floor, the dog might be faster and would no doubt enjoy eating her finger. On the way to the hospital she took the glove off and her index finger fell out. She warded off the feelings of nausea, picked up her finger and held it firmly onto the stump on her hand.
When the Rottweiler bit off Ann-Margaret’s finger, Pete was at Truck One. “I’m sitting there listening to this scene going down on the radio,” he said. “I hear there’s a dog involved, but I know that day she was assigned to drive the truck so I wasn’t too worried.” But as Pete sat there listening, he got a bad feeling. “I was overcome with fear it might be Ann who had been bit.”
Seconds later a lieutenant got on the air. His message struck Pete right in the heart. the lieutenant reported that a female officer with a dog bite was on her way to Columbia Presbyterian. “To this day I can still hear his voice and his words.”
Trying to hold her finger onto her hand, Ann took her seat in the hospital waiting room. It would be over five hours before a doctor could see her. The X-rays showed the force of the dog’s bite smashed several bones in her hand and the needed to reattach her finger. Henry Medina called Pete to tell him the good news. The doctors said there was a chance Ann would not lose her finger.
“They sent her home with pain killers,” Pete recalled, “but they weren’t working. There were so many emotions going back and forth between us. Ann was right handed and now she’s injured a finger on her shooting hand. Despite the fact that the doctor’s were able to save Ann’s finger, within a year, the department told her she had to retire. She turned in her badge and gun in May of 1998.”
Four years later, in February, 2002, Pete retired from the job he loved.
Ann and Pete now live a one hour drive north of New York City. They have a charming house on a tree-lined street, an eight-year-old son, Peter, whom they dote on, and a thriving landscape business they started the week after Pete retired from the NYPD.
While they’re not pushing their young son, Pete, into a career in law enforcement, both parents say there are signs he may be headed in that direction.
“Just a month ago I took Peter down to lower Manhattan to the Police Museum,” Pete said. “There’s a shield on display and I was explaining to my son how we use that to protect our selves in certain situations. I went over to look at it closer and I realized it was Two Truck’s shield. I used it many times. I recognized the bullet holes. It was ten years later and there was my son standing next to that shield in the New York City Police Museum.”
Ann and Pete both say they’re too busy to think about the past. But, when you ask them if they miss the job, it’s clear they do. “Before I started worrying, the job was so much fun you can’t imagine,” Pete said. “And there is no more rewarding career than law enforcement. But there are times in your life where the risks are just too big and you’ve got to get out. As hard as it was, Ann and I had no choice. We had to go.”