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N.Y.'s finest see unimaginable — again

9/11 memories vivid as police, fire crews help in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — In the middle of a shattered neighborhood, stepping around glittering shards of glass, breathing the unavoidable stench of death, Lt. Bill Butler surveyed what was left of the city and went to work.

And then, four years later, the New York City firefighter came to New Orleans and did it again.

Sitting in the cab of a firetruck on the edge of the French Quarter, Butler paused to consider his second tour of tragedy.

Butler was serving on the Fire Department of New York's Ladder 6, based in Manhattan's Chinatown, on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in a stairwell of the World Trade Center's north tower when it began to collapse. He got out with scrapes and bruises.

Now he is one of about 350 New York firefighters working in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Even after living through 9/11, Butler struggles to comprehend what happened here.

"Then," he says, thinking back four years, "it was so concentrated — 16 blocks, or whatever. Here, it's — what did they say, 90,000 square miles?"

The sheer size of it, the scope: That's what strike Dave Fekety and Pete Cafarella, two young New York police officers who were taking a break at Harrah's casino, or what is left of it, where police who have come to New Orleans from across the country gather to munch on hamburgers.

"It's heartbreaking to see an entire city destroyed like this," says Fekety, of the 120th Precinct on Staten Island. "Nine-eleven, even as horrible as it was — this is an entire city."

Cafarella keeps thinking of a story he heard the other day about a dog who drank the fetid water here — a brew of gasoline, storm water, human waste, human beings and who knows what else — and was dead two hours later.

"Not to minimize 9/11, but this is chemicals and toxins," he says. "Bacteria, viruses, all kinds of disgusting things."

The pair are among about 300 New York police officers helping with patrols in the French Quarter — some of them joke that it's remarkable to see it sober — and some outlying parishes. They have been told they will stay as long as they are wanted and needed.

Most of the help from New York, and from police and fire departments elsewhere, arrived about a week after Katrina struck, and after the peak of nightmarish looting and violence.

It also came just before the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, a coincidence not lost on any of the New York police officers and firefighters here.

Both departments plan remembrances. At the NYPD memorial, which is tentatively set for a nursing home west of New Orleans, there will be moments of silence and a reading of victims' names.

But the New Yorkers also carry personal remembrances.

Fire Capt. Jim Rallis wears a silver bracelet on his right hand that bears the name of six colleagues from his unit who were killed on Sept. 11. A woman from Louisiana made it, he says.

Rallis noted that his department sent to New Orleans, along with its officers, a rig called the Spirit of Louisiana that the New Orleans Fire Department donated after the 2001 terror attacks.

"These people needed us," he says. "And they were there for us."

For police and firefighters alike, the notions of family and brotherhood come up often when they are asked about the tie between Sept. 11 and Katrina, the two great American catastrophes of their time. Many New Orleans firefighters showed up at Ground Zero, or at the long procession of funerals for their colleagues that followed.

"You sort of feel like you're repaying the debt," says Frank Naglieri, a battalion chief from the Bronx who was at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. "But if 9/11 never happened, we'd be down here. These guys need help."

Contributing: Don Babwin