Dean Marlowe was in his makeshift fourth-grade classroom, a double-wide trailer just outside New York City’s Public School 38, when he glanced out the window and saw his stepfather walking up the trailer’s ramp.
Marlowe’s mother was a police officer in Harlem at the time, his stepfather a police sergeant across town in east Brooklyn, and when his stepdad opened the door and told his teacher he was there to pick up Dean, Marlowe knew immediately something was wrong.
“I started getting nervous,” Marlowe, now a backup safety with the Detroit Lions, recalled in a Zoom interview with the Free Press last week. “I’m like, ‘What is going on? Why is he picking me up from school at 9:30 in the morning? I just got here.’ And it’s so crazy cause I’m like 29 right now and that happened 20 years ago, and I remember that vividly.”
Mike Neil, Marlowe’s stepfather, had just finished working a midnight shift as a favor to another sergeant at the 75th precinct.
He got home early that morning, pulled the covers over his head and was about to fall into a deep sleep when the phone rang and jarred him awake.
Neil hopped out of bed and answered the phone, and the officer on the other end told him he was needed back at work.
“They’re like, ‘Sorry to bother you, Boss, but you’ve got to come back to work,’” Neil recalled. “And I’m saying, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m in bed.’ So they said, ‘Turn on the TV.’”
Neil flipped on his television in time to see a hijacked airplane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center, then called his wife, Lisa, and told her he was headed back to the precinct.
Lisa, who was watching the morning’s events unfold on a TV inside her lieutenant’s office at the 32nd precinct, asked Neil to pick up the kids before he left – her older daughter was working at a bank at the time – knowing both she and her husband would be busy for days.
Neil picked Marlowe up first, and in the two-block car ride home explained as best he could to a 9-year-old the horror that was unfolding.
“I said it’s a big emergency, that there was a big incident in the city. A lot of people are hurt and dying and every cop that can breathe has to go back to work,” Neil recalled. “I was explaining it to him as best I could, but he’s 9 so I can’t go into, ‘Oh, it was the Al-Qaeda.’ It’s like, ‘OK, there was an incident. Some buildings blew up. There’s a lot of people dead and dying and I have to go back and I have to pull you out of school.’ He said, ‘I understand.’ So even at 9, he knew something horrible happened.”
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, the NFL will honor the victims, first responders and survivors of the attacks. Players will wear a 9/11 ribbon decal on their helmet, and coaches and sideline personnel will wear a pin on their lapel.
For Marlowe, who is believed to be the only NFL player with two first responders for parents who helped in the recovery efforts, Sept. 11 has special meaning.
“It’s just more of a reflection off of what the first responders, what the troops in our country, how much they fight for our freedom every day and just know that it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Marlowe said. “I just kind of take it from the perspective and the situation knowing that my mom and a lot of my family members were involved, so just a high level of gratitude.”
Lisa Neil spent most of the days that followed Sept. 11, 2001, manning her precinct in Harlem. She went to the World Trade Center site “a few days” after the attacks to help with crowd control, and helped occasionally in the area for months.
“That took months and months and months to get that place cleaned up and when you went down there, all that you see is all that dust,” she said. “Even weeks later. Just nothing but dust and it was horrifying because you’re thinking to yourself, ‘This dust is cremation of anything that was in that building.’ Desks, even. People. Desks. It was just horrifying. It was like the worst thing, and you can never forget about this. Every time it comes up you get sad because all those people who lost their lives. It’s just terrible.”
Mike Neil was more directly involved in the hours immediately after the attacks.
He returned to the 75th precinct after dropping Marlowe and Marlowe’s sister off at home, then led a team of about 12 officers to help with recovery efforts.
“There was no real plan because no one had ever really experienced anything like this on such a biblical level,” Neil said. “And so we’re going down there, lights and sirens, etc., etc. … Going over the Brooklyn Bridge it was the gray cloud of smoke that just overwhelmed us. It was like a thick fog and we didn’t know if they blew up the Brooklyn Bridge, but we kept slowly going, going over, and when we got to Manhattan, it was just seeing the gray smoke and just papers. I remember just papers just blowing all over the street. And just getting there and people are just looking up at the sky just traumatized.”
Neil gathered his officers before they left and told them to grab their helmets, bulletproof vests and whatever extra ammunition they could find. One rumor running rampant at the time, he said, was that terrorists were on foot running through Manhattan.
Once they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, Neil said his group was supposed to meet up with other precincts at a makeshift command center.
Not sure exactly where to go, they stopped at a firehouse in lower Manhattan to ask for directions.
“We go in the firehouse and I said, ‘Hi, we need some directions, we’re supposed to meet up with everybody,’” he said. “And they said, ‘Guy, none of us work here.” It was firemen from Massachusetts and (New) Jersey. They were guarding the firehouse just to make sure none of their personal effects were taken, but all the firemen were basically in the World Trade Center and passed away. We just had to basically find our way where we were supposed to go and I was just standing there, the captain is barking out orders as the gray smoke is just everywhere and even though we all went to training, nothing prepared you for this. We’re just walking. He’s just talking and talking and we’re just looking around, basically ignoring what he’s saying, just looking at the horror.”
When they finally arrived at the crumbled towers, Neil said things were eerily quiet “like a surreal Twilight Zone episode.” He saw multiple fire engines idling on the perimeter of the area, left running by firefighters who rushed into the burning buildings.
For 12 hours, Neil and his crew stood guard as police officers and firemen sifted through the rubble. He did not recover any bodies or body parts personally, but saw others who did, the remains covered by blankets.
When the night ended, Neil retreated to a shelter area set up in the ballroom of a nearby hotel. A national guardsmen slept on the cot next to him, his rifle laying on the ground.
“These are just images that you just don’t ever forget,” Neil said.
‘It never leaves you’
Marlowe comes from a long line of first responders. His grandfather worked 25 years as a New York City police officer. One of his aunts was an officer at the time of the attacks. And his great uncle, Peter O’Donohue, was a New York City fireman whose life was miraculously spared that day.
O’Donohue, who declined an interview request through Lisa Neil, worked in FDNY’s special operations command on Roosevelt Island. He got off work around 7 a.m. on Sept. 11, the day of his wedding anniversary, and left the station a short while later after having breakfast with 10 of his fellow firefighters.
When the towers collapsed, the first at 9:59 a.m. and the second 29 minutes later, all 10 of O’Donohue’s friends were inside.
“He said there’s not one day that goes by that he does not think about this, every single day,” Neil said. “Every year down where (he lives now) in South Carolina, he gets an invitation because they have a big thing for 9/11 down there, and they send him an invitation to say some words and he goes, ‘I can’t do it.’ He goes, ‘I cannot speak about it.’ I mean, this has destroyed him. I didn’t know it was this bad, but apparently it is.”
Another of Neil’s cousins, Donald Burns, an assistant fire chief and citywide tour commander, died in the attacks. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Burns set up a command center in the World Trade Center’s south tower just minutes before it collapsed.
Neil said Burns’ badge was found at the bottom of the rubble.
“For me, soon as September, the end of August comes, you know that day is coming,” she said. “Every year I stay home and I watch those names and I listen to it, watch it on television, the whole ceremony that they have every year. I stay home and I listen and I wait until my cousin’s name, Donald, is called.”
Marlowe never met Burns and only recently learned of the survivor’s guilt O’Donohue has dealt with for decades.
“You go through the blood, sweat and tears with your guys, and one day you just have the day off and that’s the day that your whole ladder loses their life over trying to sacrifice themselves to help other people, and they lose their lives,” Marlowe said. “He just, he felt as like he should have been there and he should have lost his life with them.”
The tragedy lives with Marlowe’s family in other ways, too.
After retiring from the police force, Mike Neil now works as a district security manager at Whole Foods, where he spends most of his days two blocks from One World Trade Center, the rebuilt trade center complex.
“I’m not scarred, but something like that, it just never leaves you,” he said.
Neil said he is flooded with memories of 9/11 on random occasions.
“I could be outside just cutting my grass and it’ll just be a quiet moment, I think about the towers and having to get to work and being down there and the smell of just the fires,” he said. “And then I just kind of shut it off and get back to work. You know what it is, I live with it. It’s a part of me and it’ll be a part of me until I pass on. But it’s just always there.”
The Neils knew four or five first responders each who were killed in rescue efforts, and Mike Neil said his junior status as a sergeant and the fact he worked that midnight shift just before the attacks might have saved him from the prolonged health problems many 9/11 responders have today from inhaling toxic dust.
Under different circumstances, Neil would have been in the office that morning, deployed immediately to the towers and perhaps asked to take part in rescue efforts beyond the 72 or so hours he spent at the scene.
Marlowe said he was reminded of the attacks in the 2019 season while playing for the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills played back-to-back road games to start that season against the New York Jets and Giants. On the way to MetLife Stadium, Marlowe noticed the New York City skyline out the bus window and thought to himself, “Damn, the twin towers are supposed to be over there.”
And Sunday, when the Lions open the 2021 season against the San Francisco 49ers, Lisa Neil will swell with a mix of emotions – pride for the job first responders did that day 20 years ago, and heartbreak for those lost – watching Marlowe, with a 9/11 ribbon on his helmet, make his Lions debut.
“It’s just emotional, not even just for the family member or friends but just of what happened that day,” she said. “Horrifying. And you never forget about it. They should make this a national holiday of grief. To grieve. You don’t really want to do anything that day. It’s a solemn day.”