Danger was no stranger to the late Dennis Reichardt. Running into the face of danger came with his job.
As a sergeant in the Suffolk County Police Department’s emergency services unit, danger was ever-present. Mr. Reichardt’s duties included heavy rescue, extrications, confined space rescues, handling of explosives and high-risk search warrants. He was part of a unit police call when they need help. So, when he received the call on his day off on that terrible day — Sept. 11, 2001 — the Mattituck man responded. His expertise in explosives was sought.
Mr. Reichardt was at ground zero within hours of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. That was 20 years ago this Saturday.
The danger to Mr. Reichardt wasn’t immediately clear at the time. Like a time bomb, it developed later. Stricken with pancreatic cancer that officials said was related to the work he did at ground zero, Mr. Reichardt, surrounded by his family, died at home Oct. 4, 2018. He was 64.
Time can be a funny thing. In one sense, 20 years can seem like a long time ago. And yet, the memories are still fresh. Painfully fresh. That’s especially true for Jean Reichardt, Mr. Reichardt’s widow and a different sort of 9/11 victim.
“Twenty years later, it’s still, you just remember,” she said. “You go back so quickly to that day.”
Ms. Reichardt, a former Suffolk police officer herself who retired in 2008, remembers walking into the 7th Precinct in Shirley just in time to hear a police officer announce that a second WTC tower had been struck by a plane. Within minutes, she received a call from her husband.
Ms. Reichardt recalled: “He just said, ‘Jean, I’m going in.’ I said, ‘OK, be safe.’ ”
That day Ms. Reichardt was also thinking about her brother, Christopher Stahly, who was a New York City Police Department lieutenant, and Mr. Reichardt’s brother, Robert, who was a New York City firefighter. They were also at the deadly scene.
That was the day people stared at TVs in amazement, watching something that seemed like a movie. Only it wasn’t. It was real life happening before their eyes. Planes crashing into towers. Towers collapsing like sand castles. The horror. The grief. The shock.
“It just felt like disbelief, and you just wanted to do something,” Ms. Reichardt said. “Everybody wanted to do something.”
Mr. Reichardt did. He was on the pile with others, sifting through debris, looking for life.
“He said it was just surreal,” Ms. Reichardt said. “It was like you were walking into hell. It was hell on earth. And just little bits and pieces, everything was just like pulverized. I’m not trying to be gory, but he did recover a couple of body parts, somebody’s foot or hand.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, people saw the worst and the best of humanity. The immediate weeks afterward also saw a surge of patriotism and togetherness in America.
“It was the saddest time, but also a very uniting and unifying moment,” Ms. Reichardt said. “It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago, right?”
Mr. Reichardt was a 29-year police veteran who retired from the department in 2011. He had been described as a “cop’s cop.” His father, Arthur, was a New York City police lieutenant.
Dennis Reichardt’s performance did his family proud. Police work was his love. Over the course of his career he received eight department recognitions and a Police Combat Gold Medal, one of the highest awards a sworn member can receive, for his handling of an incident involving a barricaded person in 2001, according to officials. His name is listed at five memorial sites, including the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Reichardt’s service came at a high cost. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2017.
“The insidious part of what’s happening is everything that unfortunately they were breathing in and the air quality,” Ms. Reichardt said. “… You go in and do what you have to do and, honestly, he would have gone in regardless … These guys wanted to go in. That’s what they do. They wanted to be of whatever service they could in this horrible event.”
The 20th anniversary of 9/11, understandably, has a personal meaning for the Reichardt family.
“I guess, as our nature is, we celebrate milestones,” Ms. Reichardt said. “This is a very sad milestone for the country. I think of the years that I haven’t had Dennis living now. It will be coming up on three years.”
Mr. Reichardt left behind two sons from a previous marriage, Kristopher, 37, and Adam, 33, as well as a daughter, Autumn, 21, from his marriage with Jean. Less than two months before his death, Mr. Reichardt got to meet his first grandson, Jack. A second grandson, Leo, was born this past January.
“You think about the sacrifices that they were making to go in to make sure everybody was safe, to do what they could that day for the victims, and it’s still a very proud sense that my entire family has for not just my family, but all the first responders, civilians that went into action,” Ms. Reichardt said. “There’s many stories about civilians that were there doing such heroic work.”
Ms. Reichardt said she plans to decorate the garage of her home with her late husband’s memorabilia, such as photos and newspaper clippings. It was in that garage, she said, where he kept his motorcycle and liked to tinker around.
Asked if Dennis was proud of what he did, Ms. Reichardt answered, “Most definitely.” She said, “I can speak for Dennis [and] in my heart I can speak for anyone else who went in — they would do it all over again.”