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Honoring officers with the mettle

January 18, 2003

Demonstrating that memories of the World Trade Center attack have not faded, the New York City Police Department on Friday awarded its highest medal for bravery to three officers for their actions on 9/11.

At a ceremony just a few hundred yards from the World Trade Center site, the department awarded 84 medals, 51 of which were related to officers' actions that occurred there.

Thirty-one members were awarded the department's second-highest medal, the Combat Cross, which honors officers "who have successfully and intelligently performed an act of extraordinary heroism, while engaged in personal combat with an armed adversary under circumstances of imminent personal hazard to life."

The department, which lost 23 officers during the attack, gave its highest award, the Medal of Honor, to police officer Judith Hernandez and detectives Patrick McGee and Scott Strauss. According to the department, Hernandez was with officers Christopher Castro and Steven Oemcke near City Hall when the first plane struck the north tower and the windows of their patrol car were blown out upon impact.

Transmitting initial details to a radio dispatcher, they entered the tower's lower levels to evacuate civilians. After the second plane struck the south tower, they moved even deeper into the complex, "rendering first aid and physically removing those unable to walk."

As the south tower crumbled, they were trapped inside and Oemcke was seriously injured. Unable to see him, Hernandez began to search for him in the total darkness of the debris cloud. Locating him at the bottom of an escalator she carried him, "alone, step-by-step, up nearly two stories of inoperable escalator stairs" to where Castro was waiting to help. She and Castro continued to evacuate the area, leaving only when they could find no one else to rescue.

Detectives McGree and Strauss were awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing two officers with the Port Authority police, who lost 37 members during the attack. While searching for survivors amid the flames, the department said, McGree and Strauss struggled through nearly 40 feet of debris to locate the two Port Authority cops. "For three hours, often working face to face but unable to see each other through billowing smoke, McGree and Strauss repeatedly refused orders from above to abandon their task and save themselves - a distinct act of valor that saved the lives of the two men."

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© 2003 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.