Retired Bronx detective looks back on 9/11 experiences

Retired Bronx Det. Victor Cipullo reflects on the 20-year anniversary of 9/11.
Photo Jason Cohen

For more than 40 years Victor Cipullo saw hundreds of drug overdoses and murders as a cop, yet nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Cipullo, 72, of Riverdale, retired from the NYPD in 2012 after a long career as a detective and as the former vice president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association.

He arrived at Ground Zero not long after the second tower fell and it felt like he was in an old black and white horror movie, he said. People were covered in ash, there was a big gaping hole in the ground and it was “organized chaos.”

Cipullo stayed there for three months, initially hoping to find survivors but ultimately digging up remains.

“In my mind it was something I had to do,” he told the Bronx Times. “I keep thinking there’s going to be people in there trapped and alive.”

According to Cipullo, what made him go back to Ground Zero each day was the support from fellow New Yorkers. On his way home up the Westside Highway, American flags were hung and people cheered everyday for first responders.

Cipullo grew up in the Edenwald projects, joined the academy in 1968 and his first assignment was in the microfilm unit. From there he worked at the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx and the 24th Precinct in Harlem. Then from 1974-1982 Cipullo covered narcotics when freebasing, overdosing and murders exploded.

“Everyday was an adventure,” he said.

In 1982, Cipullo was promoted to detective at the 50th Precinct in Riverdale, where he was stationed until 1986. And for the remainder of his career, he worked at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and the Detectives’ Endowment Association.

Sept. 11, 2001

Cipullo was in Howard Beach in Queens as he and the Association were preparing to endorse Peter Vallone for mayor. Suddenly, the president of the Association received a text saying a plane hit the World Trade Center but told everyone it was just an accident. But, then a second plane struck the towers and everyone knew the city was under attack.

“A lot of us went up to the roof and saw the towers burning,” Cipullo said. “I see a big cloud of smoke and thought the fire department must be putting out one of the fires and the guy next to me says ‘Vic that building just collapsed.’ I said ‘holy s–t.’”

From there everyone took off and headed to Ground Zero or to their precincts where they were instructed on how they could help out. Cipullo was told since he was not in full uniform, he could not go to Ground Zero, so he quickly changed and drove straight to Lower Manhattan.

“As I got there, I saw guys with shovels and I got in line with them,” he said. “Everything was gray there, there was no color.”

One of the first days he found the body of a construction worker with a missing arm. He told the people digging that they needed to find his arm, so they could give the whole body to his family. Cipullo kept digging and did, in fact, unearth a cold clammy hand and the rest of the arm under a large steel plate.

The turning point for him was when he was 15-20 feet in the hole of the blast site and began finding menus from the restaurant in the Towers Windows on the World.

“That’s when it dawned on me; 100 floors came down and I’m in this pile,” Cipullo said. “And it dawned one me that I’m not going to find anyone alive.”

Yet he returned everyday, sometimes digging for eight hours and other days much longer. He saw first responders from as far as Las Vegas and as close as Connecticut.

Today, Cipullo volunteers at the Bronx Zoo, helps the homeless and does work in the community. He doesn’t speak about 9/11 often, but ultimately is grateful to be alive. He wonders what might have happened if he had gone straight to Ground Zero when the second tower fell.

“In hindsight I feel lucky, and I think about the people that called in sick or were late for work, or whatever reason they weren’t there when the towers came down,” Cipullo said, “How lucky they were.”

Reach Jason Cohen at jcohen@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes. 

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