Hillsborough County Public Schools Patrol Officer Elias Santos will never forget September 11, 2001. He was serving as a mounted patrol officer for NYPD (New York Police Department). As the series of four coordinated terrorist attacks unfolded, he was called into work at the Twin Towers disaster site.
“It was a sad time in our country, but also a time when everyone came together as one. Everybody pulled together, and of course we want to remember the heroes of that day,” said Officer Santos.
His daughter, Hailey, is now a seventh-grade student at Burns Middle School in Brandon. Officer Santos knows most students will only learn about 9/11 in their history books. He wanted to share what he experienced first-hand. Hurricane Irma, which hit the Tampa Bay area on 9/11, postponed the tribute the school planned to commemorate the day. But Santos didn’t want the important lesson – and the heroes and victims of that tragic day - to be forgotten.
Wednesday, students gathered in the cafeteria for a touching 9/11 tribute, including a video his daughter edited.
“I put together this video to show the events of that day and the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow man,” says Hailey Santos.
“It takes a different impact on me, because I was there. I’ve lost friends from that event,” said Officer Santos.
He was stationed in Midtown Manhattan, not far from the Twin Towers downtown. His squad rushed in to help at Ground Zero. “You just jump out of your car and try to do what you can, hoping to find somebody who would have survived. What I saw that day, I knew there was very little hope for someone to survive something like that. We tried to do the best we could to retrieve those who perished that day,” Officer Santos said.
Inside the Burns Middle School Cafeteria, tears flowed as a girl in the video talked about losing her dad in the 9/11 attacks and reflected on the moments of her life he’s missed.
Officer Santos hopes students take away a valuable lesson, “Tomorrow is never promised, so live for today. Love your parents. There are many, many children who lost their parents that day,” Santos said.
“I have a strong connection with my father, and I didn’t want to lose him during that time. It’s hard,” Hailey Santos said as she wiped away tears.
Santos is joined on the HCPS Security Team by two other former NYPD Officers who were also called into action on 9/11, Detective David Flores and Officer Hector Villafane. Both officers attended the event at Burns Middle School.
Santos told students many first responders who survived are still dealing with the health effects 16 years later. Within seconds of the collapse of the World Trade Center, building materials, electronic equipment, and furniture were pulverized and spread over the area. The haze lingered for months with many people reporting respiratory illnesses.
Santos showed students the mask officers wore while sifting through the rubble. “This is what we used to protect me from the asbestos and everything else that was in the air. The inhalation of all of the smoke that you saw from the towers when they collapsed, all that debris, that had asbestos and all kinds of other chemicals, it created cancer and many of them have died.”
Last year, Santos said doctors discovered that asbestos in his lungs is why he couldn’t stop coughing.
He has returned to New York, traveling with his daughter to see the 9/11 Memorial Plaza and the waterfalls in the footprints of the original Twin Towers. The names of every person who died in the terror attacks are honored in bronze around the twin Memorial pools.
Officer Santos told students, “It’s important for you to remember.”