CONYERS - The Conyers Police Department (CPD) hosted a flag presentation ceremony Friday, Sept. 11.
Friday was the 14-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that struck the two tallest towers of the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers, in downtown New York City, New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. killing and severely injuring thousands of Americans.
Presenting the American flag to the CPD was former New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Sean Veerapen, who was at the base of the Twin Towers after each tower was struck by one of the hijacked planes.
It was Veerapen's idea to donate the flag to the police department in Conyers.
"I was just sitting here the other day and it just came to me," he said.
After seeing the flag hoisted into the air and waving at half-staffed, Veerapen, who was joined by his wife Sheila, and, their youngest daughter, 17-year-old Kamaria, called the moment gratifying.
"These are a good group of guys here and it's my honor to be able to present this flag that I've been hanging onto for a number of years here," he said. "It's well deserved."
Veerapen recently moved to Conyers with Sheila, also a retired NYPD officer, and Kamaria. He says he was impressed by the police department and by Chief of Police Gene Wilson. Wilson took him and his family out to dinner after Veerapen contacted him about any possible volunteering opportunities at the CPD.
"I was impressed that a police chief could take time out of his day for his citizens like that," said Veerapen.
Wilson says it was an honor to be chosen to receive the flag from Veerapen. The flag was flown all day at half-staff in front the CPD headquarters and will remain on at the top of the flagpole until 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
"We are honored Mr. Veerapen wishes to make this presentation to the department," Wilson said.
The presentation happened at 1 p.m. in front of the CPD headquarters, 1194 Scott Street, Conyers, and lasted for about 30 minutes.
The flag was purchased by Veerapen prior to a mission to Afghanistan as a member of the United States Air Force Reserve four years ago. The flag was given to the 74th Expeditionary Flying Squadron A-10C and flew with them on September 11, 2011, the ten-year anniversary of the attacks.
He and his wife took the mission together. The mission proved to be life-altering as Veerapen severely injured his lower spine and knee in a freak accident while moving heavy equipment for the U.S. Army
Veerapen spent the next three years having surgeries and rehabbing to "get back to somewhat 100 percent" of what he once was, he said.
However, it wasn't the first time Veerapen was injured in the line of duty. On the day of the 9/11 attacks, in the midst of catastrophe, Veerapen would receive an injury while running for his life.
Morning of 9/11
Veerapen says the morning of 9/11 started as any other day. It was about 6 a.m. and he was getting ready to being his day. He remembers he was assigned to court duty that morning.
On his way to work, moments before the first plane hit the South Tower, he says that he actually conducted traffic stop on a man who wasn't wearing his seat belt.
"I was actually in the process of the stop when I heard the voice yell over the radio the Twin Towers were hit," said Veerapen.
All units were then told to respond to the Twin Towers location.
As he rushed to the location in lower Manhattan, Veerapen says he could see the smoke coming from the first tower. He then went into a FDR tunnel and when came out the other end, the other tower had been struck.
As he was getting closer to the base of the towers, he noticed he began driving around objects in the street. What he didn't realize was that those objects in the road were the body parts of people who had jumped from the burning towers.
When he reached his destination, he got out of his vehicle and looked at the burning towers.
"I remember looking up and seeing a white shirt and red pants. It was a man who had jumped," he said.
While Veerapen never actually saw any bodies hitting the paved roads he could hear them when they made contact. He says it sounded like someone was firing a shotgun in the area.
"It was an explosion of bodies hitting the ground," he said. "It was the loudest noise I've ever heard.
Then Veerapen heard an explosion-like noise different from what he had already been hearing.
"I looked up and I saw the South Tower collapsing," he said. "I turned and starting running because I thought it was falling sideways."
He didn't get far in his pursuit from the falling building. Shortly after beginning his run, he ran into a guy who was filming the whole incident. Veerapen trip and landed on the guy. Frantic people then began running and stepping on the two men lying on the ground.
"All I was thinking was, ‘Why was this guy filming right here,'" he said.
Veerapen would later find out the man was part of the NYPD video unit. Unfortunately, he didn't survive through the terror attacks, said Veerapen.
When he got an opportunity to stand, Veerapen found it difficult to do so at first. He would later find out that he torn five quadriceps muscles. He would be kept out of work for a month.
Somehow he managed to get to get inside a nearby store that had glass windows, a lobby and another set of glass windows acting as a barrier between the scared people inside and the smoke, dust and soot filling the streets.
"I could barely feel my legs," he said. "I could feel the heat and I guess the adrenaline helped me run into the building. I was so scared."
Once some of the smoke and dust cleared from the first tower falling, Veerapen says it was still hard to see who was on the street. He and others in the store started holding their hands out of the front door of the store and yelling for people to come to their location to seek shelter.
"We were holding out hands and just pulling people in as they ran by," he said.
Soon after, enough dust cleared and the civilians were able to exit the store. Veerapen received medical treatment for his ailing leg. As he was leaving the area in a vehicle, he could see the second tower coming down.
"It was a long day. I think I'm lucky to be alive," he said,
One thing that will always stick with Veerapen is the helpless feeling he had that morning.
"There's nothing worse as a police officer and seeing people in trouble and there's nothing you can do to help those people," he said. "It's not a good feeling at all."
Life in Conyers
Veerapen worked with the NYPD for 21 years before officially retiring in May. He and Sheila have three kids together, their 26-year-old daughter Deneya, 24-year-old son Justin and Kamaria, who's a senior at Rockdale County High School.
The family desired to move to Conyers after exploring the area for several years while visiting Veerapen's sister, who lived in Covington.
"We thought this would be a nice quiet place to live," he said.
After one year of southern living, he and his family couldn't be more pleased with their life changing move.
"It's one of the best moves we've ever made," said Veerapen. "We love it. We absolutely love it here."
The family says getting adjusted to the living in the south with the extra living space, "all the green trees" and the fewer siren noise has been welcoming and pleasant.
"Overall, it's a lot more relaxing. I look out my window and I can actually see trees," he said. "We lived in Queens. To travel three miles it could take 40 minutes. Here, in ten minutes you could be at Stonecrest Mall."