WAXHAW, N.C. — Victor Montalvo was an officer with the New York Police Department for 21 years before he retired and moved his family to Waxhaw.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was stationed in the Transit Division in Manhattan handling school outreach.
“It’s hard to soak in that it’s 20 years,” Montalvo said of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
When Montalvo reported to work that day, he heard reports of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, which at the time they believed was an accident. He said his supervisor told him and his partner not to go to the scene, but they did anyway.
While they were on the subway, a second plane struck the other tower, but he and his partner didn’t know that until they arrived and saw the chaos.
“At that point we knew this wasn’t an accident, that this was deliberate,” he said.
Montalvo and his partner immediately started working to evacuate people from the buildings around the scene.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people inside the buildings that were afraid to come out because of what had just happened, so my partner and I just started evacuating everybody out … pushing them as far away from the towers as we could,” he said.
Soon, Montalvo’s friend and colleague, officer Moira Smith, and her partner arrived at the scene.
“I spoke with them briefly for about a minute as she got all her stuff, and she just went running in,” he remembered.
“There wasn’t one thought in my mind that that building would ever come down, no matter what … that was not even a question,” he said.
Smith was famously photographed helping a businessman to safety that day. But Smith, the mother of a young toddler at the time, who is remembered for calmly directing people out of the south tower before it collapsed, did not survive. She was the only female NYPD officer killed on 9/11.
“She was one of the toughest cops that you could work with,” Montalvo said.
Montalvo was closest to the south tower when it came down.
“I could feel the ground starting to shake like an earthquake and I could hear the sound of metal. And as I looked over my right shoulder at the top of the building, I could see the whole top of the building just started to kind of buckle, and then at that point everybody just started running,” he said.
Montalvo continued to help people seek shelter as a massive cloud of debris and dust rolled through the streets.
In the weeks following the attacks, Montalvo worked at Ground Zero trying to find survivors.
“We were working almost 13-hour days, six to seven days a week. And as soon as we were done, we would go down to the pile and try to search for the people that we lost,” he said.
Montalvo lost two friends that he worked with daily on 9/11 and like many, he’s struggled with survivor’s guilt.
“It’s not easy to talk about and there’s a lot of emotions that go with it,” he explained.
“There are a million things that could have happened that wouldn’t have put me where I was or locked me in that position,” he said. “We were there for a reason, and hopefully that reason saved the lives of maybe thousands of people. That’s something to be proud of for sure.”
Twenty years later, Montalvo said he still doesn’t know why he was spared that day, but he’s determined to make the most of it.
“So for me, I’m given a second opportunity. For whatever reason, I don’t know but I’m here and I want to try to make every day better for everybody that I come in contact with,” he said.
Montalvo now serves his community as an officer with the Waxhaw Police Department, which he describes as “the best job in the world.”
To honor the legacies of his former colleagues and all of the fallen heroes lost on Sept. 11, Montalvo started a 9/11 remembrance ceremony in Waxhaw.
On the 20th anniversary of the attacks, he hopes the country can come together and remember what it was like to be united.
“That stands out to me the most, of how we can all get together and get along and work together for a common cause,” he said.
“When you have the opportunity to do something good, do something good.”
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