Remembering 9/11 and celebrating a true hero
Moira Smith was selfless in the line of duty. Whether sprinting several levels of New York City's subway system to aid victims of a terrible derailment, or chasing down an armed-robbery suspect on her lunch break, or racing to the World Trade Center on 9/11, she was fulfilling a childhood goal of helping others by becoming a police officer.
As an officer in the New York Police Department, Smith was doing just that on 9/11 — helping to evacuate people from the World Trade Center's south tower — when it collapsed.
In all, nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the attacks carried out by 19 al-Qaida terrorists who hijacked four commercial jets. Two of the jets smashed into the 110-story twin towers of the World Trade Center. Another was flown into the Pentagon and the last one crashed in Shanksville, Pa., when heroic passengers, aware of what had transpired with the other flights, fought the hijackers.
Along with 343 firefighters who were killed, Smith, 38, was among 72 law enforcement personnel who died in the attacks.
"(Moira) was so compassionate, so serious about her work," said NYPD Sgt. Mary Young in the book, "Women at Ground Zero," by Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba. "Nothing could have stopped her from running into that building to help save lives on September 11. Nothing."
Smith left behind her husband, Jim Smith, also a police officer, and their then-2-year-old daughter Patricia.
"What Moira did on Sept. 11 wasn't a one-time thing," Jim Smith said. "That's who Moira was. That's what Moira did every day. She wasn't reckless, but she never backed down."
It's estimated that New York firefighters, with support from the police, were able to evacuate 30,000 people from the twin towers.
Moira Smith alone was credited with saving hundreds of lives. Three months after her death she was posthumously awarded NYPD's Medal of Honor, and in 2012 a playground in Madison Square Park, where Smith regularly patrolled, was officially named "PO Moira Smith Playground."
"Moira was a terrific cop," Jim Smith told IBD. "She did her job and she had fun while she did it. She was brave and honest. Moira loved her daughter; Patricia was her whole world, her biggest joy in life. She was a great mom and wife."
Kathleen Conaghan, a close friend of Moira Smith since they were 5 years old, said she "valued life so much and she enjoyed hers so much. She walked into a room and the lights went on. She filled a room with fun and love and laughter. "
A Young Hero
Moira Smith was born Moira Reddy on Valentine's Day 1963 in the Bay Ridge section of New York's borough of Brooklyn.
Since her last name was pronounced "ready," Moira liked to say she was "Reddy for anything," Conaghan said.
As a seventh-grader, Moira rescued a young girl from drowning in a camp pool during a swimming test. She'd spotted her even before a lifeguard had.
"My mother was very selfless, nothing could get in her way when it came to helping someone else," Patricia Smith, now 18, said to IBD. "And that started before she was a police officer, that was throughout her entire life."
Moira attended Niagara University in upstate New York and majored in criminal justice. When her mother became ill, she helped care for her until her death. After college, Moira attended the New York Police Academy and became an NYPD officer in December 1988.
It was there she met Jim Smith. The colleagues became friends, then fell in love and married. They enjoyed sporting events, taking road trips and traveling abroad.
Moira and Jim Smith eventually became members of the transit police. On Aug. 28, 1991, Jim was waiting on a subway platform for the train home after his shift ended when Moira, who'd already worked a full day, raced by him. He ran after her.
There had been a horrific train derailment at Union Station caused by a drunken motorman, and Moira Smith may have well been the first officer on the scene.
For the next 12 hours, the Smiths and their colleagues rescued passengers from the mangled four-car train, and administered first aid. Of its 216 passengers, five died in the crash and 161 were injured.
After working 24 straight hours, Moira Smith herself had to go to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
The Smiths were awarded Distinguished Duty Medals from the NYPD for their lifesaving efforts.
The last day of Smith's life began at 5 a.m. Assigned to a community policing unit, she was stationed at Sixth Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan, covering a labor protest. Jim Smith was at home, taking care of Patricia, with his shift scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.
The clear New York City morning was suddenly interrupted by the piercing sound of a jet traveling far too fast for how low it was flying.
At 8:46 a.m. Smith witnessed American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 commandeered by five terrorists, slam into the north tower of the World Trade Center, between the 93rd and 97th floors. The jet's 10,000 gallons of fuel ignited on impact, creating an inferno.
Smith is credited with being the first police officer to report what she saw; calling the Communications Division so it could notify others. Next she took witnesses to the 13th Precinct for statements and to be interviewed.
After dropping the witnesses off, Smith was joined by a couple of other police officers as she got into a van racing to the World Trade Center.
"She could have stayed at the precinct," Hagen wrote, "but that wasn't Moira's way."
The World Trade Center was teaming with firefighters in the midst of horrendous chaos. Bodies, blood and debris were in the plaza, where people trapped above the north tower's impact zone were jumping to their deaths rather than be burned alive.
Smith went to the underground concourse to help evacuate people and direct them to safety.
Then at 9:01 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175, another Boeing 767, seized by five other terrorists, slammed into the south tower between floors 77 and 85, igniting that aircraft's 10,000 gallons of fuel.
"We knew something enormous had happened because the building shook and the temperature rose by 10 degrees in an instant," south tower survivor Martin Glynn wrote on moirasmith.com. He and others in a panicked crowd tediously made their way down the building.
Smith now ran into the south tower lobby and started helping people evacuate the stricken tower. As they moved to its lower level, its occupants could see from large atrium windows that the north tower was engulfed in flames and smoke above the impact zone.
"A slow-moving line progressed along the ramp to a down escalator which connected to the underground passageway being used to exit the compound," Glynn wrote.
Smith was trying to keep people moving out of the building in an urgent-but-orderly fashion, and prevent mass hysteria that could cause a stampede or bottleneck. People looking through the windows at the terrible scene caused a shocked standstill.
"Moira stood at the end of the ramp directing the traffic down the escalator," Glynn said. "She had her flashlight in her right hand and she was waving it. … She was repeating over and over: `Don't look! Keep moving.'
"I came to the end of the ramp and I was standing squarely in front of Moira. I leaned to the left to try to look past her to see the plaza. She quickly matched my motion and blocked my vision saying `don't look.' "
Glynn said the mass of people trying to exit the building felt a calm assurance from Smith, "that they were being directed by someone in authority who was in control of the situation. … She insulated the evacuees from the awareness of the dangerous situation they were in, with the result that everything (proceeded) smoothly."
When Smith learned that a woman was having an asthma attack, she made her way up the building to aid her, reaching the second or third floor before the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. At 10:28 a.m., the north tower followed.
The New York Daily News published a now-famous photo of Smith helping a bloodied and battered man, Edward Nicholls, to a triage center at some point before she went back inside.
As quoted in "Women in Blue," by Cheryl Mullenbach, he said of Smith: "No words are appropriate. She showed tremendous courage — and made the ultimate sacrifice. A heart of gold."
Glynn said several of his colleagues in the south tower remember Smith directing traffic at the escalator landing.
"Until every person was out, I knew Moira would be there," said her longtime friend, Conaghan.
"She just really wanted to help people, that's what she was about," Patricia Smith said.
In March 2002, Moira Smith's remains were recovered. Her NYPD shield is preserved in the National 9/11 Museum at the World Trade Center.
"I never saw Moira as a victim," Jim Smith said. "She was someone who wanted to go there, who knew what she was doing, who made a choice. I don't see it as a tragedy as much as I see it as a sacrifice."
"Moira always wanted to be where the action was. If she could get there, she would get there. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to be out on patrol doing her job." — Jim Smith, her husband.