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Cop saw tragedy of 9/11

CAVE SPRING – Everyone knows the story. On Sept. 11, 2001, workers drove in the clear, cool weather towards another day of work. The events that shook not just this country but the world started at 8:46 a.m. with the plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later the second plane hit the South Tower, and caused the largest terrorist attack the United States of America has ever seen. No one will ever forget where they were when the World Trade Center fell.

New York City Police Officer Christopher Strom, who now lives in Cave Spring, was in his NYPD squad car with his partner Ginger Vasquez near the Battery Tunnel in Brooklyn. He had taken an early shift for that day in order to celebrate his daughter’s 4th birthday that evening. Though he did not see the first plane hit the Tower, he saw the smoke billowing from it and the papers and photos flying through the air like confetti. He immediately called his wife, Debbie Strom, who worked in a hospital at the time and was watching the live feed on a waiting room television. While he was on the phone with her, the shadow of another plane crossed his car and he looked up in time to see it collide with the South Tower.

Christopher Strom - photo by Jen Giannini
Christopher Strom - photo by Jen Giannini

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, he recalls that the people in the Battery Tunnel were forced to abandon their cars and walk out the other side. The smoke from the collapse of the buildings was being sucked in through the air filters that usually circulated clean air into the tunnel. People were walking out looking like they had been through war, covered in thick, black ash. When Strom arrived on ground zero he worked on searching through the debris for survivors, an effort that occupied hundreds of first responders’ lives for a couple months. After that, it became a mission for recovery rather than for rescue. Many of the officers went back to their original jobs for the city.

Strom, now 50, worked for NYPD from 1987 to 2007. On 9/11/01, he was a member of the narcotics force. After the tragedy he became a section leader in the Intel division for counter-terrorism, and together with his section he set about finding any person in the United States involved in terrorist activities in order to prevent anything like 9/11 happening again. Each year he and the 3 other sergeants working in counter-terrorism Intel investigated about 400 tips on terrorist activities, working at least 12 hours each day for the protection of American citizens, some high-profile and others which were never reported.

With the installment of the Patriot Act, they were able to adapt and process the information they were receiving, resulting in a greater success rate in their fight against terrorism.

When asked about the Patriot Act and the controversy that surrounded it when it was first put into action, Strom said it had proved to be one of the most vital tools in law enforcement, and although there was some abuse of it, with it they were able to guarantee greater protection from terrorist attacks in the future.

More important than the energy Strom was putting into the counter-terrorism efforts was the reason behind it. He says that after the attack on the World Trade Center he was not afraid, only shocked, which then turned into anger. He put everything he had into stopping terrorism as a way to move forward personally from the catastrophe of 9/11. He kept up this level of work and commitment for six years.

While he enjoyed the job itself and the people he worked with, whom he still sings high praises about, he felt the work would leave him burnt out before long and decided it was time for a change. After visiting a friend in Roanoke, Strom and his wife had fallen in love with the town and decided to make it their permanent residence. They moved here in 2006 with their children, Stephanie, now 14, and Christian, now 10. Despite leaving the field in New York City, he still continues in his efforts against terrorism. He is now a consultant for Intel Investigations and teaches counter-terrorism and tactical debriefing.

In February 2008, Strom left for a 15 month mission in Iraq, targeting insurgents before they were able to follow through on their attacks; a mission that proved successful. Their preventative efforts, which they referred to as “Left of Boom”, saved many soldiers lives.

September 11, 2011, marked the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. For Strom, he was simply trying to make his daughter’s birthday as normal as possible, and barely registered the fact of the anniversary until he went to his church, St. John Lutheran in Cave Spring. There the pastor prayed over Strom while a circle of a dozen supporters surrounded him. It was then that the emotions washed over him as he remembered how his life had changed 10 years before.

Strom is proof that the fight against terrorism is still going strong. His goal is to make everyone realize how much this tragedy has affected our nation and that we need to continue to stand strong against these “methodical, intelligent demons” seeking to destroy the world through terrorism. Christopher Strom will never forget where he was on Sept. 11, 2001, or what it cost to come back from that catastrophic event, and neither should anyone else.

Story by Jen Giannini

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