NEW YORK — Thomas McHale stopped to grab a newspaper and to give a man directions on Feb. 26, 1993, the date of the first attack on the World Trade Center. Seconds later, the ceiling came crashing down.
"Stopping for that newspaper saved my life," he recalled.
McHale was a police officer for the Port Authority at the time. He would go on to become a detective, to work unsolved cases for the NYPD, and to hunt suspected terrorists in the Middle East with the FBI and CIA.
McHale was policing the PATH train station beneath the towers when the bomb went off. He was standing almost directly beneath the bomb when it detonated. It wouldn't be the last time he'd get that close to a terrorist attack.
"The concourse filled with a rust-colored haze. It was as if you're looking at the barbecue and you see the heat rising."
McHale administered aid to the man he had directed, while a priest read the man his last rites. The man wound up surviving, but McHale spent nearly two weeks in the hospital. The vapors from the explosion severely burned his lungs and depleted his body's oxygen level to the point where his organs began to fail. Nevertheless, he remained at the site to evacuate others until the last victim was out.
In 2001, Det. McHale rushed to the Twin Towers after the first plane hit. Once again, he focused on evacuating others as bodies and flaming debris fell all around him. He was inside 5 World Trade Center, across the plaza, when the first tower collapsed.
"I was one of those dust people. I had it caked in my nose, my eyes," McHale said.
When he walked out of 5 World Trade, he found his colleagues.
"I was the only one who walked out of the building toward them. And I think it was the first time I realized we’re gonna have a lot of guys killed, a lot of our guys were missing."
The Port Authority Police Department lost more men and women that day than any other police agency in American history. Thirty-seven members died.
In the months that followed, McHale worked his police shift during the day. At night, he searched for remains in the pile.
"It was bizarre. If you didn’t have a light you could easily walk, and walk off the end of the earth," he recalled.
Less than six months after 9/11, he boarded a plane to Pakistan. Working with the FBI, he headed operations to capture or kill suspected terrorists.
He brought a colleague's handcuffs with him.
"Paul Nunziato said it would be a good idea to throw Donnie's handcuffs on some of these SOBs, and I agreed."
In 2001, Port Authority Officer Paul Nunziato's partner was Officer Donald McIntyre. McIntyre was killed on Sept. 11. His handcuffs, engraved “Mac," were recovered from the pile. Paul Nunziato is now the President of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association.
“The motive was just to use Donnie's cuffs in his honor to lock up those who played some part in any kind of terroristic activity.”
Mac's handcuffs were slapped on a number of suspected terrorists, including Abu Zubaydah.
While in Pakistan, McHale was again thrust into the center of terror. It happened on a Sunday morning in 2002. He was on his way to work at the U.S. Embassy. A church exploded. A suicide bomber had blown himself up and killed two Americans, but three undetonated grenades remained inside along with other victims. McHale rushed in.
"I remember seeing a Winnie the Poo backpack covered in blood. You know, some things stick out in your mind."
The Americans killed were a mother and daughter.
After Pakistan, McHale made five more trips overseas to Afghanistan. He generated terrorism sources for U.S. intelligence.
Today, he is retired, but still fighting. He's had five operations. His heart and respiratory systems are failing. He's battling the State of New York for disability benefits.
"I’m finally worn down, you know, physically."
McHale applied for his disability pension on June 9, 2014. He's still waiting for an answer.
"The Medical Board has reviewed the applications and determined they need additional medical information," said Tania Lopez, deputy press secretary for New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
"We value our brave first responders and the service they provide to keep us safe. As the administrators of the retirement system, we are required to follow specific rules and regulations before a disability pension can be granted. That process is currently underway for Thomas McHale," Lopez said.
McHale disputes the comptroller's statement. He says his doctors and attorney submitted everything and that the state received an independent medical report 11 months ago.
"It’s a slap in the face," he said.