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After chaos, death on 9/11, "Everybody stepped up," former New York cop remembers

VALRICO — It's just a shirt, navy blue covered in gray and white dust, aging and fading behind a glass frame.

Only Andy "Pappy" Huber can tell its story — the unseen, the unknown, the unimaginable.

"There are people woven into that fabric," begins Huber, a former detective with the New York Police Department, as he holds up the frame.

It all began on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Huber wore the shirt and reported to a crime scene he now describes as "hell."

Two planes, hijacked by terrorists, had flown into the World Trade Center's twin towers in Lower Manhattan. The once-bustling, 16-acre expanse would soon earn the lifeless title: ground zero.

Huber didn't go home for a week and a half. He rummaged through mounds of debris, searching first for survivors, then bodies and then almost anything once part of a living being, anything a grieving family could use to identify a lost loved one.

Today, on the ninth anniversary of the attacks, Huber, 48, will tell the story again at a commemorative event at the Winthrop Pole Barn in Riverview.

He knows some of what he'll say. He's certain of what he'll leave out.

• • •

For three months, Huber, now retired and settled in Valrico, worked at what came to be called "the pile," the towering dunes of rubble at ground zero.

He might talk about how his wife, who retired from NYPD in 1993, made him stay home that morning for an extra cup of coffee. How if it hadn't been for her, he would have been among the earliest responders to one of the falling towers.

Would have. Should have, he corrects himself.

In his speech, Huber won't dwell on the violent details that usually make news—bodies with missing heads or the smell of scorched flesh or funerals day after day.

He will tell stories of what came after.

He might talk about the father who came every morning to look for his missing son. He might talk about the nameless New Yorkers who walked miles to bring food and water to rescue workers or held up signs reading "Thank You."

He will tell people how a city came together in the face of utter chaos and loss.

"What I want to focus on is the spirit and the humanity and how everyone helped and supported one another," Huber says. "Everybody stepped up."

• • •

Huber was born in Brooklyn. As a teenager in the early 1980s, he worked as a quartermaster in the Navy's navigation department and visited Italy, France, Spain and Syria.

He always knew he wanted to be a cop, just like his father. Like him, he wanted to help people back home.

"He was a bigger-than-life-hero in uniform," Huber says, tears pooling in his eyes.

He thinks of Sept. 11, especially around this time every year. But he has built a life far away from it.

He lives in a spacious suburban home with an enclosed pool and garden. His friends are members of the local chapter of the Nam Knights of America Motorcycle Club, of which he is president.

He devotes most of his time to the club, organizing events for the biker community and for charity. Recently, the group partnered with Valrico's Raccoon's Bar and Grill to raise $7,500 for Sara Kocab and Kelly Curtis, widows of the two Tampa police officers gunned down in July.

Huber also likes spending time with his family, his wife Sally, two children and grandchildren.

He wishes he could say that living through Sept. 11 and what followed made him a better person.

In some ways it did. He says he now appreciates life and recognizes mankind's latent goodness, which invariably surfaces in the face of destruction.

But experiencing a crime of such magnitude also took a little part of his soul, Huber says.

The trauma never really goes away. Sometimes, it disrupts peace at home, leading to arguments and visits to marriage counselors. It may be the reason why he drinks so much.

He can't help being overprotective. This summer when his 16-year-old daughter Samantha wanted to fly alone to New York for a four-week vacation to visit her grandmother, Huber's instant reaction was no.

Later, he realized, letting fear rule his life would mean letting the attackers win.

Sometimes he yells and draws into his shell, says Sally Huber. He's obsessed with international news.

"He's more somber than he used to be," she says. "The people closest to him can tell."

And there are physical imprints he traces to time spent at ground zero — spots on his lungs, ulcers dotting his esophagus and stomach and a thyroid that doesn't work.

But today won't be about any of that.

He might talk instead about the large tattoo he got on his back a few months after Sept. 11. It's the picture of the Archangel Michael carrying a dead police officer out of the burning towers.

Underneath the picture are the words "No Greater Love."

For Huber, it's the best way to remember and tell the story.

"It was the ultimate evil, and it was the ultimate good," he says.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Nandini Jayakrishna can be reached at (813) 661-2441 or njayakrishna@sptimes.com.

After chaos, death on 9/11, "Everybody stepped up," former New York cop remembers 09/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 11, 2010 1:21am]

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