ENID, Okla. — Former police officer Keith Siragusa was halfway between Enid and New York City when he heard the first tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed.
“Twenty years … it’s a long time, but still a lot of stuff,” said the Enid city commissioner, a New York native.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Siragusa, his wife and two stepchildren were driving back to Oklahoma from his sister’s wedding held two days before back home on Long Island, having left a day early.
The family was in Indianapolis when they heard the news come over the radio — and with it, Siragusa said he immediately knew his friends and former colleagues in the Port Authority Police Department had died in the attacks.
He had just seen many of them at his sister’s wedding, he said.
“There was coldness,” he said, 20 years later in Enid. “My body became just cold and numb. And I looked at my wife and I said, ‘I just lost a bunch of people.’”
Eight officers Siragusa worked with — Capt. Kathy Mazza, Lt. Robert Cirri, Sgt. Robert Kaulfers, Officer Liam Callahan, Officer JD Levi, Officer Alfonse Niedermeyer, Officer Bruce Reynolds and Officer Michael Wholey — were among the 72 police officers killed when the World Trade Center buildings fell and in the aftermath.
Six didn’t have to respond, either because they were off-duty or in administrative positions.
“They’re buried in the building,” Siragusa said. “The same ones that died in that building that day, there’s 99% of the guys that are out there would do the same thing that those guys did. Same exact thing.”
Siragusa, an officer for PAPD for over two years before moving to Enid in 1996, said he remembers distinctly saying at the time, “I know that building. I was working that building. It’s a Port Authority building. … I know all the three levels of stores that are underneath ground.”
His new brother-in-law’s office in the building was destroyed by the first plane, too. Thankfully, all the people in his office had taken Monday off after the wedding, while Siragusa’s sister and her husband already were in Mexico City en route to their honeymoon.
Siragusa said with a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old in the backseat, he didn’t know what else to do than keep driving.
He didn’t realize going south instead of back east would put him in a dark place, as the “run toward danger” mentality instilled in him as a New York policeman had followed him back to Enid.
Siragusa said 9/11 only reinforced that training, as for the next decade and a half, he faced dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the attacks.
“Survivor’s guilt — that’s all it is,” he said. “I had that deal (that) I should’ve been up in those buildings.”
The following year, he put his nose to the grindstone at work in Enid’s east side. In 2002, he was named Officer of the Year for EPD for his work as a community policing officer. He said he’d almost always be the first to respond to a “hot call” from dispatch like a report of gunshots.
“It was my way of protecting them, the other guys,” he said. “If something happened, something happened. It didn’t bother me.”
Siragusa had worked as an EMT in the Bronx, along with being an NYPD reserve officer, when the WTC was bombed in 1991. He said his ambulance had 16 bullet holes in it when it was retired.
His marriage, meanwhile, fell apart. He said he blamed his now-former wife for making them leave a day early — because the kids had to get back to school, he thought he wasn’t able to turn back around and again run toward the danger.
In 2014, not long before Siragusa retired from the force, a day came where he found himself in a bad spot while sitting in his field with his horses.
As one put its head on his shoulder, then exhaled, he felt a weight lifted.
“I walked out of that field changed,” he said, shortly putting together his plan for Bennie’s Barn and resigning from EPD. “I said, ‘If that can change in me, what could it do for everybody else that ain’t even got to where I was?’”