NYPD officer’s message positive, not blue

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 25, 2002

By Christopher Lenois

RESERVE – As the students of East St. John High School struggle to come to terms with the recent death of their classmate, Jim Rogers, a visitor who knows tragedy all too well came to their comfort.

Officer Robert Mitchell of the New York City Police Department’s First Precinct was one of the first officers assisting the rescue effort at the World Trade Towers after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. He made a connection with the students after receiving a care package they sent to him while he was working at “Ground Zero.” The students’ generosity released a wave of emotions Mitchell had pent up inside, and he wrote a four-page letter to the students thanking them for their gift.

“I expected the letter to be a couple of paragraphs. I don’t write too much,” said Mitchell upon his arrival at the ESJHS campus. “It just kept going. My heart was heavy and I wanted to let these kids know what was in my heart.”

Mitchell had heard about the death of Rogers and understood that same heaviness weighed upon everyone East St. John. He said that his visit to Louisiana was “part of the healing process” and addressed that issue almost immediately when he spoke to Ms. Geraldine Cox’s Social Studies class during his first of many face to face meetings with the students.

“You can never take one day for granted,” said Mitchell as he discussed the death of a firefighter who was a close friend of him and his wife, Clare. “My family mattered the most. And everyday I make sure I kiss my kids and tell my wife I love her.”

Though somewhat daunted by the attention brought to them by all the TV cameras and reporters, the students were not impervious to the lessons that were being imparted by Mitchell’s visit.

“It’s nice to hear people’s thoughts,” said David King, a junior. “Tragedies happen all at the same time.”

Ashley Tucker, an 11th-grader, recalled hearing the morning announcement over the school’s public address system that Rogers was missing, then the following morning that he was dead. “Things happen and you don’t know,” she said. When they received the Mitchell’s letter and donation of the uniform shirt he was wearing on 9/11, she said, “We felt special. Even though their way up there and not close to us. We felt sorry.”

“Somebody actually cared about us. It felt good,” echoed fellow 11th-grader Y’annika Edwards. In reference to the connection between the 9/11 tragedy and her classmates death she added, “I feel sorry for both families. They’re suffering.”

Cox’s class posed intelligent questions that probed Mitchell’s feelings that day, as well as his fears in the aftermath. They asked him how it has affected his political views as well as his relationship with his family.

“When I was your age, I thought nothing bad could happen to me,” said Mitchell. “We’re not always promised tomorrow. In two hours, 2,000 people died. It could have been me. I don’t take that for granted anymore.”

Mitchell said he’s not afraid of flying, but his two year old daughter only talks about “bad airplanes” now. “You all look in your textbook and see World War I started on this date. When my daughter is your age, she’s going to read about 9/11 the way you read about that, and she’ll know her father was there.”