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Sunday, September 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FDNY, NYPD in New Orleans to repay friends

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — In the middle of a shattered neighborhood, stepping around glittering shards of glass, breathing the unavoidable stench of death, Lt. Bill Butler surveyed what was left of the city and went to work.

And then, four years later, the New York City firefighter came to New Orleans and did it again.

Sitting in the cab of a firetruck on the edge of the French Quarter, Butler, a large man with a bald head and a smile that peeks out occasionally from under a thick mustache, paused to consider his second tour of tragedy.

Butler was serving on the Fire Department of New York's Ladder 6, based in Manhattan's Chinatown, on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in a stairwell of the World Trade Center's north tower when it began to collapse. He got out with scrapes and bruises.

Now he is one of about 350 New York firefighters working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Even after living through the Sept. 11 attacks, Butler struggles to comprehend what happened here.

"Then," he says, thinking back four years, "it was so concentrated, 16 blocks or whatever. Here, it's — what did they say, 90,000 square miles?"

The scope of the devastation is what strikes Dave Fekety and Pete Cafarella, two young New York police officers who were taking a break at Harrah's casino, or what is left of it, where police who have come to New Orleans from across the country gather to munch on hamburgers.

"It's heartbreaking to see an entire city destroyed like this," said Fekety, of the 120th Precinct on Staten Island. "Nine-eleven, even as horrible as it was — this is an entire city."

Cafarella keeps thinking of a story he heard the other day about a dog who drank the fetid water here — a brew of gasoline, stormwater, human waste, human remains and who knows what else — and was dead two hours later. "Not to minimize 9/11, but this is chemicals and toxins," he said. "Bacteria, viruses, all kinds of disgusting things."

The pair are among about 300 New York police officers, helping with patrols in the French Quarter — some of them joke that it's remarkable to see it sober — and some outlying parishes. They have been told they will stay as long as they are needed.

Most of the help from New York, and from police and fire departments elsewhere, arrived about a week after Katrina struck, and after the peak of nightmarish looting and violence.

It also came just before the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, a coincidence not lost on any of the New York police officers and firefighters here. Both departments plan remembrances. At the NYPD memorial, which is tentatively set for a nursing home west of New Orleans, there will be moments of silence and a reading of victims' names.

But the New Yorkers also carry personal remembrances.

Fire Capt. Jim Rallis wears a silver bracelet on his right wrist that bears the name of six colleagues from his unit who were killed on Sept. 11. A woman from Louisiana made the bracelet, he said.

Rallis noted that his department sent to New Orleans, along with its officers, a rig called the Spirit of Louisiana that the New Orleans Fire Department donated after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"These people needed us," he says, "and they were there for us."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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