Exclusive: Waterbury Mayor O’Leary shares memories of responding to Ground Zero

News 8 Exclusive

WATERBURY, Conn. (WTNH) — He’s the mayor now, but when terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001, Neil O’Leary was a member of the Waterbury Police Department.

O’Leary responded to Ground Zero at The World Trade Center not long after the attack on The Twin Towers.

As America paused to reflect on the 18th anniversary of that tragedy, the Mayor spoke only with News 8, sharing personal pictures taken during his time at Ground Zero.

He admits he hasn’t looked at them in a long time. “You just got this incredibly eerie feeling and we were all speechless,” Mayor O’Leary said. “It was a very, very difficult time.”

The mayor pointed to one picture in particular that showed the side of part of one of the towers melting from the heat and collapsing. “It was awful,” he said. “There’s just no other way to describe it. It was devastating.”

One particularly devastating moment came when O’Leary was trying to find the husbands of 4 women and his sister’s brother-in-law. All of them worked in one of the towers.

“All I could see was smoke and watch the firefighters pouring water on the towers and it was at that time when I looked at my brother-in-law and said listen. ‘I don’t know for sure, but based on the enormous amount of heat coming out of those buildings, and the fact that there’s no rescue efforts, and the fact they’ve collapsed, I just don’t know how anyone could possibly survive.'”

– Neil O’Leary

They didn’t and the mayor had to break the news: “It was heartbreaking,” he said.

The mayor says crews searching through the rubble for any sign of survivors did manage to bring the women some closure. “They did recover some body parts from all five of them except for my sister’s brother-in-law,” he said. “The only thing they recovered from Matthew was, believe it or not, his wedding ring.”

Another painful moment — when the mayor received a phone call from a close friend in Waterbury who told him he had just gotten a call from his son who was up in the second tower hit by those airplanes.

“He had called him after the first plane hit and said ‘dad the building next door’s been hit by an airplane and we’re evacuating but I’m calling to tell you that I’m OK,'” he said. “That was the last he heard from his son and as he turned the television on to see what was going on, he watched the second plane go into his building.”

That victim was 32 year-old Greg Spagnoletti of Waterbury. His family describes him as a wonderful and giving individual.

That family has turned their grief into something positive, benefiting many in the Waterbury community.

To honor his spirit, they created the Greg Spagnoletti Memorial Foundation — a charitable foundation that tries to make a positive difference in the Waterbury area by helping impoverished families, students who want to go to college, and the Waterbury PAL (Police Activities League), among other good causes.

Mayor O’Leary knew Greg Spagnoletti. The mayor’s message on this day, 18 years later: “We should never, ever forget all of the victims who died on 9-eleven, particularly our police officers and our firefighters.”

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