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I’d Wake Up With My Pillow Drenched in Blood Years After 9/11

I stood on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, looking down Fifth Avenue, watching smoke rising from what was—hours before—the World Trade Center.

I was a rookie cop in the NYPD, and as much as I wanted to head downtown to what would soon be given the moniker “Ground Zero,” I was deployed first to the cathedral, considered to be another of New York City’s target locations for terrorists.

Stop the clock. Freeze the frame. Back it up.

Just a few days earlier, before the world changed forever, I was sitting in an off-Broadway theatre engrossed in Jonathon Larson’s pre-Rent musical, Tick…Tick…Boom, which chronicled the late composer’s countdown to turning 30.

Michael Devine 9/11 attacks
Michael Devine pictured working on Ground Zero in 2002, following the 9/11 attacks.
Michael Devine

I myself was about to turn 30—September 2001. Despite the fact that I was now staring at literal death and unfathomable evil, a song from the show, sung by Raúl Esparza as Jonathon, reverberated in my mind.

“Stop the clock. Freeze the frame. Back it up … They’re singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ I just wish it all were a dream. It feels much more like doomsday…”

Like most of humanity that morning, I was unable to process what was happening; I just stared, helplessly. Then a real voice snapped me out of my detachment: “Officer, is the Church open?” It was Raúl Esparza.

New Yorkers were connected that day like never before. Like molecules in a scientific illustration, a line was drawn between each of us, joined by grief, fear, and in this most unexpected manner: By music.

In the year that followed, I worked a steady rotation of assignments, which included Ground Zero, the bereavement center, and the morgue. In order to focus on each task before me, I had to stop the clock emotionally.

This survival tactic was antithetical to what I’d learned prior to that point in my life. I earned a college degree in, of all things, acting. I spent years learning how to cultivate emotion, and here I was deflecting it, swallowing it.

Originally, I wanted to be a professional actor and singer. But, as a third-generation law enforcement officer, I felt a higher calling I couldn’t ignore. I entered the NYPD Police Academy at 26 years old, thinking: “I’ll give it ’til I’m 30.”

(Spoiler alert: I served for 22 years).

In the years that followed the 9/11 attacks, I’d further understand the curative connection between music and the lost and the grieving. I became one of the NYPD’s ceremonial soloists, singing at funerals, memorials, vigils (and the occasional ballgame).

I continued to study voice and used music—and a lot of therapy—to heal, to dive deep and exorcise those bottom-dwelling emotions. I focused on compiling the songs from this period onto a 2011 album that I called Songs of Valor and Hope.

Much to my surprise, the album, released mostly as an exercise in personal recovery, hit #1 in four categories on Amazon. I learned I wasn’t the only one who turned to music for catharsis.

In 2012, I began to focus on the next album, but there was a small setback: I had been diagnosed with an array of 9/11-related throat and nose issues which began to affect my voice.

Those of us who worked at Ground Zero were assured by government leaders at the time that the air was safe. We were initially issued surgical-type masks which we wore for roughly the first two weeks. Later, we were provided with slightly more effective respirator masks, donated by those incredulous to governmental assurances. But it was too little, too late.

I’d soon be waking up mornings with my pillow drenched in blood. Among other diagnoses, I’d learn I have Barrett’s Esophagus, a pre-cancerous condition that affects the cellular structure of the esophagus.

With hundreds of my peers and many close friends dying of 9/11-related illnesses each year, I actually feel lucky that this burden is, at the moment, my only cross to bear.

But, it did mean that recording another album would not be easy. This next endeavor, having moved beyond emotional healing, would be about using my voice while I still have it.

I’ve always admired New York City’s architectural gargoyles, angels, and other statues hovering in silence above the streets and I thought: What stories they could tell!

Like us peacekeepers, they too are the sentinels, the guardians of the city. I decided to call the album Sentinels, each song a story witnessed by a silent observer. I also wanted to revisit my roots and assemble a set of songs primarily from the stage and screen. I didn’t know it at the start, but Sentinels would take ten years to complete.

Michael Devine 9/11 attacks
Michael Devine (pictured) tells Newsweek of the long-term effects of working on Ground Zero.
Michael Devine

If this was to be my swan song, I wanted it to be epic. I envisioned a full orchestra on many of the songs. However, getting a full orchestra on my budget seemed impossible. So, I began to hire soloist musicians one by one, building up my orchestral mix piece by piece, year after year.

During the pandemic lockdown especially, I was able to remotely work with some incredible musicians. For my vocals, I turned my toolshed into a recording studio. On days that were vocally challenging, I’d record my own guitar and piano parts. Medications were working to alleviate my throat burn, but they caused side effects that hindered me vocally.

The song roster evolved in tandem with the world around me. After the abhorrent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary late in 2012, I was compelled to record “Mad World” by Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears, my attempt to come to terms with the state of our nation and its seemingly unyielding violence.

Recognizing my own leanings toward melancholy music, I made a conscious effort to broaden the artistic scope of the songs and include stories that uplift and inspire. I recorded “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel after witnessing Lisa Tuozzolo, the widow of slain NYPD Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo, run the New York City Marathon in 2019, accompanied mile by mile by supportive friends and members of her extended law enforcement family.

I chose many songs simply because I loved them. As a fan of The Lord of the Rings and Celtic music, I added two songs from the LOTR movie trilogy, “Into the West” and “May It Be.” The latter is perhaps my favorite track on the album. I worked with renowned musician Sandro Friedrich who recorded the Uilleann pipes and two Irish flutes, the same instruments he played in The Lord of the Rings Symphony. The string parts were recorded piece by piece by an incredibly talented young musician named Yoed Nir, building an entire string section.

I was a theatre nerd growing up in the ’80s and ’90s and was a “Stage-Door Johnny” at both The Phantom of the Opera and the short-lived Chess. If this album was to be my last musical endeavor, I had to include songs from these musicals, and without question, they would be “Music of the Night” and “Anthem” respectively. I’m a sucker for big, bold, ballads. My style these days might be regarded as Josh Groban’s theatre side.

Ten songs in ten years—a decade-long journey of growth and change in my life. I retired from the New York Police Department in 2020 and I now pursue acting and music full time. When I recorded the final track on the album, Neil Diamond’s “The Story of My Life,” I looked back on all that I’ve seen (too much) and still hope to see.

I’m grateful that I emerged from a tumultuous period with, at this point, what I consider to be a minor condition when compared to those we’ve lost and others now battling catastrophic 9/11-related health issues. The bittersweet lyrics bolster my appreciation for the present moment with respect to the past and the road which led me here: “It’s the story of our times. Never letting go. And if I die today, I wanted you to know.”

Sentinels, a humble labor of love, is not an album one might dance to, and it probably won’t be on anyone’s workout playlist, but I do hope it moves listeners in other ways.

Michael Devine is a native New Yorker now living in New Jersey. He was a Detective Sergeant in the NYPD and now works as an actor and singer. Michael holds a BFA degree in Acting from Montclair State University and has appeared in over 40 movies and television productions. At the time of writing, the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, is on strike, and in solidarity, Michael has chosen not to mention any union project.

Sentinels will be released on August 18, 2023, and will be available on all music platforms. It can now be pre-ordered on Apple’s iTunes store. Songs of Valor and Hope is now available on all music platforms.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com

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