LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – For 13 years, Paul Velez was the friendliest face at UNLV. As a member of campus police, he was a detective and information officer and served as protection for the UNLV football and basketball teams.
Before his time in Vegas, Velez had a 20-year tenure with NYPD, which included being among the first to rush to Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks.
Velez retired from UNLV this year after 33 years of police service. This week he recounted his work on the darkest day in American history.
As the world stared in horror at the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Velez put on his uniform and headed toward the catastrophe.
“The pile, as it became known… You know, just trying to find people,” recalled Velez. “It was just long lines of cops and firemen filling up buckets and just passing them down to get rubble out.”
What we romanticize as heroism, Paul and his colleagues saw with watery eyes as hysteria. They kept going.
“One of the most haunting sounds, as we were on that pile for hours, was – people were calling and still trying to get in touch with their loved ones, and their cell phones were still operating,” said Velez. “So you heard cell phones going off and the constant beeping of the firefighters’ rescue beacons were going off that were trapped and deceased under there.”
In a city of 18 million people, the terrorist attacks hit hardest at home. One Velez son as a cop and the other a firefighter.
As Velez was waiting at the ferry terminal to be deployed to Manhattan, he noticed his brother, a New York firefighter, waiting to board another board headed for Ground Zero.
“I look over to my right, and there’s my brother,” remembered Velez. “I still get choked up thinking about it. I couldn’t believe it. We ran over to each other. We were hugging, ‘hey, be careful, don’t become a hero, get home alive’.”
After working 30 straight hours, a new york tough guy has never been so happy to see his brother
“You know you come through the door and there is my mom and she is hugging me and crying,” said Velez. “I said, ‘I don’t know where Sal is.’ She points to the living room and he is in there sleeping on the couch.”
The attack on 9/11 wasn’t just one day, or one week, or one tragedy.
“In the months to come, it was just funeral after funeral after funeral,” Velez remembered.
This policeman lives what he hopes no one else ever has to see.
“You don’t want it to become another show on the History Channel,” Velez said.
Officer Velez is retired with his beautiful wife in Las Vegas. But in the fall of 2001, he worked 12 hour shifts for six straight weeks in the haze of hell. He lives to keep the memory of a broken city and united nation. May we never forget.