10 years after 9/11: I'll meet you there...

Arnie Roma and his son, Keith, both responded to ground zero on 9/11; One died a hero, the other lives as one

By Doug Wyllie

In his 20-plus years as a New York City Police Officer, a registered nurse, and a volunteer firefighter, nothing prepared Arnold Roma for what was to happen on the morning of September 11, 2001.

At 0846 hours that day — which began with ordinary daily routines performed under extraordinarily bright sunshine — 'Arnie' was at his Staten Island home unaware of the fact that American Airlines Flight 11 had just slammed into the north face of the World Trade Center's North Tower. Already retired from NYPD, Roma had just finished his 24-hour shift as a nurse at Staten Island University Hospital, and had just laid down to sleep.

Arnie Roma places his hand next to his son's name at the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
Arnie Roma places his hand next to his son's name at the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City. (Twitter/Jeff Werner)

Meanwhile, Roma's 27-year-old son, Keith, was just at the beginning of his own 24-hour shift with the New York Fire Patrol, a salvage corps which operated from 1803 until 2006. Moments after the first airplane struck, Keith Roma was responding from his Greenwich Village firehouse to the mayhem unfolding at the World Trade Center. While en route, he called his dad.

"Keith called me and he said, 'You'd better get down here because they're gonna' need everybody...' I said, 'Okay Keith, be careful, I'll meet you there.' Those were my last words to him. I told him to be careful — I'd meet him there. I never did meet him here. I was sent into the South Tower with another policeman, and Keith was told to respond and start the evacuations in the North Tower. So we never actually met," Roma recounted.

The towers fall

Following the call from his son, Arnie Roma sprang to action and began making his way into Manhattan. Roma was accustomed to running toward a threat, having begun his work as a New York City cop in the heart of Times Square in the early 1970s. On those streets in those times, there were plenty of things to keep a law enforcer "busy."

Now, in present day and well before his father's arrival at WTC, Keith Roma was busy saving lives. He was seen by witnesses making numerous trips from the Mezzanine level of the North Tower — estimates are between eight and nine expeditions — delivering groups of victims to safety.

While Roma-the-younger was doing this, Roma-the-elder arrived at the South Tower — which had been the target of terrorists aboard United Flight 175 — conducting similar efforts to assist victim evacuation. Arnie Roma was still inside Tower Two when it collapsed at 0959 hours. Trapped but alive,Arnie connected with the troops of FDNY Ladder 131, and escaped the rubble onto Liberty Street through a tiny hole beneath a roll-down gate at the service entrance.

Arnie Roma was only a few blocks away from Ground Zero — moving toward Manhattan's southern waterfront — when Tower One collapsed with scores of victims still inside.

According to one report, Keith Roma was standing beside Fire Patrol Sergeant John Sheehan when the North Tower collapsed.

Sheehan got out. Roma did not.

Keith Roma, remembered

"He was a big Yankee fan, and he loved the fire service," Roma told me when we spoke via phone a couple of weeks ago. "He was waiting to go on either the NYPD or the FDNY — he was on both lists and as most people have done in the Fire Patrol, they've used that as a stepping stone. He loved the Fire Patrol. He was one of the most active guys in the house. He would get there sometimes the night before his shift, eat dinner with them, and sleep in the firehouse. He just loved the job. He loved goin' out the door."

Arnie Roma had not been killed that bright September morning in part because of the training he'd received in his two decades with the New York City Police Department, as well as his training as a volunteer firefighter and a registered nurse.

"I always wanted to be a police officer or a fireman — I'm still involved as a volunteer with the Perth Amboy Fire Department, which is a combination department — so basically got both dreams. I loved being a policeman. I was on patrol for 20 years, and I had many opportunities to get off patrol and I really didn't want to. Like Keith, I loved being busy. I loved being on patrol."

Keith Roma's body was found on Christmas Eve, 2001.

"Christmas was his favorite holiday. I was there when we found him, and on Christmas Day, we went to the ME's office, and I brought my wife in after we had covered Keith. She actually felt him from head to toe, to make sure he was all there, and she said a prayer. Then we walked him down to where they were keeping people — we were with two other policemen — and with those officers I helped get him from point A to point B. That was an honor."

It's my honor

As I wrote this column, Arnie Roma and I had a couple of telephone conversations — I'll meet him in person later this week at an event taking place at the World Trade Center in New York City — and never once did he use the word 'hero.'

So, I will.

In my opinion, Keith Roma was, is, and always will be, a hero — one of the countless heroes who saved innumerable lives that day. He's also one of the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice during the opening moments of this country's official war against radical Islamist terrorists.

I shed a tear for all our fallen heroes lost on 9/11, and it's my honor to do so.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is senior editor of Police1 and a 2011 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" Finalist in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. Doug is also a member of the California Peace Officers' Association and is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2023 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.