From the Valley to Ground Zero 

Times Union, Friday, September 21, 2001

   Usually around this time of the year race officials, reporters, race fans and even some of the drivers are ready for the race season to come to a halt.

The seven-month season sometimes takes a toll and one longs for weekends when racing doesn't dominate the schedule.

Normally, that would hold true for Lebanon Valley Speedway race starter Matt Higgins, but not this year.

Higgins, 46 years old and a 28-year veteran of the West Lebanon oval, always used his side employment as a diversion from his job as a detective with the Organized Crime Investigation Division in Manhattan.

Higgins' job at the Valley ended for the season on Sept. 9, just two days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since the attacks, he has been right in the middle of ground zero.

"The television is showing some pretty horrific pictures, but they are still about six blocks away,'' said Higgins.

"But when you are standing right on that pile of debris it's just amazing. Words just can't describe it. It's eerie and it's nasty.''

Higgins has seen injuries and fatalities in racing. He has spent 6 years with the Conrail Police in Selkirk and another 18 years with the New York Police Department. Yet nothing had ever prepared him for this scenario.

"Throughout my time in police work I've dealt with a lot of ugly things, but this is just too much,'' said Higgins, whose jobs last week found him digging at the site,

bringing supplies to the workers or taking victims to the morgue. "When this is all over we will all have time to think about it, and who knows how it will affect us?''

Right now, Higgins and his fellow officers are just doing what needs to be done.

"I was making my way to work when this happened,'' Higgins recalled. "Immediately we just put on our police jackets and were trying to help the people that were on the ground.''

When the towers came down, Higgins had to throw a garbage can through a storefront window to dive for cover.

"In this kind of job you learn to think quick on your feet. We knew it was going to be a very dangerous situation,'' Higgins said.

The tragedy has Higgins longing for the weekly drive from his Putnam County residence to West Lebanon.

"The races would be a big relief right now compared to what we are doing,'' said Higgins.

Amid the ordeal, Higgins has found a degree of gratification.

"If you get to go home, you leave at night and there is a group of civilians up on the West Side Highway. They are just cheering and clapping for you and that is what makes you want to come back and start doing it again,'' said Higgins.

"Let's just have the racing people say a prayer for all of those people that are still inside and may very well never be found or get to go home. We take a lot of things for granted and we don't think about it until something like this happens and then we realize just how good we really have it,'' Higgins said.

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