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Hampton Roads Community News

Hampton Roads Mother Recalls Son’s Heroic 1st Response As WTC Collapsed

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

       In 2013, native New Yorker, Geraldine Gilliam,  decided to move to the Western Branch section of Chesapeake where she signed on to a new, quieter, and less hectic lease on life.

  She enjoys her family, working with youth and other ministries at Norfolk’s Historic First Baptist Church, and paling around with the  Sister Friends From New York, a group of other emigrants from the Big Apple.

  But each year she makes a pilgrimage back to New York, where she joins the family and friends of the 2,974 people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, after terrorists crashed two hijacked commercial airliners into the building causing it to collapse.

  Among those who lost their lives that day was her son Rodney C. Gillis.

  Gillis, a Sergeant with the New York Police Department Emergency  Services Unit-8, was one of first four “first responders” who entered the World Trade Center (WTC) minutes after the first plane crashed into  one of the towers.

  This year, the 20th anniversary of that traumatic event, Gilliam and other family members  plan on attending the Anniversary-Memorial event again in NYC.

    “It is still just like it was today,” Mrs. Gilliam told the GUIDE recently. “It is something you cannot erase from your memory.”

    “But thanks to my immediate family, my church family, and all of the kids I work with each day at my church…I keep going.”

  Days before her trip to the memorial event, Gilliam was driving about delivering a tee-shirt to youth,  family and friends that she designed for the 20th anniversary.

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    Embossed on the front of the tee-shirt is the image of Sergeant Rodney C. Gillis in his uniform with a nighttime view of the New York City Skyline in the background and the U.S. and NYC flags replacing the images of the fallen towers. On the back in big bold letters are the words  NYPD-ESU Truck 8.

  Her son was one of 26 police officers to die that day. Before the  towers collapsed, reports indicate he worked hard to direct many people to safety who had survived, before he called out and alerted his supervisors not to allow anyone else to enter the crumbling building.

  A few miles away at One Penn Plaza, where she worked as an Executive  Administrator for an engineering firm, Gilliam learned of  the tragedy which was unfolding at the WTC via television, before her building was evacuated.

  “It was like yesterday. But it is hard to look back. When I heard the news, I immediately thought about Rodney,” she recalled to this reporter recently. “I knew he would be there…in that building. He loved his work. He loved helping people. Usually, if he was on call, he would call me and let me know that he was safe. But that morning he did not.”

  Gilliam said she and hundreds of others walked in the opposite direction from the action of the falling towers. She reached 116th Street and  First Avenue and she could not move any further. The city had shut down all forms of transportation amid the pandemonium, fear and

 uncertainty.

  “When the buildings came down. I knew Rodney was gone,” she recalled.  “I was devastated and all I could do was fall on my knees and pray. But I had a comforting feeling. But I had to be strong.”

  Gilliam recalls collecting herself and walking to her brother Stanley’s house, where she and her family listened and watched, with  the nation for news about what was happening at the WTC site, now sacred grounds called “Ground Zero.”

  News that 26 first responders, police, and firemen were killed at the site triggered the family support system of the NYPD who had  identified each one of the fallen relatives, including Gilliam.

  “A group of policemen arrived around 1 a.m. the next morning,” she recalled.  “They asked me if I was ready. They transported me to One  Police Plaza where they had converted one of their large assembly rooms into a place where all the fallen heroes’ families were allowed  to wait for news of their loved ones.

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  “NYPD showed they cared. They had counselors for the adults and recreation for the kids and all kinds of food,” she recalled. “I must commend the NYPD for their efforts under those circumstances.”

  “But you must keep a clear head in everything. Endure suffering. Do the work of a missionary. Devote yourself completely to your ministry,” she quoted from II Timothy 4:5.

  Rodney C. Gillis died 15 days before his 33rd birthday. He was born in the Crowns Heights, Williamsburg, and Brownsville Section of Brooklyn.

  He was raised in two Baptist churches in his community and worked on the youth and junior usher boards. In junior high school, he was in the gifted program for students and graduated from Park West High School.

  Gillis directed his considerable energies toward  a few

activities that molded his character and career aims. He acquired a certificate in Sports Management, participated in the Cadet Military training, Cubs Scouts, and youth programs sponsored by the NYPD.

  At one time he earned a diploma in  Mechanical and Electrical drafting and an Associated Degree in Computer Aided Drafting and Design.

  He also completed studies at the New York City Police Department Police Academy with a diploma in Law Police Science and Social Sciences. He managed a restaurant and worked at an engineering firm before he joined the NYPD at the 71st Precinct.

  He eventually acquired a position with the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit as a Sergeant in Squad 4 and then Squad 8.

  His resume indicates that Gillis, a father of three, according to a memorial publication released in 2002, immersed himself in every major aspect of the police work related to the Emergency Services Unit.

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  He was cited by his department for once talking “down a person intent on jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge, pulling people from vehicle accidents, negotiating a hostage crisis” among the many awards he received for his work and professionalism.

  “He died working to save the lives of others,” Gilliam said. “He did not have to cross the Williamsburg Bridge that morning to enter Manhattan to enter that burning building. He had the strength to do that… the determination knowing he was in danger. So I realized from that very moment I knew he was gone that I had to have the strength too…every day…from that point on to honor his memory and his dedication as a first responder and policeman.”

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