Purpose in the Wake of Tragedy
A ride along with the Fairfield Police Marine Unit spotlights how a new generation of law enforcement was born on September 11th.
The cafeteria of Wantagh Middle School in suburban Long Island was abuzz with murmurs and rumors. In a time before smartphones, bits of news and gossip flew like spitballs from table to table. Only when students, like 13-year-old John McGrath, returned home to find their parents glued to the television did they learn the reality of the September 11th attacks.
The teenage years are formative ones. For John, who would barely see his late father, John Sr., over the next few weeks while the NYPD officer worked at Ground Zero, the attack on the United States cemented his desire to follow in his father’s boot steps. John Sr. spoke sparingly of what he saw at Ground Zero, especially in front of his three children. Only after speaking with his mom recently did John Jr. learn more of the details from that period.
“He was working with the Street Crime Unit at the time and just got off of a midnight shift,” John recalled. “He had just fallen asleep at home when he got the phone call. He was told that a plane hit the tower and that he had to respond to work immediately. My mom was out for a bike ride at the time and came home to find that my dad had already left the house. He tried driving into the city but was having trouble getting in with all of the traffic. He had to leave his car on the side of one of the highways and hitch a ride with some of the other police and fire guys who were responding into the city. As he was getting into the city, the second plane hit. At that point, I’m not sure of the exact details between when he got to his precinct and changed into uniform, to when the Twin Towers actually fell. But he made his way down to Ground Zero after both towers had fallen. He was able to call my mom, finally, and tell her that he was okay. He told her that he was near 7 World Trade Center. Within the next hour, my mother watched the television as that building fell to the ground.”
John’s mother didn’t hear back from his father until the following day. He had just enough time to come back home, shower, gather the rest of his gear and head back. Luckily, he was a block away from 7 World Trade when it collapsed. “We still have his uniform that he came home in that day,” said John, “still covered in dust and dirt.” He spent the next three days helping out at Ground Zero, and another week or two recovering equipment from NYPD squad cars that had been abandoned or wrecked.
Twenty years later, the once wiry, serious kid from Long Island backs an aluminum 33-foot SAFE Boats Full Cabin away from its slip in Fairfield, Connecticut. His partner, 19-year veteran of the Fairfield Police Department Keith Perham, follows behind in a 23-foot SAFE Boats center console (both boats were acquired through Homeland Security grants) to showcase their fleet, which also includes a pair of Sea-Doo PWCs.
It’s a hot June afternoon as the metallic boats maneuver together out into Long Island Sound. Once in open water, Keith and John spur the horses out of the stable to show off the maneuverability and power behind their purpose-built boats. The bright blue lights flashing under the summer sun and the metallic topsides are a potent combination. Seeing these boats carve sharp yet graceful turns inspires both fear and respect. That’s kind of the point.
I cruised with Keith as we made a beeline to the Penfield Reef Lighthouse, which serves as the unit’s official logo, to get some photos of John and the 33 in action.
While John felt inspired to serve and protect from a young age, for Keith, the calling came after spending the first part of his professional career managing a restaurant and then working in a more formal office setting. Born into boating, he grew up on the waters he now patrols.
“I went to work for an IT company in Norwalk [Connecticut] after working in the restaurant business,” says Keith. “I was in a cubicle thinking, this blows. I can’t be in a cubicle, so I applied to three departments that had marine divisions or boats in the region; I wanted to stay in Connecticut. Fairfield panned out. The day of 9/11, we ran a restaurant in downtown Fairfield and people were coming off the train in soot and ash and meeting at our location since we were the only restaurant that was open by the train station. We were an unofficial meeting spot.”
Keith is one of four boys, and his brothers all served in the military. Keith originally wanted to enlist in the Coast Guard, but his father insisted he go to college.
After joining the Fairfield Police Department, it would take Keith 14 years to earn a spot on the coveted marine unit. “There is advanced training and skills involved, so guys in this division stay [here] for most of their careers,” he says.
“We’re a small team here, but spots in this unit open up for different reasons. One guy was on the boat so long he ended up getting skin cancer and couldn’t be in the sun anymore,” says Keith. “Sometimes your knees are bad. We’re jumping on and off boats, we’re on jet skis going 70 mph—it’s not the right fit for everyone. You have to be comfortable in the water too. You have to be ready to dive in after someone.”
The partners sit in their office overlooking South Benson Marina monitoring three different radios while preparing for another shift on the water. It’s calm at this moment, but for those who work the water, they know that can change in a moment’s notice. Disaster doesn’t follow a set schedule. A couple days prior to my visit, Keith received an emergency dispatch at 2:30 a.m. to help search for missing canoers out of Long Island. Software from the Coast Guard predicted the wind and tide may have sent them as far afield as the Connecticut side of the Long Island Sound. Keith is well trained, and the boat is well-equipped for the mission at hand: With FLIR thermal imaging—on a dedicated screen if desired—and a $25,000 spotlight (with a $12,000 bulb), if they were out there, odds were good he would find them.
This story, unfortunately, did not have a happy ending. Two bodies were recovered later that morning near Long Island. Hypothermia is quicker than a police boat—even one powered by triple 350-hp Mercurys. “A lot of people don’t realize how cold the water is early in the summer,” says John. Around the time the canoers capsized, the water was 58 degrees. As a rule of thumb, at that temperature death can occur within one to six hours.
Misconceptions and a lack of education are the most common causes of the emergencies Keith and John see out on the water, especially when it comes to operators of smaller craft. This has only become more prevalent in the last two years, with more new boaters entering the sport.
“The rules of the road are the biggest thing people don’t understand,” says John. “I almost got into three or four different accidents last year, one in the police boat. I saw a windsurfer whose sail had fallen down. It was a windy day—all of a sudden, he gets the sail back up, he cuts one way then another and he’s aiming right at me. I had to go full throttle to get away from him—I almost hit the rocks. As he passes me, I hear him yell out ‘sorryyyyyy!’ Those things can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than regular boats. Especially kayakers who sometimes don’t take into account the wind and tide. We get a lot of calls about people who get dragged out to Penfield Lighthouse, and they usually admit they didn’t know how strong the tide was. That’s one of the main reasons the Coast Guard made it mandatory for stand-up paddleboarders to wear a life jacket.”
Thankfully, on the day of my ride along, both the Sound and the VHF are quiet and calm.
While zig-zagging the waterways, I learn that most misconceptions around police marine units has to do with what they don’t do. They’re not out there to give tickets and bust no-wake zone offenders. That’s not to say they don’t give tickets to reckless boaters and repeat offenders, it’s just that it’s not their modus operandi.
Their main focus is education and rescue; searching for missing boaters, recovering drowning victims, providing security for events like fireworks shows, boat shows and open-water swims, and towing boats that are in imminent danger of sinking (otherwise disabled boats get referred to SeaTow or BoatUS) is what fills most of their days.
I wonder aloud if working on the water all summer diminishes their desire to go boating when they’re off duty. Keith responds with an immediate and definitive answer. “No way, we’re on our own boats as often as we can.” In fact, Keith walks past his personal boat on his way to the police boat every day. “I don’t know if that’s cool or cruel,” I offer as we stride past his 23-foot Sea Swift.
John shakes his head, “We’ll respond to an emergency off-duty, but everyone should be responding to an emergency anyway. We just happen to be a little more knowledgeable on emergency situations. We try to use our boats on the nice days too.”
“I want to be on the water all the time,” Keith adds.
“On your personal boat you can turn the radio off, put the music on, throw out the anchor and have a drink and listen to the kids scream,” John says with a laugh, referring to his two young children.
“Ahh, no more screaming kids for me, just music,” Keith adds as a dig.
Mine and John’s waypoints first intersected around 2001. I met him and his family on a boat trip to Fire Island where we played flag football and went for dinghy rides. Our families became fast friends and started cruising together every summer. Somewhere between our hometown marina and Block Island we became more like family.
As long as I’ve known him, John has always possessed a seriousness and maturity beyond his years. Despite him being just a year older than me, he was someone I looked up to. Driven and focused, it was no surprise to see his dream of becoming a cop materialize shortly after graduating college.
He always moved to the beat of his own drum, but it was clear to those close to him how much he was influenced by his love for his father. John Sr. passed away in 2018 at the age of 54 from a heart condition. He was buried in his NYPD dress blues.
“John is beaming from above, and so am I,” says John Jr.’s mother, Lisa. “[John Jr.] actually showed us the police boat before he got that detail. All that boating experience he got from his father; [John Sr.] had the kids drive the boat a lot. If John could see his son today he’d be just totally proud. He’s made to do this. As a parent you can’t get any prouder. He’s doing what he loves; not many get to do that.”
Over the last couple years life has gotten in the way of us spending as much time together as we’d like to, but every time I did communicate with John we joked about me joining him for a ride along. “O.K., but only if I can I sit on your lap and play with the siren,” was my typical sarcastic response.
I was talking with John on the phone last year when the subject of work came up. What he said then stuck with me: “You know how you get to go out and test all these boats and write stories and that’s your dream job? That’s how I feel about what I do. It’s my dream job.”
Since then, anti-police sentiment has risen dramatically. He says it’s not something he experiences on the water in Fairfield but that other marine units in Connecticut are seeing blowback in spades. I ask if being a police officer is still his dream job. “I would say it’s still spot on. Ever since I started the combination of always wanting to be a cop plus loving being on the water plus having this be home—you can’t get any better than that. Not to sound corny but I’m doing a job I love, in an environment I love. This is something I grew up doing, that I will pass on to my kids. There’s nothing better in my eyes.”
Back on the Sound, we switch from interview to meandering conversation as we poke the bow of the 33 into Bridgeport Harbor and then a small bay beside a golf course. I don’t normally ask my interview subjects this question, but since John’s a friend, I wonder aloud: “If you could talk directly to Power & Motoryacht readers and the boating public, what would you want them to know about what you do?” He thinks for a second, peers out the door on the starboard side of the helm and says, “We’re people too. We’re normal, everyday people. We go out there and deal with situations with people who are at their worst every single day. That takes a toll on some of us. Some people look at us like we’re robots, that we go out and do what we’re told. We have personalities, we have brains, we have emotions just like anyone else.” And after a pause he adds with a laugh, “and when on the water, wear your life jacket!”
As our time on the water came to an end, and John navigated back to the slip, I ask if, given the shift in public opinion on police and the difficulties of the job, he would want his son to carry on the family legacy of public service. “I’d like to see him in a job that pays a lot more,” he laughs. “But when it comes to this job, I don’t think I’d have the guts to tell him no.”