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Pupil builds up encouragement for Ground Zero officer

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2001

Working 20-hour shifts at Ground Zero in New York City, police Lt. Michael Pappas was surrounded by death and destruction.

But a letter from a boy he never met gave him the will to go on - and to do what he had to do.

"I had to track him down. Whether it was 400 miles or 100 miles or 1,000 miles, I would have come here," said Pappas, who drove more than 400 miles to meet Matthew Behr, a fourth-grader who wrote the inspiring letter.

Matthew and other students at W. Robert Paynter Elementary School in Baldwin Borough wrote letters and drew pictures that were sent to rescue workers at the site of the World Trade Center disaster.

Pappas, accompanied by colleague Officer Mark Reichel, told students Thursday that police officers who are part of the Transit Citywide Anti-Gang Enforcement Unit have been working ''20 hours a day, sleep a little and go back and do it again.''

He vividly described the World Trade Center cleanup efforts.

"It got very dreary and dark, and we were surrounded by bad and evil," Pappas said.

He said police officers were on break, seated at a makeshift McDonald's at Ground Zero, when they found Matthew's letter among the stacks sent from children all over the world.

"It was a beautiful, short, nice, little letter," Reichel said. "He wrote 'Thank you. You are in our thoughts and prayers.' "

Matthew, 10, said he also drew a picture of an American flag on his card.

Pappas answered Matthew's first letter and sent him some uniform patches from the New York Police Department. The boy wrote back to thank him.

Matthew said he never expected to meet the officers in person.

"I was expecting to get another letter or a picture," he said. "I felt very happy and surprised when my grandfather told me my teacher called."

The officers, who brought Matthew an NYPD ball cap, discussed their experiences at Ground Zero with Paynter students and answered questions.

"The ground was so hot walking on the pile," Pappas said, noting that he thought he had gum stuck to the soles of his shoes as he walked through debris until he realized that his shoes' soles were melting from the heat.

Amanda Smith asked Pappas whether he prayed to God and is thankful that he's alive.

"That's the best question I've heard since Sept. 11," Pappas said. "I pray to God every night."

About 25,000 to 30,000 were rescued from the area around the World Trade Center, said Pappas and Reichel. Not all the rescuers were police officers and firefighters; some were subway drivers and other civilians who risked their lives.

Reichel said the rescue workers truly appreciate the letters and pictures sent from people around the world.

"It brings a nice smile to our faces," he told the Paynter students. "It meant something, whether you guys realize it or not."

Pappas and Reichel said that knowing they have the support from people all over the country has made the horrific job they must do much more bearable.

"You don't have to run into a burning building to be a hero," Pappas said. "You just have to give your support."

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