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InfraGard Member Focus: Henry Gralak

IMA: As a police veteran, I’m sure you have an opinion on how policing has changed and evolved in the years since you left the force — especially in the wake of the Ferguson decision.

HG: Listening to this stuff — it’s tearing me apart. One of the advantages of knowing that you’re not going to live much longer is that you don’t really care about politics. You’ll tell people the truth. I couldn’t be a police officer in today’s day and age. Back in August when I addressed InfraGard, I told the audience that police officers were not saints, but they certainly aren’t sinners, either. We did the best that we could. The constraints placed against law enforcement began in our era. By constraints, I mean everything from Miranda, on. But we adapted to those changes and did it well. We carried our heads high; we worked with a lot of integrity and pride. But in today’s day and age, it seems there are those who don’t even want police officers to exhibit such pride.

IMA: What, for you, have been some of the more memorable and most meaningful highlights — what, in hindsight, makes you most proud?

HG: I’ve had a few. I want to say 1974 or 1975 when I was put on a special assignment and told to come to work the next day in my dress uniform. “You’re going to drive around the director of news affairs and a photographer from LIFE magazine,” I was told. And literally, I did just that. For 12 hours, I escorted the director and the LIFE photographer, I’ll never forget. The photographer was from the Netherlands. Co Rentmeester was his name and he became known for his coverage of the Vietnam War. It was the first time that LIFE did something called, “One Day in the Life of America.” They picked a city and decided to document, in photographs, 24 hours of crime. I drove them around for 12 hours and wound up getting my picture in LIFE magazine. It was an interesting experience. How many immigrant kids can say they got their picture in LIFE magazine?

Twelve hours later, I turned the director and LIFE photographer over to a young officer named Bruce Harrison. Little did I suspect that just two weeks later, we would be burying Bruce. He and his partner were killed in the line of duty — gunned down in a tavern.

As a sergeant, I worked for Pope John Paul II, on his detail. I was the assistant field operations boss. I met lots of famous people during my career. Pat Nixon gave me a kiss on the cheek for supposedly saving her life. We didn’t really save her life, but that’s the way it looked to the press and public. We did a lot of unusual things. When we weren’t working high crime we did sporting events. The old Chicago Stadium. Cubs Park, Sox Park. As a matter of fact, I did the last [Bears] game at Wrigley Field, as a patrol officer when they moved them from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field.

IMA: You were one of the first to respond out at O’Hare to an incident involving a plane that lost an engine some years ago. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

HG: During the blizzard [of ’79], we worked twelve hours on and twelve hours off for 44 days straight, no days off. It was one of the few times the Chicago Police Department paid officers overtime. Their definition of overtime was that all the overtime that we accrued in those 44 days would be paid at your hourly rate times two — that’s what they offered and I took it. It was money. Well, 1979, I’m in the parking lot of the old O’Hare International Bank at Cumberland and the Kennedy Expressway, going to deposit that overtime money. I remember getting off my motorcycle, taking off my helmet and I heard it and then I felt it. I looked up, and there was this huge fireball. First thing I thought of was, “Standard oil tanks over at Elmhurst Road and Higgins had blown up.” I went inside the bank. Guy’s name was Christiansen — Fred Christiansen. Retired chief, Park Ridge Police Department. Fred greets me, “Hey, Henry.” I says, “Hi. What the hell just happened out there?” He says, “Yeah, we heard it in here.” Well, he called his old friends at the Park Ridge Police Department. The initial word was, a cargo plane crashed outside of O’Hare. That changed in less than two minutes — it was a fully loaded passenger plane, American Airlines, Flight 191, a DC-10 aircraft. It was May 25, 1979.
The plane went down just outside of O’Hare. I thought, “Oh, man — don’t tell me.”

Being on a motorcycle that day, I had an advantage. I got on my bike and I started heading toward the fireball — where I last saw it. Traffic was absolutely jammed on the expressway, on Higgins, on Touhy Avenue. You name it — nothing was moving. I spent most of the time riding down sidewalks, in the grass — anywhere I could find a place to put two tires. And I got there. I was, I think, the sixth or seventh police officer to arrive on the scene. And it was horrendous — absolutely horrendous. The heat was overwhelming. There was nothing we could do. Once the smell of death gets in your nostrils, you never forget it. It reminded me of Vietnam and napalm. We lost everybody in that airplane. It happened on a Friday afternoon. We were brought back formally the next day. We were sent home on Sunday. Monday they asked for volunteers to come back and work identification there. I volunteered. I told my team — I had eight men working for me, then — “You don’t have to go; this is not going to be fun; it’s not going to be easy. I won’t think anything less of you if you don’t go.” Seven out of the eight in my team came with me. We spent 29 days out there, working on the identification process. It was extremely difficult.