Debra McCarthy, a retired detective, did a double-take when walking through New York Police Department headquarters just days after the 9/11 terror attacks.
McCarthy was standing in the main area of the narcotic division when she noticed a female sergeant in full dress uniform with blonde hair and green eyes — eerily just like her own.
“I turned to a friend of mine and said, ‘Oh my God. This woman looks just like me,'” McCarthy, 51, a married mother of three from Long Island, revealed to PEOPLE.
McCarthy was adopted when she was just 2-years-old and had always wanted to find her birth family, but put it off as she was afraid of hurting her adopted family, especially her adopted mother.
But seeing her doppelgänger pushed her to start searching for her family of origin along with the location of her office at One Police Plaza, from where she could see the giant pile of rubble at Ground Zero.
“We could see the area that was the World Trade Center from the window,” she says. “So we were living that every day. I was assigning men and women from the narcotics division to go to ground zero and dig out the dead.”
“I had a deep desire to find my birth family because I knew my biological mother had been a securities trader,” she adds. That, along with seeing the sergeant looked just like her, “just made me say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to find my birth family. I may have had family down there,'” she recalls.
And while McCarthy’s husband spent weeks upon months searching for bodies in the rubble, she began to search for her birth parents.
Having worked as a police officer for three years and an undercover vice and narcotics detective for seven years, she used her skills to her advantage finding first her birth mother. Her birth mother revealed how she was an only child and that her birth father, Charlie Sullivan, had been searching for her for years.
“My mother said, ‘Your father has called every year on your birthday for the past 30 years,’” she says. “He wanted to make sure that if I got in touch with her that he would be notified.”
When McCarthy finally met her birth father, she discovered that he lived in Breezy Point, an Irish enclave in Rockaway Beach — the same place where she had begun her career as a patrol officer.
“When I reached him and told him I used to work in the 100th precinct, he said, ‘Darling you have been passing your family’s house every day,’” she says.
And not too much time after, she and her father planned a get-together Breezy Point, where she met a flurry of Irish and Italian aunts, uncles and cousins.
It was during the reunion that both she and her extended birth family stood on the beach in Breezy Point overlooking the Manhattan skyline, where her “Aunt Mary and Uncle Patsy” Sullivan had witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers. Their son, Patrick Sullivan, and their nephew, Peter Milano, both of whom worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, were killed during the collapse.
“As we stood there, my aunt and uncle hugged me and said, ‘We lost our son our nephew in the attack on the Twin Towers. We lost so much that day, but now God has reunited us with you and your little family. You came at a good time.'”
But that was not the only person with whom she was reunited with. The woman who was in full dress uniform a the One Police Plaza turned out to be her cousin, Sgt. Mary Young, who was on her way to the funerals for Sullivan and Milano, the cousins McCarthy was unaware she had.
“I’m extremely grateful for having been embraced by my birth family after they had such tragedy in their own lives,” says McCarthy. “They were so willing to embrace me and my little family and welcomed us with open arms. They are extremely giving and kind people and I am lucky to be a part of their lives now.”
So much happened that day that was bad, she says, “but this gives people a glimmer of hope, that good things happened, too.” “This is a story of loss and love,” she adds, “and never giving up on finding family.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.