Tuesday morning, 9/11/2001 was just another beautiful Los Angeles morning on just another work day. Except, it wasn’t. While I was still asleep, four commercial aircraft were hijacked by 19 terrorists. At 5:46 a.m. (PST), AA flight #11 struck the North Tower of the Twin Towers. At 6:03 a.m. (PST), the second hijacked plane crashed into the South Tower.
As I was getting ready for work, I heard my wife call from the bedroom, “You need to come see this.” I walked in to see a replay of AA flight #11 fly into the North Tower of the Twin Towers and explode. This was followed by live footage of UA flight #175 as it struck the South Tower. My first thought was it was a commercial for a movie. As I listened to the newscast, I learned this was no movie. The entire nation witnessed the cowardly mass murder of men, women, and children. As I hurriedly got dressed to go to work, I watched with profound grief and sickness as the news reported a third plane, AA flight #77, had struck the Pentagon. We later learned the fourth hijacked plane (UA #93) crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers and crew bravely attempted to wrestle control of the plane from the terrorists.
I had no idea what the day would bring, but I knew the United States had been attacked on its own soil and we were at war.
I received a message on my pager not to report to the main office building, but to instead report to an off-site. As I drove away from my home — angry and depressed — the Bureau radio was repeating information for employees to report to an alternate work address. I arrived at the location and witnessed organized chaos. TV monitors were broadcasting from all the major networks. Scenes of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and bursting into flames were played repeatedly, forever etching it on my mind — to this day I can’t watch a replay of those events.
I found a seat next to a friend, Jim, as we waited to be briefed or given an assignment. Jim is one of those guys who always wants to be in the thick of things, always wants to have the biggest impact, always wants to make a difference — in short, a great guy and great agent. Among his other duties, Jim had responsibility for managing the agents at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). He nudged me and said, “Let’s grab some agents and each take a shift at LAX. The planes were heading to LA. There will be a lot of work to be done there and that’s where the action will be.” We signed out on a Command Post whiteboard that we would be at LAX. Once we got there, we sat down and discussed all that needed to be done. Coordination had already begun among all the public safety agencies. We learned that all air traffic was being grounded and LAX was to be evacuated. The police department had already begun the sweeps as well as searching for any suspicious packages.
By early evening, I came across an agent guiding a woman who was obviously blind down one of the passenger terminals. By this time, almost all civilians had been evacuated and I was surprised to see anyone still in the terminals. The agent told me she had found the woman huddled in a corner crying, distraught, and unable to contact her family. It broke my heart and seemed to epitomize the melancholy of the time. The agent was able to contact the woman’s family and transport her out of the airport to be reunited.
It was surreal. We worked throughout the day, assisting with the evacuation, covering endless investigative leads, and meeting with our partners in government and the airline industry. Everyone was working so hard and fast, no one really had any time to stop and think about how the world had just changed. That night, LAX, one of the busiest airports in the world, was a ghost town. Instead of the endless 24-hour-a-day hustle and bustle, there was nothing. No cars, no people. I walked across the streets without bothering to check for traffic, because there was none. It was eerie and gave me much too much time to think.
As the days continued and flights began landing again, we were inundated with requests for help and investigative leads. Airlines wanted any passenger they deemed to be “suspicious” interviewed and cleared. During the one moment of levity during these dark days, a middle-eastern man was being interviewed by an agent. He had been pulled off a plane to be interviewed and, because of that, had missed his connecting flight. The agent apologized for the inconvenience this caused the passenger. The man’s philosophical response was, “I understand completely. This is just a very bad day to be named Mohammed.”
As deeply depressing as those times were, I took away many positives. First, everyone from every agency I encountered had the same attitude. I think we were all shell-shocked to some extent, but everyone wanted to work, everyone wanted to make a difference, everyone wanted to fight back in any way they could, and everyone was eager to serve. As the days and hours grew long with very little rest, I didn’t hear any grumbling or complaining. People were jumping to volunteer for every assignment, hoping their role would be a critical element to success. All of the agencies, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement, banded together, developed priorities, established roles and responsibilities, met daily to fine-tune the work, and accomplished the mission. I did not see any egos, attitudes, or hidden agendas. It demonstrated what we are capable of in times of crisis. It proved we can and will work as an elite team to face a common enemy. I’ve seen much of this continue ten years later. I believe agencies always had the will to coordinate efforts for the common good. Now we also have the planning and preparation to accomplish this sooner.
For weeks after 9/11, it was common to hear and see, “We will never forget.” Sadly, I think many in this country have already forgotten. But I’m confident that’s not true for the law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other public safety workers who experienced the aftermath of 9/11. Those sheepdogs will never forget. Those sheepdogs will continue to forge relationships with their counterparts. Those sheepdogs will remain ready to prevent another 9/11.