Witness to History: September 11, 2001Ten Years After the Terrorist Attacks, a Panel of Senior Law Enforcement Officials, Active on 9/11, Reflect on the Events of That Day
The second installment in the Museum’s new educational lecture series entitled Witness to History focused on 9/11 and the impact of terrorist attacks on law enforcement that fateful day and its aftermath. This was conveyed through the insights of three senior members of law enforcement agencies located in New York City at Ground Zero, in Arlington at the Pentagon, and at the White House, where then-President George W. Bush and other high-level decision-makers considered how to regain control of the chaos and protect the American people. The panel members shared their unique and powerful experiences and recollections of September 11, 2001, in a hushed room, the audience all but holding its breath in anticipation of the vivid and moving accounts soon to be heard.
Brad Brekke, Vice President of Assets Protection for the Target Corporation and Co-Chair of the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Leadership Council, welcomed the audience and set the stage by recounting the devastation that occurred ten years ago on that day. More than 2,700 American citizens were killed, and 72 peace officers lost their lives in the line of duty.
Mr. Brekke then introduced Memorial Fund Chairman & CEO and panel moderator for the evening, Craig Floyd, who then introduced the panelists—Joseph Morris, Chief of the Port Authority of NY & NJ Police Department (Ret.); Carl Truscott, Former Assistant Director of the United States Secret Service, and Former Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and Richard Keevil, Chief of the Pentagon Police Department, and Former Commander of the Virginia State Police. After the introductions, Mr. Floyd broke the ice with the first question, directed at all three panelists: Where were you and what were you doing when you first heard what had happened?
Mr. Morris began by recalling what a beautiful autumn morning it had been. His day began with a mundane task. He was sitting with an interior decorator picking fabric for conference room chairs when the first plane crashed into the North Tower. After thinking it a terrible accident, then decoding the data—much of it false—surrounding what had happened, he began to understand that terror had indeed struck, and the world had forever changed. With that, the audience seemed to exhale, finally, and the other two panelists proceeded to describe their experience of the day. Mr. Truscott was in Washington at the White House, urging then-Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and others, to advise the President to go to a safe place, rather than return to Washington.
Mr. Keevil said September 11, 2001, began as a typical morning at his office near the U.S. Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. He went on to explain that he had never in his life used the word “surreal,” but after witnessing a 757 fly into the side of the Pentagon, that was the only word he could use to describe what he saw.
As the discussion continued, each panelist recalled memories from that day and those that followed. They became visibly moved as they recounted the horror and loss of life they had seen. To witness these commanding, courageous men yield to emotion as they relived the shock and turmoil they encountered ten years ago—as if it occurred ten days ago—served as a heartbreaking reminder of how deeply these men had been affected. As difficult as it must have been to tell the story, however, the panelists all impressed the audience with how important it was to remember.
In the days following the attacks, Mr. Morris related that first responders repeated the phrase, “The further we get from 9/11, the closer we get to 9/10” to reassure themselves that life would someday return to normal. But Mr. Morris understood the attacks had fundamentally changed how law enforcement does its job. “We can’t go back to 9/10,” he said. All three panelists shared this outlook—that remembering what occurred on September 11, 2001, however painful or unpleasant, and sharing these memories, are vital to ensuring that our nation does not lose focus, that we do not forget. All three panelists agreed that law enforcement has been vigilant and pro-active since 9/11, and the fact that another act of terrorism has not occurred on U.S. soil since that day is a testament to law enforcement’s perseverance and watchfulness. Mr. Truscott stressed how important it is that law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), continue to be vigilant and make certain they do not become complacent.
When asked how it was decided who would take charge at the U.S. Pentagon after the plane struck, Mr. Keevil explained that they experienced no obstacles or arguments regarding jurisdiction, and they quickly implemented a structure that ran smoothly. “The country wanted to help,” said Mr. Keevil. Forty different agencies participated in the relief efforts, and support from the public was overwhelming, he explained. Just one way people helped was by bringing thousands of t-shirts to the site to give to the officers, firefighters, and others exiting the burning building with their shirts torn, scorched, and drenched in jet fuel. Citizens’ acts of support in the days and weeks that followed renewed their belief in our country’s ability to come together and persevere.
Mr. Morris described the unbearable heat at Ground Zero. “The heels of your boots came off,” he said. He described the clouds of dust and debris as a disastrous “warm blizzard” that encased everything, as the Towers—“cathedrals to capitalism”—crumbled to the ground. He remembered repeating the mantra “order the chaos, order the chaos,” words a colleague had spoken to him that day. Despite the Port Authority Police Department’s devastating loss of 37 officers on that day, Mr. Morris said finding survivors gave him and his fellow officers the resolve to go on—to go to work and take care of the site. Those efforts seemed never to cease; all members of the Port Authority of NY & NJ Police Department worked 12-hour days until July of 2003.
Mr. Truscott recounted a compelling memory—the moment President Bush unrolled the U.S. flag at the Pentagon on September 12, 2001, as a symbol of strength and unity and as a message to those responsible for the attacks that the U.S. refused to be defeated by evil.
As the event came to a close, the crowd arose and gave the three panelists a standing ovation for sharing their personal memories and reflections—many private and difficult to recount—and for their amazing efforts to lead by example and keep Americans safe. Mr. Morris said it best—“I lost much on 9/11, but I didn’t lose my liberty or my freedom.”
Stay tuned for the next Witness to History event.