Retired chief of police: Far too many Americans have forgotten 9/11 – or perhaps they simply don’t care

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The following editorial is written by a retired Chief of Police and current staff writer for Law Enforcement Today.

NEW YORK, NY., WASHINGTON, DC, SHANKSVILLE, PA- I woke up on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at about 6:00 a.m. It was my day off from the police department, but I was scheduled to work a road job on one of our busy streets adjacent to the highway.

I scoped the area out the night before while I was working to see if it would be worth the time and a half I would be getting for the assignment. It looked pretty good and it was supposed to be a beautiful late summer day in New England.

Since it was only four hours and I would have time to enjoy the rest of the day, I decided to keep the assignment.

As I drove to the police station to get my gear, I was awestruck by what a beautiful morning it was. A typical late summer morning in New England, cool and crisp. The sky was bright crimson where the sun was rising out east and I remember as the sun rose the sky was just an amazing bright blue, without a cloud to be seen.

I drove over to where my detail was and was going to be working with another officer and good friend of mine. Traffic was pretty normal for that time of day, with people heading to work in the capital city or north to Springfield. This wasn’t going to be too bad a morning.

As time went on, it was around 8:30 in the morning when my cell phone rang. It was another good friend of mine and fellow police officer Chuck.

Now, Chuck knew that I was an aviation nut and loved planes, and also had a decent amount of knowledge about aircraft. I answered the phone, and Chuck was a bit breathless. Now Chuck was a pretty excitable guy, so this didn’t concern me initially.

“Hey, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. They think it’s a small plane. But there is a ton of fire and smoke.”

That struck me as odd. Really for two reasons.

First, it was a severe clear day throughout the northeast. The weather forecasters on television said the northeast was going to have a spectacular day. So weather couldn’t have been an issue.

Secondly, when Chuck said there was a “ton of fire and smoke” that made no sense either. I know that small planes, your typical Cessna or Piper held maybe 50 gallons of fuel. While that would cause some fire, it wouldn’t appear to be significant.

He then told me there was a “huge” whole in the side of one of the towers. When I heard that, I was thinking, “OK. It’s a small jet maybe, like a Lear or a Citation.” But still, that made no sense to me. How could a pilot hit one of the towers? For a brief moment, I thought that maybe it was deliberate, but said “to what end?”

I was aware of the earlier bombing at the World Trade Center by Islamic terrorists several years before, but quite honestly, terrorism didn’t cross my mind. Until Chuck’s next comment.

“Holy shit! A jet just crashed into the other tower! It was a big one, like an airliner!”

At that moment, I knew that this was terrorism. We were under attack!

I told Chuck “I need to call my wife,” and hung up.

I called home to talk to my wife. She had just gotten our daughters off to school, just down the street from our house. They were in 4th and 2nd grade.

“Do you have the TV on?” I asked her.

“Well, yes I’m doing some stuff but it’s on in the other room. Why, what’s up?”

“Turn on the news. What’s going on?” I asked her.

“Oh my God! What’s going on?” she asked me. “Both of the towers in New York are on fire! What’s going on?”

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“Terrorism, they flew planes into the Twin Towers,” I told her. “We are under attack by someone. Iran, Iraq. I’m not sure, but this is terrorism. Dammit!”

“What should we do?” she asked me.

“I don’t know, I need to figure this out. I’ll call you back.”

Meanwhile, my buddy working the job with me, Sebby called me on the secure channel.

“What the fuck! What’s going on?” he said. He had just heard from a family member about what was going on.

We talked back and forth for a few minutes, trying to come to grips with what was going on.

I felt helpless and I wanted to know what was going on, but had no access to radios or anything. I went over to where the construction workers were, and asked them if they could turn on the radio in their truck. They looked at me, kind of confused. I told them what I knew.

“What the…, are you serious?” several said, almost in unison.

“Serious as a heart attack,” I told them. “We are under attack by someone.”

I told them that I needed to get back to what I was doing, directing traffic but told them to keep me up to date with what was going on. One of the workers told his co-workers that he needed to “call the base,” later finding out that he was a member of the National Guard.

Sebby and I continued talking over the radio, trying to figure out what exactly we were dealing with. We are only 100 or so miles from New York City and Connecticut had been identified as a possible target for terrorism, due to the U.S. Submarine Base in Groton, Electric Boat which makes nuclear subs, and a number of nuclear power plants in the state. What was the next shoe to drop, if any? We would soon find out.

My phone rang, and it was Chuck.

“There was just an explosion at the Pentagon!”

If I wasn’t sure of it before, I knew it now. The WTC, symbol of America’s financial might and now the Pentagon, the symbol of our military might. This was war. Plain and simple. America was at war with someone. My mind went to my children, in particular my young daughters. What would I tell them? Should we take them out of school? Were terrorists going to target schools next? Too many questions and not enough answers.

As I stood there directing traffic, people were stopping and making sure I knew what had happened.

“Officer, do you know what happened in New York and Washington? Have you heard about planes crashing into the towers? Did you hear about the missile hitting the Pentagon?”

And then, “What should we do? Should we pick up our kids? I don’t know what to do! What should we do?”

Mothers, fathers, teenagers, elderly people…asking me what to do. And I had no answers. I had my own questions to answer. Should I leave my detail and go home? Should we pick up the kids? Leave the state?

The next thing that struck me is it got quiet. Traffic died almost completely down. Then I was thinking, “Where are the planes?” My town is located on the final approach path to a fairly busy airport. Planes fly over all the time. Yet, I didn’t hear any, either landing or taking off. It was eerily quiet.

My phone rang…it was Chuck.

“The damn tower just came down!”

“Wait, what???” I asked him.

“One of the towers…it literally just collapsed on itself,” Chuck said.

I immediately got sick to my stomach. I knew the World Trade Center towers held tens of thousands of people inside. How many made it out? My thoughts then turned to the first responders. The FDNY responded to the incident…so too did the NYPD and Port Authority cops. What about ambulances? What about the people inside those planes?

Time went slowly…10:30…10:45…11:00. Finally! My relief showed up and I drove the 2 miles to the police department in a couple minutes flat. I had to see this on television.

I went into the break room and there were probably 7-8 cops and civilian personnel in there watching the television. You could have heard a pin drop.

Both towers of the World Trade Center in New York…once the tallest buildings in the world, were on the ground, reduced to rubble. There was smoke pouring out of the hole in the ground where the towers once stood. A cloud of dust hung over downtown Manhattan. I was speechless. Everyone else in the room the same.

They were showing a replay on the television, showing an aircraft turning and flying directly into one of the towers, which exploded in smoke and flames. It was definitely an airliner…looked like an Airbus or a 767. As I watched that on television, I realized something else. I had just watched probably hundreds…maybe thousands of people die in front of my eyes. 

After looking at the television for probably only a few minutes, my mind went to my family. What were the girls being told in school? Should we leave them in school? Should we pick them up? I changed and drove home.

I walked into the house and my wife had the television on. She was sitting there watching the news. Our eyes caught each other and she came over to me and we embraced, both of us with tears in our eyes. We could not believe what our eyes were seeing.

We started to talk. Do we get the girls or do we leave them in school? We went back and forth for a while and finally decided that we would keep them in school…for now. If anything else happened, we would get them.

The news started putting out that they believed there were a “number of planes” that had been hijacked and that there were other targets…the United States Capitol Building, the White House, the Sears Tower, and Disney World. So much uncertainty. They then announced that airspace in the United States had been completely shut down and all planes were being ordered to land immediately at the nearest airport. That was why it had been so quiet. 

At 3:00, we went and picked up our daughters at school. We had a quiet drive home, a short minute or two drive. When we went in the house, I sat them down and explained to them what had happened. They were confused because they said a lot of the kids were picked up by their mom or dad earlier and they didn’t know why. We explained to them clearly what was happening and that most importantly they did not need to be afraid…we would protect them.

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I spent literally the next 48 hours glued to the television set. I couldn’t have slept anyway,  thinking about all the innocent people who died in those two towers, in the Pentagon, on those aircraft.

What about the first responders who ran IN to the buildings as everyone else fled? The news said the losses would be unimaginable…and they were.

I saw images of people, so desperate to escape the heat and flames that they lept over 100 floors to certain death…to escape certain death more lingering in nature. I can still see it now as I close my eyes. One image showed people holding hands as they jumped together…desperate to escape the heat and flames. 

The weeks after 9/11/2001 were among the quietest weeks I spent in 31 years as a police officer. As I patrolled my town as a sergeant, I noticed literally nearly every house had an American flag flying out front.

I saw cars and trucks driving around town, many with American flags attached to the windows or in the pickup truck beds. Stores had hats that said FDNY or NYPD, flags, bumper stickers and t-shirts. It was in vogue to be a patriot.

I don’t think I paid for a coffee for weeks after 9/11, with complete strangers offering to buy me a coffee, saying “thank you for all you do.” It was humbling.

The police department of which I was a member did not respond to a domestic violence call for at least a week I think. Our department, which averaged over 100 calls a day probably got half that number. Americans had come together as one, grieving as a nation but hopeful and thankful for living in the greatest country in the world.

That was nineteen years ago…but it seems like one hundred.

Ironically, it is the children of 9/11…people who were either not born yet, or who were maybe 5 years old or less who are out protesting on city streets, calling for “death to America.”

These aren’t Muslim fundamentalists…these are Americans. They are the ones looting, burning down buildings, assaulting people with whom they disagree, harassing patrons at restaurants. Some haven’t forgotten…they simply do not remember.

Where is the country we were on 9/12/2001…and the days, weeks and months afterward? In some ways, that country is still here. There are those of us, in particular those who work in emergency services and who worked during that time who remember how we felt in those days.

There are those who lost loved ones, those who climbed the rubble at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon for weeks or months who remember. Then there are the families of the poor souls on four aircraft- American 11, American 77, United 175, and United 93 who perished only for being on the wrong flight at the wrong time.

Today, September 11, 2020 is the 19th anniversary of the worst day in American history. Sadly, most people will not stop to recognize it.

The annual reading of the names of 9/11 victims has been canceled, we are told due to Covid-19. The same people who canceled that event, however have no problem with violent rioters under the guise of “peaceful protesters” wreaking havoc. Up until people rose up in anger, New York had planned on canceling the blue light ceremony at the site of the WTC.

We are a divided country. We were divided after the 2000 election, yet 9/11 brought us together as a country. This, however is a lot different. Can we get back to 9/12/2001?

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that way.  

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