September 11, 2021

Living up to the memory of what the heroes of 9/11 taught us


Dear PERF members,

Today is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. We’ve seen a lot of stories in the news media this week about 9/11 (a few of which are in the Weekend Clips below), but I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment, because I’d like to share my perspectives.

9/11 was a defining moment for the United States, when 19 terrorists brought a new type of horror to America. But it also was a defining moment in how it brought Americans together. We all shared a profound sense of grief, as well as gratitude and respect for the brave Americans who pushed back and showed what they were made of during the attacks. 

Flight 93 in Pennsylvania

Let’s start with the breathtaking story about the people on Flight 93 who fought the terrorists and prevented the fourth jetliner from reaching its target.  This article said it best: 

“40 everyday people – 33 passengers and 7 crew members – made a plan, took a vote, and mounted an assault on four hijackers in the sky above Western Pennsylvania, as the plane soared toward the nation’s capital.”

They took a vote!  Imagine taking a vote to decide what to do when your plane has been hijacked. That really was democracy in action. 

The passengers and crew on Flight 93 knew from phone calls with their friends and family members that they were not facing an ordinary hijacking. They heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that had been unfolding. So they realized it was up to them to prevent another catastrophe, and they stepped up and seized their moment to be heroes.

One of the passengers on Flight 93, Todd Beamer, was connected to an Airfone operator, Lisa Jefferson, and spoke to her for 13 minutes. Ms. Jefferson said that Mr. Beamer was surprisingly calm as he told her details about how the hijackers had taken over the aircraft, and how the passengers were planning to rush the hijackers.  Todd then asked Lisa to recite the Lord’s Prayer with him, and finally she heard him ask the other passengers, “Are you ready? OK.  Let’s roll.”

World Trade Center

Meanwhile, in New York City, firefighters, police officers, EMS workers, and others were rushing to the World Trade Center to save lives, and more than 400 of these first responders lost their lives rescuing others. That includes 37 police officers from the Port Authority Police Department and 23 members of the NYPD, 14 of whom were from the Emergency Service Unit.

It’s stunning when you think about it for even a second. At a time when office workers in the Twin Towers were desperately fleeing the buildings, police officers and firefighters were rushing to the scene and going into the towers to help with the evacuation efforts, in many cases running upstairs and then carrying people down who couldn’t navigate so many flights of stairs.

This is what makes the work of cops inherently different. There is a nobility to policing, because it’s a job where you are expected to move toward danger when everyone else is running away. 

To mention just a few of these stories of brave officers who lost their lives at Ground Zero:

  • Captain Kathy Mazza of the Port Authority Police Academy saw a bottleneck of people trying to escape the North Tower through revolving doors. So she used her firearm to shoot out the floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the mezzanine, allowing hundreds more people to escape. Captain Mazza was last seen with Lieutenant Robert Cirri carrying a woman down the steps of the tower when it collapsed.
  • NYPD Officer John W. Perry spent the morning of 9/11 filling out retirement papers, because he had decided to go to law school. But when he heard about the World Trade Center attacks, he retrieved his badge, ran several blocks to the site, and was last seen helping rescue a woman when the South Tower fell.
  • Port Authority Police Officer Kenneth Tietjen heard the radio calls for help, commandeered a taxicab, and drove to the World Trade Center, where he ran into the North Tower and rescued several people. When he emerged from the building to get a new respirator, only one remained, his partner recalled.  Officer Tietjen smiled at his partner, said, “Seniority rules,” grabbed the respirator, and ran back into the tower shortly before it collapsed.

The Pentagon

And at the Pentagon, local police officers and Pentagon police were rushing to save lives near where the terrorists’ third airliner had crashed into the west side of the building.  Isaac Hoopii, an officer in the Pentagon Police Department’s K-9 bomb detection unit, joined other officers pulling people out of the burning building, carrying some on his back. Because the fire was accelerated by jet fuel, some of the hallways were filled with toxic, impenetrable black smoke, so in areas where rescuers couldn’t get any closer, firefighters told police officers to use their voices to guide Pentagon workers to safety.  

A Pentagon contractor, William Sinclair, was crawling on his hands and knees, trying to find a way out through the smoke. He heard the booming voice of Officer Hoopii, who was shouting with his distinctive Hawaiian accent, “Head toward my voice! There’s an opening out here!” Mr. Sinclair emerged from the smoke, only to find that his rescuer had moved to another location. But he wanted to meet the man who saved his life, and weeks later, he was able to meet Officer Hoopii.

Brave Individual Decisions

Twenty years later, it’s still hard to read these stories without choking up a bit. It makes you wonder, as these brave cops were rushing toward danger, what was going through their minds? They hadn’t been trained on what to do when terrorists fly jetliners into large buildings. They had to figure out for themselves what to do, and many chose to risk their lives to save others’ lives.

Looking at 9/11 in hindsight, it was an unspeakable tragedy, but it also showed the best of America. And it brought the country together in ways that seem to be lost today. These days, it seems there is nothing that Americans agree on. Too many politicians are constantly looking for ways to divide us. We should resist that, and look for common ground with our fellow Americans, not false distinctions and differences.

For people my age or older, it’s often said that everyone remembers exactly where they were on two days – November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was killed, and September 11, 2001. 

On November 22, I remember being in elementary school in Boston when they turned on the TV in my classroom, and we sat glued to it, watching Walter Cronkite take off his glasses to announce that the President had died. 

On 9/11, I was at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, across the street from our office, holding a conference with the head of the National Institute of Justice, when my assistant came in with a frightened look on her face, and told me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.  For some reason I thought she was talking about an accident involving a small plane, not a terrorist attack. But in the next few minutes, our meeting started to buzz as people got calls on their cell phones, and we all realized that something terrible had happened in New York.

Then the Pentagon was hit by the third plane, and for a while, there were sketchy reports of a fourth plane that might be heading toward the White House or the Capitol. That turned out to be Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Washington became a ghost town as people tried to get home, but I stayed on with then-PERF staffer Terry Chowanec, watching the TV as the horror unfolded.

Soon after 9/11 happened, PERF arranged a very significant meeting where we asked a number of major city chiefs to attend with their FBI Special Agent in Charge, to discuss how intelligence about terrorist threats had been kept from local police chiefs. There was considerable tension over the fact that local police had felt shut out by federal officials.

In the middle of the meeting, Chris Swecker, the SAC from Charlotte, NC, spoke for the group and said it was essential for the FBI Director to come to the second day of this meeting and hear this conversation. Robert Mueller had just become FBI Director a week before 9/11.  

So I called Mueller’s office and spoke to a top FBI official, explaining the importance of the meeting, but was told that the Director was completely booked.  I persisted and got hold of Chuck Rosenberg, Mr. Mueller’s counsel.  I had no idea who Chuck was back then, but he became a good friend and colleague starting that day. Chuck immediately understood the gravity of what our meeting was about, and asked what time the next day we would like the Director to speak. 

So Director Mueller came to our meeting and heard the impassioned pleas of the chiefs, as well as the FBI SACs talking about how things needed to change. There was a culture in the FBI that viewed police chiefs as second-class citizens who couldn’t be trusted with confidential information, and that culture had to change. 

I believe Mueller truly understood that and began to crack away at that culture. And it’s not just about sharing information, but perhaps more importantly, recognizing that we are all in this together, and we need to build trust and have a level playing field.

I’m sure all of you have vivid memories of where you were and what you were doing on 9/11. I hope you agree that while 9/11 was one of the worst days in the history of the United States, it also showed us the good things that people are capable of doing. 

I’d like to leave you on an upbeat note, so I’ll mention a 9/11-related play that my wife and I have seen twice on Broadway, which has been made into a filmed version available on Apple TV.  Come From Away tells the story of Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada, that happens to have an international airport. When the 9/11 attacks happened, the FAA immediately cleared the skies, ordering every flight to land as quickly as possible. Many flights landed in Gander, and it was days before flights were allowed out again and the backlog could be cleared. 

Come From Away shows how the people of Gander welcomed about 7,000 visitors – roughly doubling the population of the town.  It’s a poignant show, and reflective of the good that can sometimes come out of the most tragic circumstances. It embodies the hopefulness and humanity of mankind that emerged from 9/11.

Weekend Clips are below.