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Dean Of UAlbany's Homeland Security And Emergency Preparedness School Recounts Pentagon Response On 9/11

Aerial view of the Pentagon Building located in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), showing emergency crews responding to the destruction caused when a high-jacked commercial jetliner crashed into the southwest corner of the building, during the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
Public Domain: TSGT Cedric H. Rudisill, USAF
Aerial view of the Pentagon Building located in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), showing emergency crews responding to the destruction caused when a high-jacked commercial jetliner crashed into the southwest corner of the building, during the 9/11 terrorists attacks.

As we near the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, we’re reflecting on what people heard, saw and experienced on that fateful day. While many in our region were impacted by the horror in New York City, other areas of the nation were also scarred. In the Washington, D.C. area, the nation was faced with a strike to the center of the nation’s military might – the Pentagon. Among the first responders in the area was Bob Griffin – now the dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany and a frequent guest on WAMC’s The Roundtable. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Griffin about his memories from that day.

Griffin: So, my experiences on 9/11 are slightly different from the folks in New York. I was down in the Washington DC area. And at that time, I actually was a fire chief, a county fire chief right outside Washington, DC. My recollections of the day are permanently burnt into my brain. It was a gorgeous day. It was the type of day that you know, people just want to sort of disappear, go hiking or play golf or fish. I was in a senior staff meeting with my battalion chiefs and my entire command staff, when the 9-1-1 center called up and told me to turn on the TV. And we did and we watched the initial report out of New York. And we sat there we puzzled about what it was and thought it was, was it a heart attack, what could it be. And when the second plane hit, we knew we were in trouble. What happened after that in the DC area was sort of a cascading series of events. When the Pentagon was hit, the call initially went out to Arlington County and to Fairfax County. At the same time the reports of the Pentagon being hit, we were starting to receive reports that the FAA center in Leesburg had been hit and that the White House had been hit and other key buildings in the area were potentially under attack. What we did is that we called in all of the resources that we possibly could, and what started to occur was a domino effect where units were pulled further and further into the inner core. So, as Arlington depleted its resources and needed more resources at the Pentagon and, frankly resources to protect their own community, units came in from the outer counties. For folks that aren't aware of the DC region, it's actually really well-prepared. It's very well equipped and we had done a lot of training beforehand. In fact, a couple of interesting points is that the day of 9/11, our units were doing training with the FBI, because we were getting ready for some World Bank protests at the time, which had turned violent in other parts of the country. So, we were dealing with how to deal with folks that had locked themselves together so that they could block traffic. And, so we had a lot of units actually in training on that day. And we were able to send them into the Pentagon. Interestingly, what we did is we gathered task forces, huge numbers of firefighters and equipment and, in total we sent over 40 units and 250 paramedics and EMTs and firefighters into the Pentagon. We would send them in groupings. All of the roads in the DC area were stopped. People could not get home, people couldn't move. Our units were obviously responding. They were driving down the shoulders of the highways whenever possible, sometimes even going further than the shoulders. Because we were a little bit further out, we actually didn't have map books of Arlington and imagine the picture of, you know 20 fire trucks stopping at 7-11s to buy maps. Because that's what it took in order for us to make sure that we were getting our units down into the right places that that they needed to be and prepare them to respond within Arlington. I stood up our Emergency Operations Center in Loudon. And Loudon is the location where a lot of government officials came to. So at the same time we're sending units in, we're starting to receive really important people back out. It was the type of day that, frankly I didn't realize that the towers had fallen until maybe two or three in the morning. I mean, we were so busy responding and responding to different rumors. And there are several times or at least multiple times where the folks at the Pentagon who were actively fighting the fire actually had to evacuate because the reports of additional planes coming in because remember, they took a little bit of time to close the airspace, which is unprecedented, and there were planes that were already in the air. Our units converged into Arlington. Arlington dispatch dispatched the units into the Pentagon. In the initial period, it was chaos. We were lucky, as a nation - if you could call it lucky - the location of the impact of the plane was an area that had just recently reopened after being hardened, which I think added to, or at least kept some of the loss of life down. And our units as they were trying to fight this huge fire, this plane crash that the unknown picture and unsecured scene where classified documents are just out on the ground. Over the time, the incident commander, his name was Chief Jim Schwartz. He was the assistant chief in Arlington County...did a magnificent job in running incident command. A couple things that worked really well. Actually the FBI embedded into command, as did the law enforcement. So, you saw a unified command that that set up really quickly. And they started to bring in an awful lot of logistics. They closed roadways. In fact, the area around the Pentagon, all of the roads around the Pentagon were closed. Back in Loudon, we were doing things like preparing for children in the school system or in our daycare systems that their parents weren't going to come home. And what do we do about that? Preparing for potential additional attacks. What did we need to do as far as resources? What we ended up doing is that, we in Loudon, pushed resources further into the sort of the core of DC, we started to pull resources as far out as West Virginia. So, we actually took resources in from our neighboring states and counties that never would have been involved in a situation.

When I get down to the Pentagon the next day, the fire was still on. I mean, the fire actually went on and off for a long period of time. The 1940 construction of the Pentagon was remarkable. But, basically what you had was plywood over plywood over stone over plywood. And what happens is the fire would get between those joints and would continue to flare up. By the time I get down there, they had sort of rudimentary mortuary areas that were set up. And I think one of the points that gets forgotten on 9/11 is the number of children that were on the flight, particularly the flight out of Washington that hit the Pentagon. There were school children that were on that flight. And it was just absolutely heartbreaking to see the impact of that plane.

At the time, the Secretary of Defense came out relatively quickly and stated that the Pentagon was going to be open. It's going to be open the next day. There was sort of a collective gasp from the chiefs. And, you know, the only thing you can say is, “Yes, sir.” And understanding that the image of the Pentagon being closed would have sent our adversaries a message about how weak we were rather than how strong we were in the fact that we were able to continue operations in the other parts of the Pentagon at the time...I think sent a very clear message that while we had been hurt, they hadn't damaged what we were or who we were.

Levulis: And so what were your experiences in the days and the weeks after? Obviously there were recovery, rescue efforts that continued in New York City, but also rebuilding efforts in at the Pentagon?

Griffin: Yeah. So, you know, again, I think the folks in New York had it much worse. The fact that at the Pentagon, it was a federal reservation, we were actually able to get fencing up. The federal government and the Department of Defense actually had good control over the Pentagon to begin with, they were able to really tighten that up. Up in New York, I know that a number of the members of the command staff of FDNY had actually been killed on the day. In fact, a very good friend of mine got a battlefield promotion, because he was one of the few officers that were left after the building came down. What was occurring at the New York site, the Trade Center site, versus the Pentagon is that they were still looking for potential trapped victims. At the Pentagon, we were able to clear that relatively quickly. In New York, they were also struggling to be able to contain the site and keep people away from it. They were also dealing with the environmental hazards that, thankfully we had similar problems, but not to the extent that they did in New York. So, you think about the insulation, and the people who are coming out of the building being absolutely covered. You know, it's getting into their lungs, getting into their eyes, there were so many people who are lost in so many families that were looking for their loved ones, that family reunification in both areas were really, really difficult. But I think it was a lot harder for the folks up in New York City.

At the same time, we as a country, we started to move an awful lot of resources. And there was a lot of ingenuity and creativity that went into that because we still weren't allowed to fly. So, you start to think about everything that is transported across this country on air. But, we were starting to receive caravans of assistance. Urban search and rescue teams that were deployed from different parts of the country. And again, there's a strategy around this, you never want to drain a region. So, you start to hopscotch. So you had to pull units firm further and further away in order to bring resources to the table. It took a couple days for the resource pipeline to turn on in both cases. But, when it did, there was a huge outpouring of material, of support, of love, of patriotism, that frankly, enormously helped the responders and I think it may have helped support the families, as well. In my lifetime, I can't remember another event where I felt that we had come together so much as a country. Very, very different than where we are right now with the bickering and partisan divides. I just hope it doesn't take another disaster like 9/11 to bring us back together as a people.

As we moved more into the recovery, we were able to continue to stabilize the building. In the case of the Pentagon, we continued to have collapse. So, the building area itself was unstable. With the situation in New York, it continued to be just an enormous rubble pile. And dealing with that and the difficulty and the continued. The continued hope all the responders that there was somebody that they could pull out, that somebody they could save, because you know for the first response community, these were their people, these were their brothers and sisters. And if anyone has an opportunity to go to the memorial down in New York City, when you look at the names, you start to see whole families of folks that were in both the fire department and the police department that were killed on that day. And what we tried to do is as a country is make sense of what had happened. Certainly, tried to figure out what we could do to ensure our safety.

Sort of pushing down the road a little bit. I mean, this is where the seeds of the Department of Homeland Security came from. The idea that as a federal government, we missed something, we did not connect the dots. We didn't talk to each other. But, at the local level too. There was already a lot of talk going on about how and why were communication so poor? Why was it that the police department - they knew that the building was coming down, but they weren't able to get that message over to the fire department. It really pushed a fundamental change in how we approach big scenes. And the idea of a unified command that brings all of these services together under one umbrella rather than separate commands is, I think, one of the most important pieces that they came out of 9/11 and when you layer on the fact that we started to develop national standards for incident command systems and for incident management, and we really started to take seriously the idea of training for catastrophic events, particularly terrorist, catastrophic events. These are all the outcomes of what occurred.

Levulis: You mentioned in describing the response as it pertained to the air zone “unprecedented.” You mentioned members of a fire department stopping to get a map to figure out a nearby area. Had you or any of your fellow emergency responders, during that time received any sort of training that would have prepared you for something like that day?

Griffin: Yeah, they actually did and for folks that are listening, going, “Wow, what is wrong with them?” This was before smartphones, I'm going to age myself and folks who are maybe a little bit older, there were no smartphones, there wasn't GPS in the vehicles. So, this idea of “Why did you stop for maps?” Because, we were still using paper maps then. I can already see some quizzical looks and it's really funny. You know, I teach freshmen and I love teaching freshmen. And they weren't born on 9/11. So, sort of explained some of these, some of these issues like, “Wow, OK, why didn't use your smartphone?” Well, it was still a decade away. As for training, yeah, we actually had quite a bit of training and not only that, we had quite a bit of work on interoperability that was done in the capital region. Because of Washington itself and the uniqueness of Maryland and Virginia and the way it's split, we had spent an awful lot of time, particularly in the fire service, working on things like mutual aid and how do we start to cross train. We already started to think about how we created interoperability in the 800 megahertz radio system. You know, it's interesting to note that Loudon at the time we were just setting up our brand new radio system. So, we had boxes of radios that we hadn't deployed yet. So, what we were actually able to do, we were able to take those radios and get them programmed for the Arlington channels and actually send them down with them. So, there were some points of good fortune. But, the urban search and rescue teams, particularly the urban search and rescue team out of Fairfax is, frankly, if it's not the best in the world, and I know the folks in Miami and Los Angeles and in Israel are saying, “Oh, no, no, no," but, the Fairfax team is really excellent and they did a lot of joint training with Montgomery County and us as well. So, we went into it with an understanding of and a willingness to work cooperatively and work under another commander. For the folks in law enforcement, in defense, because of laws that there are local laws that that sort of impacted law enforcement's ability to work across jurisdictions, it was a little bit more difficult. A lot of those laws have been changed, though, to allow the same type of cooperation. And again, we prepared for mass casualty events, because, we have so many events in Washington. You know you have millions of people coming to an event, there's no way that there aren't going to be a lot of people getting sick or getting hurt. So, in that respect, we were relatively well-prepared and I think that was part of what allowed the incident command system under Arlington to really stand up quickly and efficiently.

A little known fact and after I left Loudon, I actually went to Arlington and ran their 9-1-1 center and their new Emergency Management Department. One thing that I think is just interesting, the day of 9/11 there were actually two shifts of dispatchers in Arlington, because there was a training. So, while it was a shift because normally you know you don't staff emergency operate at 9-1-1 center for a huge event. I mean, you staff it for everyday numbers. There would be no reason to up-staff on 9/11, 2001, but there's actually training going on that day. And all of the supervisors for the 9-1-1 center and another crew of 9-1-1 operators were there and they were actually able to come into the floor and create the redundancy that allowed for the type of interoperable communications in the bringing in of additional units. And again, some of these things you can't plan for, they were just lucky on a very unlucky day.

Levulis: You mentioned something that I wanted to note, is that you're teaching higher education students who were not born on 9/11, as you mentioned. Obviously, that was such a professional experience and often personal for you and I'm sure members of your faculty, as well. Does that make teaching 9/11 any more difficult having to explain everything surrounding it which for other generations, you haven't had to do?

Griffin: Honestly Jim, it's taken me a long time to talk about 9/11. I mean, it's the 20th anniversary and this is one of the first times I think I've talked comprehensively about a lot of my experiences. My kids have heard some of it, but I haven't told everything. It was an enormous scar on the folks that were there. I'm sure if people wanted to analyze me, it's PTSD and they're probably right. I mean, it's something that's ingrained in my head. When I smell cement dust and fire...there are certain smells that trigger memories back. But, what that does for me, though, is that it drives home why the college is so important. Why it's so important that I'm in Albany. Why we as a nation need to train this next generation of emergency managers and cybersecurity specialists and homeland security specialists. Because, the new generation thinks differently, they act differently, but we need to pass the mantle to them to try to keep our country as safe as we possibly can. At the same time, part of my responsibility is to try to teach our students, not just the history of it and the impact, but how to think about it, how to think about the secondary and tertiary effects of such an event. But also weave in what makes us special as a people. How do you have security and civil liberties? How do you have intelligence and privacy? I mean, at times these are opposing forces or at times we've been willing to give up some civil liberties in order to feel like we have a sense of security. So, I look the college and the campus and particularly the diversity at UAlbany...that we as a faculty are doing an incredibly important work, in that we don't know which of our students is going to be in a leadership position that is going to potentially have to respond to the next 9/11 or 9/11-type event, but we want them prepared. We want them mentally ready. We want them to be able to understand the shoulders of the leaders that they're standing on. But, how important their abilities are to keeping our community safe. It truly is a labor of love. And when you talk to our faculty, you will get that sense.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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