REFLECTIONS ON 911 AND GROUND ZERO

"Old Glory" posted over Ground Zero 15 years ago
“Old Glory” posted over Ground Zero 15 years ago

When you get a little older, your nose supposedly grows larger along with your ears, you get up in the night more often, and you can’t keep up with the “young you” that could go for days and days without much sleep or other care. Some of us who get older (me) look like raisins topped by a little tuft of cotton. I recently had a little cancer removed from my face and you really can’t tell very well where the scar is because of all of the other wrinkles!

Developmental psychologists share that as you get a little older, it is natural for you to reflect on your past life. Did I live a good life? If you have lived a good life, then as you age, you are content to look back at a life well lived. No matter whether you’ve amassed a lot of wealth or have become very powerful, it is important to pass on your story to the next generation. As senior member of your tribe, you are in the stage of life when you reflect, the Lord willing, on a life well lived. Men go from warrior, to king, and then to philosopher. So, that is why I am going to write down a memory or two for you this evening. I wanted to share a couple of memories from my time surrounding 911 fifteen years ago. Hopefully some of you will enjoy sharing in my stroll down memory lane.

Foremost in my reflections I wanted to keep front and center, the gallantry of those who not only risked their lives, but also ultimately gave them willingly on behalf of their beloved brothers and sisters who were in crisis. To the men and women of the New York area fire, police, and paramedics, my utmost respect to you as we commemorate fifteen years since that fateful day that changed America. In addition to these heroes in the NY Metro area, I also wanted to pay respect to all of those who responded to the Pentagon and to the PA crash sites. God bless you all for your service and dedication. Of course, not to mention all of those innocent victims who perished and left behind so many grieving family members and friends. My thoughts and prayer go out to these who have gone yet another year missing their beloved ones.

On September 11th, I was working out in the AM at the U.S. Marshals Service gym in Norfolk, VA. The television was on and I saw the first report of the plane colliding into the first tower. Maybe it could be an accident? Then there was the report of the second attack on the remaining tower. No accident for sure as we saw the shocking video that is etched in our collective memory. The first thought that came to mind was of course the shock of so many innocent lives being senselessly snubbed out but then the reality that I just saw on television the first act of the next World War. I think that is what happened as we are still fighting the war on terrorism to this day. The reality was that the war was already being waged against us but we really didn’t become engaged in it until 911.

On 911 at the Norfolk office, we went on alert status with the federal courthouse in Norfolk. A man of Middle Eastern dissent seemed to be testing the security at our front entrance but the man quickly left after the security force at the front checkpoint picked up on his odd probing. As we increased our security around the courthouse the enormity of the event sunk in. Numerous USMS assets and personnel were being deployed to sensitive duties around the country.

One of those duties was taking over security for the major U.S. airports. The day after the attack I was ordered by then Chief J.H. to respond to the Reagan National Airport in Northern Virginia along with other DUSMs from the Eastern District of VA. President George W. Bush gave the USMS authorization to do this. It was unusual to say the least when I went with other DUSMs to the security office where we introduced and identified ourselves. After doing this, a copy of the executive order from GWB was given to them and we said in effect, “we are taking over security here.” The airport officials were very understanding and the reality was that we were merely an augmentation of what they had in place. We just beefed things up with our presence.

The next day we began high visibility patrols of the airport. However, during the day, I received a call from the USMS national peer support team leader L.K. that I was needed to assist the USMS office in Manhattan in regards to conducting critical incident stress debriefings of their personnel. Many of the peer team members could not make it there but because I was on the East Coast and relatively close to Manhattan, I was given the call to respond with other team members who were getting there however they could. So, I packed my gear up and began my drive to Manhattan in my older model Chevy Tahoe. This Tahoe had a heavy, lifted suspension so it sat higher in traffic than most vehicles as well as had a very fast idle. So, it was interesting and sometimes humorous to maneuver in stop and go city traffic because the braking was always exaggerated to get it to stop. This vehicle was a civil seizure from a criminal and the USMS drove many of these vehicles in this time frame.

As I drove the Tahoe North towards Manhattan, I began noticing the solitary pillar of smoke rising seemingly as a memorial to the tremendous loss of innocent life that had occurred only days before. I could see it from a great distance and it took hours before I finally was able to get to Manhattan. Whenever I responded to similar crises in years to come, I always used my travel time to pray for those that I was going to serve. I was doing that on this occasion. Upon finally going over the bridges and through the tunnel to Manhattan, I ended up at Ground Zero after checking in with our staff there.

It is hard to express the emotions that I felt when I arrived there. It took me back six years earlier when I had been a part of the USMS response to the domestic terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Building. Viewing the Murrah Building bomb blast site for the first time was a profound experience filled with negative awe as I observed the devastation to the Murrah Building and the other damage surrounding this site. But the swath of destruction that leveled this part of the Manhattan skyline was far greater than that of the Murrah Building site. Mangled steel, concrete, glass, extended for many blocks in every direction. It was unsafe wherever one would tread as glass and other debris were still falling from the damaged buildings. So all who worked in the site wore hard hats. Busy at work were many in “bucket brigades” trying to sift through many seemingly inestimable mountains of debris. Could this ever be cleaned up and sifted through? I ended up on several occasions in one of these “bucket brigades.” The chaotic nature of the scene was still evident in the first few days as there was still hope that survivors would be found amidst the rubble. This reminded me of the pace of the Murrah building response in OKC. There was always hope of finding yet one more survivor in those early days. But as the days went on, it became apparent that it was changing from a rescue mission to a recovery mission. I won’t say more about this aspect of things save that many of these dedicated recovery workers suffered emotional trauma from their duties in this regard.

Ross with USMS partner at Ground Zero
Ross with USMS partner at Ground Zero

Even though I spent several nights on bucket brigade duty, this was not really my mission in Manhattan as a peer support team member. The team had come to support the USMS family there in Manhattan and eventually in other areas of NY as well. We had come to aid our brothers and sisters in need. We were there to help them in any practical way that we could. A lot of what we did was to check in with everyone to let them know we cared for them. We were there to show good will and to really let them know in practical ways that we loved them. One of the ways that we did this was to conduct team debriefings of those who had similar experiences. It was healthy for them to do this in order to process and come to grips with what they had just been through. They would also gain new insights from the experiences and feelings of others that they listened to in these group settings. We also had the opportunity to check in “one-on-one” with those who might have experienced something more out of the ordinary than others.

Often, we would just hang around the office and chat with different people we encountered. All the while, the office was sending DUSMs down to Ground Zero as part of the recovery effort there. So, it was important for us to check in with the DUSMs when they came in after their shifts. After hearing of many of their experiences, it was apparent to me that many of the DUSMs that I got to know were heroes themselves. Many of them had responded on foot to the twin towers and began actively rescuing those who were injured at the scene. One of these valiant DUSMs was pictured on a national magazine cover carrying a victim in his arms. Other DUSMs told me of their response and their heroic actions. Several DUSMs described how they barely escaped with their own lives as the second tower collapsed and the debris flowed like a deadly river down various streets. One DUSM described how he had never run faster in his life than when the collapse and ensuing debris from the tower was literally chasing him down the street. Another DUSM felt fortunate to escape the debris flow by quickly ducking into the door of an area business only to observe the lethal stream of debris flow past where he had been standing only seconds before.

Many of the administrative employees told of their harrowing journeys of trying to make it home by whatever means they could. Many spent hours upon hours getting home by walking long distances and by enduring many other hardships. Many knew people who were victims and they were sharing their grief with us. So, even as I listened to their stories my respect grew for my colleagues in NY. Many were heroes in my book and it was my honor to be amongst them. In the years after 911, I would have the honor to serve there on a number of other occasions as crises would arise. Aiding my brother and sisters in NY was one of the high points of my career. They might not remember me, but they sure did leave a lasting impression on me.

I want to reflect on one aspect of being a career LEO (law enforcement officer). Other than on special ceremonial functions, it was rare that anyone was happy to see you. A notable exception to this was the “court family” whose members always were very good to work with. Not only did they appreciate us but we also appreciated the great working relationships that we had with them. This “court family” included judges, probation officers, public defenders, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clerks, and many others. However, aside from this great working environment, whenever my partners and I hit the street, people were by and large not happy to see you and really did not appreciate what you were doing. This extended from my local position as a Portsmouth, VA police officer to my time with the U.S. Marshals Service. Oftentimes, as a local police man/detective we would find ourselves trying to make arrests while glass bottles rained down upon us or while a mob would encircle us.  At one massive riot scene in another city, we were greeted by a mob of thousands who were chanting “fight the power, f*$@ the police.” In smaller measure this would be the reception that we would get from many in the high crime communities that we worked in even though many would work with us secretly to combat crime in these areas. We were always doing the work of the citizens yet the citizens that we were encountering were the unruly and criminal element.

With the USMS, when going to talk to a person you knew was harboring your fugitive or when someone was obstructing your path to the fugitive who was hiding inside, the contempt of those we came into contact was always palpable with some form of epithet being thrown our way. However two notable exceptions to this normal contempt was my duty at the Murrah Building and my time working at 911. In Manhattan, I remember that whenever a fire truck or police car drove by, people were actually cheering. On several occasions, I actually had a citizen pick up the tab for several of my meals. I was pleasantly surprised by the shift in public sentiment that I felt there. They actually liked seeing my partners and me for once.

Another memory for me was of the sorrowful postings that were scattered along the fences and walls. In addition to these were many makeshift memorials of lost loved ones. Many of these notes were in the early days where people would post notices trying to find missing loved ones. “My loved one is missing, please help me find him/her” was the gist of most of these notes with photos of the loved one included. But as mentioned earlier, there were also touching memorials to departed loved ones that were posted as well along with flowers. In many of the squares of Manhattan, there were candle light vigils being held for the victims and their families.

In some ways, this evil attack on our people had some positive effects. It was as if we discovered anew the intrinsic value of every human being. It did not matter what community our brother and sister were from. They were of great value. As Manhattan and the rest of the country suffered through this tragedy, we realized our need for each other, we realized our need for community, and we realized anew our appreciation for God. “God bless the USA” was the refrain often heard wherever you went. In addition to rediscovering God and our brothers/sisters, there was also a renewed respect for the American flag. You would see it wherever you went. It was adorned on buildings, on fire trucks, and EMS vehicles. It was everywhere. It also covered the caskets of the many heroes that perished in the attacks as they were honored at their funerals. This reliance of our flag as a rallying point was evident as one surveyed Ground Zero and what would be posted on top of a mountain of debris where people were furiously burrowing? The Stars and Stripes were prominently displayed as a rallying point; as an inspiration to all who were working. The love for our country was evident even as the rescue workers tediously worked amidst the rubble.

One of many posted notices during the 911 time frame.
One of many posted notices during the 911 time frame.

So, even in these dark moments, “Old Glory” inspired all. My comments about the American flag are all the more poignant when in recent days, some who shall go nameless, disrespect our flag that has inspired so many selfless heroes through the years. In many crises when our country was facing down tyrants and fighting for its very existence, the flag was our rallying point. How poignant it is on 911 to honor this hallowed national symbol even as we honor those heroes who gave all to include the police officers who perished. Ironically, American heroes who died protecting the flag died so that those of lesser character have the right to disrespect it. Their freedom to disrespect the flag was bought with the blood of countless martyrs who defended it and the people it represented.

Even though these malcontents rail against our beloved flag, the vast majority of Americans who love “Old Glory” have the right to register their contempt for those who would sully our flag by their public and disgraceful conduct. Yes, our country is not perfect (not that I agree with the odd and anti-law enforcement stance of these high profile celebs). But I love this country and “Old Glory” that is its standard. So, I register contempt for you who dishonor the “Stars and Stripes,” the flag that motivated and inspired so many on 911 fifteen years ago. The flag that covered the caskets of so many fallen heroes you defile by your ill-conceived actions. The very ones that you complain about died en masse fifteen years ago for their brothers and sisters. On this day, you who will remain nameless and others like you with short memories, will not even give a second thought to the sanctity of this day and the blood that was spilled by all these heroes you defame.

Shifting gears, as I get closer to the end of my recollections, other special moments for me were taking part in a memorial service for the USMS family. I had the privilege to sing a song that I had written in memory of a USMS family member who had perished in the Murrah Bomb blast. How appropriate it was to sing this song at a memorial service held at a catholic church in Manhattan! After weeks in Manhattan, I rotated out of my duty there and drove back to Northern VA where I served as part of a protection detail for several more weeks. It was a long and monotonous detail with long hours. Of course, by this time I was really missing my family.

I remember the excitement of finally being free of the protection detail and able to head back home in October. As I drove back from Northern VA, my route took me past the pentagon for the first time. This was another profound moment as I was able to survey the devastation wrought for the first time. Heading South on 95, I was greeted by a great travel day. It was very sunny and the fall foliage was ablaze in color. This vista was in vivid contrast to the mangled steel of Ground Zero and the dim confines of the protection detail. The trip sailed by and I was reunited with my young children and wonderful wife. I was honored to have been part of the response to Manhattan. I was honored to serve amidst heroes. No, these men and women do not haul in multi-million dollar bonuses. They are real people whose characters are worth much more than any sum. Those cut out of the same cloth as the heroes of 911 still serve today in cities, counties, and towns across our great country. I am thankful to have served with them and now that I am retired, they are always in my thoughts and prayers.