News: From My Perspective: Looking Back at the Events of 9/11 Ten Years After
By Larry Rosenberg
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District
I was at my desk with the radio tuned to a local Boston talk radio station when one of the hosts said to his partner, "you're not going to believe this, but some nut just flew a plane into the World Trade Center." I immediately turned on the TV only to watch another plane slam into the second tower – the world was changing with each heartbeat, without notice, without remorse, without regard… and without hesitation I called the New York District and told them (naively) that I was only an hour or two away and could fly in to assist should the initial Federal response team need a hand.
Little did I know I would be on the ground the next day completely engulfed in the consequences of this not so brave new world.
I am the chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers in New England. Looking back I can see that there is no surer test of an individual than the ability to respond swiftly and effectively in the face of an emergency. And this was our challenge when, at 8:46 a.m., on a clear, crisp autumn New York morning, terrorists in a hijacked commercial plane plowed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and turned lower Manhattan into a nightmare world of smoke, rubble and tears. The attack on the South Tower followed 18 minutes later and by 9:21 New York City had closed all routes to and from the island.
While the world watched in horror the cowardly acts of terrorism unfolding in New York, 230 miles south in Washington, at 9:43 American Airlines flight 77 from Dulles to Los Angeles slammed into the Pentagon.
In a New York minute, the lives of all Americans were changed. It wasn’t just the physical skyline of Manhattan, but the psychological landscape of the entire world that was altered forever. We, the New England District, received the mission to establish an Emergency Response and Recovery Office in New York on 9/11 at 11 p.m.
The initial goal was clear, set up a functional operation until our New York offices were reconstituted (both the New York District and the North Atlantic Division headquarters were declared “victim” as a result of the attack). Estimated duration: four to six days (actual 22 days).
Initial implementation of the New York City FEMA disaster plan was based on a Cold War 1962 scenario that placed the FEMA Emergency Operations Center 22 miles from a projected nuclear blast in Manhattan. The FEMA EOC set up operations at the Joyce Kilmer Army Reserve Center in Edison, N.J. The challenge for Public Affairs was to create and implement a centrally managed communication structure that would support the efforts of the Corps as part of the total federal response led by FEMA. But to accomplish that objective, coordination had to be initialized with the FEMA Region 2 and the FEMA EOC Chief of Staff. Within six hours of arrival, coordination with FEMA had been established, promises were made, and the Corps was welcomed into the FEMA Joint Information Center (JIC) at the Javits Convention Center in New York, just 3.5 miles north of Ground Zero.
The most pressing need was to establish communications quickly with the City of New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Corps’ New York District and North Atlantic Division, the media, and the public. Successful coordination with the City and Mayor’s office would be key to the success of the PA missions. To gain the confidence of the City, I began attending the City daily coordination/planning meeting at the Police Academy in lower Manhattan. Additionally, LTG Robert Flowers assigned the New York District’s NY/NJ Harbor Program Manager, Joe Seebode, as the chief’s direct liaison to the Mayor and the City of New York. Within days, the Corps was accepted by the city as a key resource and player in the city’s (and more importantly the mayor’s) communication efforts. By Sept. 14, the Corps had gained the respect of the City by accomplishing a quick coordination loop with USACE for release of information (this would evolve into the Corps/FEMA Daily Media Advisory). The Corps PA ability to balance differing messages with differing audiences and stakeholders was key to keeping my promise to Mayor Giuliani and FEMA to communicate the total federal response message to the media and general public.
By Sept. 15, the key messages and strategies for the Corps role at the World Trade Center were developed, coordinated with FEMA and NYC, and made part and parcel to the FEMA JIC operations that were now being consolidated (from Edison and Javits) to Pier 90. The first of the Corps PA response personnel began to arrive on the 16th to assist the WTC PA efforts.
Meanwhile, in lower Manhattan, Peter Shugert had exited the subway, when he reached the top of the stairs he encountered hundreds of New Yorkers with mouths open staring and crying in disbelief at the gaping hole in the North Tower. Standing underneath the towers on the street three blocks from the Trade Center, he witnessed the second aircraft and explosion of the South Tower. He made his way to the Federal Building six short blocks away but was denied access to the building by the Federal Protective Service -- the building was being evacuated. Peter made his way back to his previous position and took several photographs figuring that photo documentation of the event was essential. When the NYPD said they thought there was a third plane headed his way, the crowd stampeded. Peter, who lives in Brooklyn, made his way along with thousands of others, passing people overcome with emotion and collapsing on the bridge, while the noise of fighter jets could be heard overhead. One third of his way over the Brooklyn Bridge, he turned around and snapped a series of photos of the South Tower collapsing. In Peter’s words, “the Brooklyn Bridge just shuddered as did the souls of thousands of us. We looked on in anger and total shock and disbelief.” He remembers hoping that the jets he heard “were ours, not an enemy’s.” By the time he walked through a warm cloud of particle dust and reached home, the North Tower had collapsed.
There were no digital cameras, imperfect internet access at best, cell phone service in NYC was limited to Verizon (all other cell towers were atop the WTC), and Twitter and Facebook were yet to be imagined. Our challenges were great, and extremely necessary, and my baseline and my doctrine was an Army Field Manual, FM 46-1, Army Public Affairs. The goal, ensure that the public knows that USACE is working in close partnership with the City of New York, the State of New York, FEMA and other federal agencies in recovery and response activities.
• Stress the work that the City, the State and the other Federal agencies have done in their response to this unprecedented event.
• Establish a “one-voice” message concept, ensuring accurate and timely information.
• Handle media per established protocol.
• Develop and provide key agency messages and program descriptions in written format to leadership and Corps employees working at various sites.
Immediately establish strong communication channels with other Federal agencies and section areas within the organization.
• Provide consistent messages to external audiences and coordinate information received with other functions.
• Staff the JIC on a 24-hour basis as the City/FEMA directs or until the situation does not warrant it.
• Stress that the Corps was always available as a source of information, to verify information about USACE programs, or to set up key (previously identified) disaster spokespeople.
• Monitor non-traditional public information sites, primarily on the Internet to gauge public opinion or detect complaints based on lack of information. Be prepared to provide suggested methods to improve communication to the many ethnic and diverse communities within Manhattan. Anticipate potential issues/problems and monitor for trends.
• Ensure the transmission of consistent and accurate monitoring of newspapers, television and radio broadcasts. Make corrections using rapid response. Identify trends and work on strategies with appropriate Federal and City emergency response and other agencies to eliminate or minimize problems that may be developing.
Meanwhile in Little Rock, Arkansas, Bob Faletti was busy signing in retirees and getting ready for the annual Retiree Day celebration when suddenly he heard a news story on the radio that a plane hit the WTC. He (along with everyone else) naively assumed they meant a small plane lost in the fog, probably a Cessna with a student pilot on board. Later reports that a second plane had hit the towers and a third attacked the Pentagon put the situation into perspective. “I felt no different than any other American, I needed to be there, I needed to help – I would drive if I had to,” said Bob. “I reported in to the Pier 90 headquarters on Sept. 18. I turned 54 on my last day in NYC (Oct. 5) as part of the PAO response team. I completed 35 years service on Sept. 11, 2001. I served almost six years on active duty, including two tours in Vietnam as an Infantry Officer. None of that prepared me for the degree of physical and emotional destruction caused by the terrorist attacks on the WTC and Pentagon. I wanted to be a member of the Corps PAO response team because of a strong desire to help those who were directly affected and to help provide the PAO support our engineers and other teams would need during this rescue and recovery operation. I knew that the Engineers and others were going to provide the help needed. I also knew that PAO could be a force multiplier by providing the necessary internal and external communication support.”
Beginning the morning after the attack on the World Trade Center, the entire world’s media attention focused on and was funneled through the City’s OEM Press Center, first located at the Police Academy in lower Manhattan then at Pier 92 in mid-town -- the City’s original emergency operations center was located in the WTC and destroyed during the attack. The OEM itself was set up to have functional areas with representatives from all City offices and many Federal agencies, including the Mayor’s media office.
The Corps NYC JIC Liaison was assigned to assist, and although he was a part of the Corps/FEMA contingent, the position effectively worked directly for the City of New York. The primary responsibility of those at the NYC JIC was to work Corps of Engineers issues. But it also was important that they fill in to assist in answering media queries of all kinds. Those available in the press center, working around the clock, pitched in to handle anything and everything regarding information the City and state and Federal agencies were attempting to either disseminate or, in turn, react to.
Within days, a strong bond of trust and goodwill was built up among the permanent city staff and those assisting from the Corps. There was no doubt that without Corps help, the City would have had a very difficult time handling the sheer magnitude of the information crisis in front of them. In the words of the City’s Assistant Press Officer sometime during week two of the crisis: “You folks are the greatest, and we could not have done this without you.”
The Federal PA augmentation also included FEMA, a Small Business representative and a member of the Red Cross. It was an important cadre that helped the City handles the media portion of the crisis. Members of the Corps contingent had to extend themselves well beyond their own functional areas and answer queries and handle those problems that had more to do with the City’s business than the Corps. A willingness to sacrifice personal interests to serve the more immediate needs of the City was an important development. It had to be sincere; and it had to stand the test of time. It took each of the “outsiders” working 12-14 hours a day over several weeks to establish this goodwill and trust. Once in place, it was indelible and it was critical to future coordination between the Corps and the City of New York.
By week two, the WTC PA Team at the NYC JIC had gone from outside assistance to bona fide members of the City team. The Corps became insiders. Both FEMA and the Corps had the ear of the Mayor’s Office through the Mayor’s press chief and scheduler. It wasn’t exactly privileged status, but pretty close to it. The WTC PA Team was in a position to go directly to various agency chiefs within City government for both information and coordination. This was a crucial advantage that was the Corps’ to use when needed. There was a lot of “sweat equity” built into these important professional relationships.
The WTC PA Team was being referred to exclusively as “the Corps of Engineers” in the context of the overall emergency response. The Mayor and the OEM Chief were constantly conducting “tours” for media and visiting dignitaries and heads of state. The OEM Chief on more than one occasion pointed to a WTC PA Team member wearing the Corps emergency shirt bearing the castle to say, more or less, “We’ve got a lot of help out here on this effort, including the Corps of Engineers.” Also, as ESF-3 duties contracted over time, the ESF-3 presence in the City EOC was removed and Public Affairs were the only Corps of Engineers folks working in the NYC OEM on Pier 92 on a full-time basis.
Meanwhile 5,000 miles away in Honolulu, Hawaii, Larry Hawthorne was awakened suddenly at around 3 a.m. by a call from his daughter in Alaska. “We’re at war, Dad,” she said from her post as an intelligence officer at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. “You’d better get up and turn on the television.” “I tuned in just about the time the second World Trade Center tower collapsed, got dressed and made my way into my office at Fort Shafter about 3 miles away,” said Larry. “It took almost two hours to get through security, but I finally made it. It was a surreal feeling to be so far away from the site of the attack and yet feel so much a part of it. The sense that America is where you happen to be and not a particular place was very strong at that time. I was overwhelmed with a desire to do something, anything, to help. And the one thing that appeared available was to respond as part of a Public Affairs emergency action team when called. I immediately volunteered and a week to the day later of the attacks I arrived at the FEMA JIC on Pier 90 in New York. My job was to work directly with the City's Emergency Operations Center in Pier 92. The activity level was bedlam in the City’s media center, but it gave me a feeling of getting as close as I could to help the victims of 9/11. I literally fielded hundreds of calls from media and the general public during my time there, but my chance telephone conversation to reassure and provide what little comfort I could to a widowed wife of one of the victims is one I will never forget. I’ve worked floods and earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Hawaii, but never have I felt a more compelling human need to help as I did during the World Trade Center response. How lucky I was to have had the chance to play a part.”
Meanwhile America’s attention turned to New York City.
I know I speak for all who found themselves as responders to this first homeland attack in the War on Terrorism in saying there was a passion growing in all of us that we were somehow able to contribute to the greater good by weaving our tales of the real heroes so the American public could have insight into the catastrophe that enveloped Manhattan, the United States, and the entire civilized world. Our world changed at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11 and that passion had spread throughout the Nation. At the time we knew in our hearts that once the terrorists were held accountable our new world would be a better place. We knew because we saw the seeds being planted by the New York firemen and police, by the Corps structural engineers, by the search and rescue teams and by the people of New York – and this is one harvest that continues to be tended. I still feel the passion and I’m still proud to have been part of that moment in time and my mementos are those memories; not of being suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, but of making a small contribution that would grow and become a sense of resolve to ensure those who were murdered did not die in vain.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror; I can take the next thing that comes along.’” - Eleanor Roosevelt
“You ready. Okay, let's roll.”
Sept. 11, 2001
United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco
The USACE WTC Public Affairs Team.
– Justine Barati, Rock Island District
– Bob Faletti, Little Rock District
– George Hanley, Kansas City District
– Lawrence Hawthorne, Pacific Ocean Division
– Larry Rosenberg, New England District (Team Leader)
– Wayne Stroupe, Engineer Research Development Center
– Vince Elias, New York District
– Sue Hopkins, New York District
– Peter Shugert, New York District (PAO)
– Mary Stavina, New York District
– Lt. Col. Eugene Pawlik, CEPA
– George Halford, CEPA (Deployed as Liaison to NAD)
– Scott Saunders, CEPA (Deployed as Liaison to NAD)
– F.T. Eyre, USACE Photojournalist
– David Lipsky, North Atlantic Division
– Lou Fioto, North Atlantic Division