“Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?”
Twenty years have passed since Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for killing more than three-thousand innocent souls in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a rural field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. The two hijacked airplanes that struck the twin towers in New York departed from Boston. I was one of several dozen police officers dispatched to Logan Airport that morning to begin the grim, incomprehensible task of determining the why, the how, and the who behind the attacks.
It has taken some time for me to reflect back on that morning and the days that followed. My remembrances were compartmentalized, packaged up, and stored away in my emotional lockbox years ago. Opening that box and sifting through my notes and reports brought back memory after memory. Reliving the events hasn’t been easy, but I’m sure no different from anyone else who had personal connections to those days and events.
Our collective memories of the attacks and the days that followed should always remain in our hearts. It was truly one of the worst episodes in American history. From the terror and the loss, we learned, grew stronger, and we fought for our freedoms. Remembering our grief and the way we unified as Americans to form our response to this attack, has never been more important than it is today.
The following is a recounting of my best memories of the events. I apologize in advance to anyone who feels slighted because I left out a name or whose personal memories differ from mine.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was primary election day in Massachusetts and before heading to work, I stopped at my neighborhood grammar school to cast my vote. The kids already tucked safely in their classrooms. Several of the PTO mothers lined the entrance to the gym, behind overflowing tables of homemade breakfast breads and desserts, all fairly priced to raise monies for the student activities fund. On my way out, I stopped briefly to speak with the police officer on detail and a few neighbors who gathered on the sidewalk.
It was a beautiful, peaceful, late summer morning. As I drove along the water’s edge on Quincy Shore Drive, I could see a commuter boat crossing the bay, skidding across the flat and shimmering seawater, leaving a rolling white foam in its wake. Planes leaving from Logan airport on the East Boston shore of the Harbor rose rapidly, glistening in the sky as the morning sun reflected off their fuselages. Most of them were heading south or westbound. They hugged the coastline until reaching cruising altitude, then veered inland passing near to New York City and beyond to their final destinations.
At a few minutes before nine, I was listening to the Don Imus show on the cruiser radio. As I passed by the Boston Herald, one of Imus sidekicks interrupted the discussion with news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. The initial report was vague and without much detail. Moments later, Warner Wolf, a contributing sportscaster to the show called in from his apartment seven blocks from the twin towers. In an anxious and worried voice, he confirmed the report and made his best attempt to describe how the smoke and flames were rising in tandem up the side of the building, literally consuming it floor by floor.
Without notice, the station switched from live coverage to pre-recorded blocks of advertising as the newsroom rushed to take an account of what was happening. For those listening, the six-minute break seemed like an eternity.
When they returned to the air, Wolf was reporting on a second loud explosion followed by a huge ball of flame coming from high up in the South tower. The broadcasters, like all of us, were shocked and confused at what they were hearing and seeing.
Fifteen minutes later, I was at work. I parked haphazardly in a tow zone in front of the courthouse and sprinted into the building. As I walked into the office, Lana, our office administrator was sitting at her desk. I asked if she knew what was going on in New York and she said she wasn’t exactly sure, but everyone was watching it on the television in the back room. I walked back to where everyone gathered and joined the conversation. The television chatter was calling it as a terrorist attack. The scene on the screen grew more horrifying by the minute as we watched the fire level increase and large pieces of debris rain down from the building. We would later learn that many of those pieces were human beings who jumped because they had no other choice.
It wasn’t five minutes later when Lana yelled out that I had a call from Major Tom Foley at General Headquarters. “Bill, are you aware of what’s going on in New York?” He asked. “Did you know that both of those flights took off from Boston?” he continued. The best answer I could muster was a “You’ve got to be shitting me Major!” “I wish I was,” he answered, “but I’m not. The Lieutenant Colonel wants you to reach out to everyone in your Unit and have them all head to the airport ASAP. For the time being, we’ll set up in the second-floor detective unit at Troop F. We will team your guys with FBI agents to interview the airline and MassPort employees who had any contact with the flight crews and passengers before they headed out. We know if it’s determined to be terrorism it’s theirs, but for the moment we will all work together to sort it all out. I will see you there shortly.”
I walked back into the room and muted the volume on the television. “That was Major Foley. Those two planes flew out of Boston an hour or so ago. He wants all of us over at Logan now to begin the investigation.
Before leaving the office, we called our loved ones and let them know what we knew, where we were headed, and not to expect us home anytime soon. Our parents and spouses would have to care for our families for the time being. My unit may be heading into the unknown, but their responsibility was more difficult. They had to gather the family together, explain as best they could what was happening, stay calm, and shield the young ones from the gravity of the news. I did not envy them one bit.
As we hustled through Boston and into the Sumner tunnel with blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, the news reports were bleak and getting worse. The FAA ordered all commercial aircraft to land at the nearest airports regardless of their planned destination point. They cancelled all outgoing flights, instructed the airports to quickly evacuate and close, and immediately denied all entrances to the Logan parking garages.
Normally, on a weekday morning, the airport is bustling with tourists and business travelers and the ear-piercing jet engine noise from the airfield drowns out any conversation. Walking from the State Police parking lot into the terminal was eerily quiet. The only sounds of aircraft came from two military jets streaking overhead. Their flight crews scrambled to protect our country and our people from further attack. It was a moment of pride and relief in one sense and yet terrifying in another.
Troopers and Special Agents from several federal agencies arrived at F Troop Headquarters in small groups. Immediately they waved us all through the barracks entrance by the Desk Sergeant and up one flight of stairs to the detective and administration area.
We were all in “hurry up and wait” mode as the ranking State and Federal officers met in a closed conference room where they were briefed with the latest news and intelligence. That meeting would establish the investigative responsibilities, and because it was an inter-agency situation, we had to discuss essentials like flow and sharing of information, interview locations and protocols, and report writing procedures.
While our leaders met, most of us gathered near a television that was set up in the open space. Earlier reports confirmed a third commercial flight thundering into the Pentagon. A fourth aircraft that lost contact with the air traffic controllers somewhere southeast of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania was located after it crashed and exploded in an open field in the small borough of Shanksville. The information overload was unbelievable and impossible to comprehend because we didn’t yet know the source or the reasons behind the planned assault on our country. In the policing world, chaos and uncertainty are everyday occurrences to be dealt with, but none of us had ever experienced anything even close to what we were facing right then.
A trooper assigned to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Unit and someone I worked with for several years, walked over to me. “Dlt, I was just sitting at the secretary’s desk and a call came through.” He said somewhat matter-of-factly, “I don’t know if this has any merit, but the guy on the other end said he was calling from the airport in Philadelphia and his plane just landed. He was just hearing about what was going on and thought he may have a piece of helpful information. He insisted that I know he wasn’t racist or prejudiced, but earlier that morning after he parked his car in one of the garages, he observed a small group of people standing outside the vehicle that was next to his. They were all smoking and speaking in a foreign language that sounded middle-eastern to him. He said they looked at him with some apprehension and he found it unnerving. He told me where he was parked, gave me his registration number and a basic description of the car. I got his phone number and home address. He is local and said he would appreciate a phone call after we found his car.” I thanked him and stuffed the piece of paper with his notes on it into my pants pocket.
As I headed to a meeting of detective supervisors, Major Foley grabbed me by the elbow. “Bill,” he started, “your people are going to be paired up with Agents to do the initial interviews of the people at American Airlines. You made an impression on the Command Staff with the way you folks handled the mass murder in Wakefield at Christmas and they think you are well suited for this mission” I found strength in knowing the Department held our Unit in such high regard and was willing to entrust us with such a significant responsibility.
At that moment, all of the intelligence was pointing towards an act of international terrorism. We knew that was within the domain of the Federal Government, more specifically the Department of Justice, which meant the F.B.I. would be the lead agency and federal, not state statutes and rules of procedure would apply. In State Police speak, our participation would be an “assistance rendered to another law enforcement agency.” Our role was to offer support when and where needed; not the way we usually did business, but certainly understandable under the circumstances.
The growing number of arriving officers created a buildup in the detective and administration offices creating impossible working conditions. Quickly, we made the necessary connections to free up the largest ballroom at the Airport Hilton hotel and re-configure it to fit our needs as the Central Command Post.
As the majority of the officers filtered over to the hotel, the detectives from my Unit stayed behind. They met with their federal counterparts to game plan for the interviews.
The note from the trooper was burning a hole in my pocket and needed attention, but my Unit might be unavailable for hours and this needed attention now. A colleague who was a Lieutenant in the Attorney General’s office was with me in the meeting and when it ended, I handed him the note with a quick explanation of how it wound up in my hands and a comment about the urgency of locating the vehicle. He sent a few officers from his narcotic section to the parking garage to locate the vehicle.
At four minutes past ten, the live television coverage had a fixed focus on the intense orange flames and dense black smoke still billowing from both Towers. At five minutes past ten, the South tower appeared to shiver slightly, before plummeting downward with a ferocious roar as one-hundred and ten floors collapsed onto one another like dominoes. The entire building and the thousand or more people still inside, sank into the foundation at the blink of an eye. What had taken more than two years to build crumbled into to a pile of construction rubble and human remains in ten seconds.
Twenty-three minutes later, the scene repeated itself as the North Tower plunged into the ground. Virtually any hope for those trapped in stairwells and still trying to flee the buildings was gone. Thousands of people who left airports on morning flights or went to work and meetings at the World Trade Center were now dead. There are no words to describe those jarring, incomprehensible moments. Suffice it to say these sights remain forever seared in all of our memories and will never go away; nor should we want them too. This was the most vicious attack on Americans on American soil in history.
In the area that surrounded the collapsed buildings, thick, choking gray smoke, heavily laden with ash and debris cascaded through the streets like a tsunami, enveloping, and destroying everything and everyone in their path. Men and women in suits and dresses, blue-collar workers in jeans and tee shirts, mothers and nannies pushing carriages packed with children and groceries, all ran for their lives seeking cover wherever they could find it. Cameras captured survivors emerging from the hazy fog encased in thick white soot. They stumbled side-by-side trying to maintain their balance and regain their momentum as they ran for their lives and safety.
The initial interviews of the airline employees provided important, but heartbreaking information. Virtually every one of the American employees knew members of the flight crew and felt devastated by their heartbreaking loss. We learned that two of the attendants on the flight were able to call into the Boston office to report, the hijacking, the terrorist stabbing of members of the crew, and that the cockpit was forcefully breached. The crewmembers didn’t have the passenger’s names, but they did provide their seat numbers. On the final call, the attendant reported the airplane was in a rapid descent and was “all over the place.” Her final words were “Oh my God, we are too low!” We learned that she was the mother of two small children and the wife of a State Trooper. She had begrudgingly accepted the shift as a fill-in for another attendant who had called in sick.
As the day progressed, the investigative momentum grew rapidly. Bits of information gleaned from interviews recreated the scenario from earlier that morning as people arrived, checked their luggage, and boarded the flights bound for Los Angeles and San Francisco. Several of the passengers on the American flight began their day in Portland Maine boarding a smaller aircraft timed to arrive and connect with the Los Angeles flight. As airline personnel in both Boston and Portland Maine scrutinized the flight’s manifests and boarding lists, they found passenger’s names tied to luggage in Boston that didn’t make the flight deadline and remained behind at the airport. Once opened, the bags presented a treasure trove of intelligence that led back to Portland Maine and beyond. The lieutenant from the Attorney General’s office grabbed me and said the guy’s information about the car in the garage was spot on and they recovered a rental car. The FBI agents were with them now. They were attempting to identify who leased the vehicle depending on what they learned would consider whether a search warrant would be needed to search the car.
At the Hilton, the Command Post and assignment, and reporting protocols continued formalize as leads requiring further investigation were pouring in. The hotel crew had set up two of the largest projector screens I had ever seen; great for a sporting event but devastating to watch the repetitive, looping video of the planes flying into both buildings along with their subsequent collapse into piles of debris.
Food and beverages were set up on massive tables. They urged everyone to eat because we didn’t know how the day was going to unfold and there might not be another opportunity to have a meal. For the most part people either declined the opportunity or picked away at small portions. No one had an appetite.
There was plenty of available help, actually too much help, and for the moment, little to do. As people gathered in small groups to talk and renew friendships, some realism trickled into the conversations. The manifest for the San Francisco flight had the name of a woman trooper known to all of us. My detective captain’s son worked for a financial firm in one of the Towers, and he wasn’t answering his phone. My nephew worked in a building that was part of the World Trade Center complex and my mother told me he wasn’t answering his phone, and the word started to spread that one of the flight attendants was married to a Trooper. The list of personal connections to Boston was growing and it seemed everyone knew of, or somehow connected to someone that either worked in the Towers or was on the American or United flights.
Mid-afternoon we learned that the ballroom adjacent to the Command Post was being set up to accommodate the airlines. Their personnel needed to meet and connect with the families of their employees and passengers who were on board the west coast bound morning flights. They too were scrambling. Setting up the room and creating private spaces to break the news and comfort family members was one critical step, as was reaching out for grief counselors and members of the clergy to come to the hotel and support their efforts.
As they gave us this information at a hastily assembled supervisors meeting, the room fell still. We all knew that the moments ahead were inevitable, but that didn’t mean we were ready for them. I had been investigating deaths for more than fifteen years, so I was familiar with the environment that notifications create. That didn’t mean it was easy or routine, anything but. Death notifications are the most difficult part of any police officer’s job and while in these cases we weren’t delivering the news; the families would feel our presence, as we stood by to assist if and when needed, or if requested.
You could feel the sting of the words that pierced the hearts of everyone in the room, and it wasn’t a good feeling. The families and loved ones of the hundreds of victims from the Greater Boston area would soon be arriving either alone or in clusters. For a majority of them it was only a few hours earlier that they had shared a warm goodbye embrace and maybe a kiss with their mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, significant others and roommates and bid them safe travels; never, ever believing that the moment would be the last one spent together.
Until now, the victims and their families were nameless and faceless. The shock of the events wasn’t easy to digest, but it was bearable and we could compartmentalize it as necessary. Viewing the deceased can be unsettling, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the trauma that comes with the initial meetings and discussions with families and loved ones.
What we had been watching and hearing on television was surreal and impossible to process. We knew it was all true, but it was indirect. We were in Boston. We weren’t in New York or Washington or in a field in Pennsylvania. We couldn’t yet personalize or feel the directness of the attack. Until this moment, we were at a distance.
Once we spread the news to the other officers, they all recognized the solemnity and importance of what was to come. They discarded their newspapers and coffee cups, several moved into one of the smaller meeting rooms adjacent to the Command Post. Many moved their conversations to a different area away or outside the building where they could continue without concern of being rude or disrespectful to the families.
The family members started to arrive by late afternoon. They posted uniformed troopers at the hotel entrances and at the bottom of the extravagant staircase that led to the mezzanine level and the ballrooms. Their purpose was to welcome and support the families while turning away the media and others who didn’t need to be there. This is when and where the harsh but true reality hit all of us. Seeing the grief-stricken faces of parents and spouses and children was devastating. It is something you can imagine, but never be prepared to accept. Death notifications are agonizing moments. Fortunately, most officers rarely have to deal with them. Although more attuned to the setting, it doesn’t lessen the effect or the lasting memories that come with them for homicide detectives.
Policing is our profession, and we are all proud and thankful for the opportunity to serve and protect our communities. However, at the end of the day, it is a job. It is what we do for a living, but our title doesn’t define who we are. We are human beings first. We are not robots. We cherish our families, and loved ones and fiercely defend them. We are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and our parent’s children. At our core, we are every day, ordinary people. Today was one of those days when we were eyewitnesses to unspeakable tragedy and evil. We knew we needed to soldier on and live in the minute because that’s what our oath of office demands. We needed to put our personal feelings and emotions aside and focus on the demanding tasks at hand. To a point, most of us could do that, but only to a point.
As the folks arrived on the concourse and passed by on their way to meet with airline officials, the floor became eerily quiet as conversations muted, or even stopped out of respect. What can you say or do beyond a nod or some quick eye contact and maybe a smile to a child with no choice, but to be there?
History showed me there is no way to predict or understand how anyone will react or grieve upon hearing of a family member’s death. On this day, every emotion was on display. Some were stoic; others seemed in a trance, staring straight ahead with no peripheral vision, or hearing. There were quiet tears, open-wailing, and spontaneous outbursts of anger. Some passed by us on their way to the conference room with a smile and a nod and left minutes later completely destroyed.
Witnessing each family’s devastation brought out our compassion and empathy to be sure, but it also tested our thoughts of humanity, despair and our mortality. This wasn’t an academic exercise, it was life and death, and you couldn’t turn your back and make it disappear. It came with a significant dose of helplessness and despair.
At eight o’clock, as the shade of night darkened the outside sky and our earlier adrenalin rushes faded into exhaustion; we took stock of what we still needed to do that evening, and started to cut people free to go home to their families and loved ones. To hug and kiss them and tell them how much they loved them. Everyone would be up early and back at the Command Post by eight o’clock the following morning.
The Unit Supervisors stayed behind and gathered for a final briefing and discussion of how we would proceed the next morning.
The luggage left abandoned at the terminal and the car in the garage would ultimately prove to be the Rosetta Stone of the investigation. At least as far as the flights from Boston were concerned. There was a treasure trove of small but connecting and informative information emerging from both.
In the car in the parking garage were papers with Arabic writings, a copy of the Koran, along with car rental forms and hotel room receipts that led investigators to nearby Newton. Those discoveries lead to interviews, records checks, surveillances, and tactical room entries. We learned the murderers had voracious appetites for pizza, gentlemen’s clubs, and escort services.
In the bags that didn’t make the flight connection from Portland, they found navigational equipment used by pilots to make calculations related to weather and wind conditions. There was a manual for simulator flying Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft. There was also a large, serrated knife, in what appeared to be a Will and a passport in the name of Mohamed Attah.
Attah bought a ticket for American Flight 11 and his seat assignment was one of the seats that the flight attendant named in her phone call from the plane moments before her death. Special Agents started a background investigation on Attah and rapidly unearthed dozens of travel documents, credit cards and other records and receipts that showed he had been in the United States for months and was one of those trained as a pilot at a school in Florida.
Each interview added something to the overall narrative and produced information that led to other people and locations. The puzzle was slowly coming together and if an explanation existed for the day’s atrocities, we would discover and develop it through the investigation in Boston. Not with new high-tech equipment, or embedded informants, but the old-fashioned way- knocking on doors, talking to people, and leaving no stone unturned.
By the end of the day, we identified most, if not all, of the terrorists on the two flights and in-depth, historical background investigations began on each one. The information gathered would explain and establish each of their histories, travels and assignments while in the United States and abroad. They would also lead to the people they connected with during their time here.
Morning dawned early following a fitful night’s sleep. On the day of any tragedy, particularly where there is a death, understanding the realities of the moment and responding professionally is instinctive. Absorbing the gravity of the situation and the aftermath is another reality, that brings with it a pile of different emotional reactions that tends to seep in over the next several days.
The steady barrage of distressing media reports was mind-numbing. Estimates were that close to three-thousand people were either confirmed dead or unaccounted for. First responders were shown searching through the remains of all three scenes with cranes, heavy machinery and their bare hands, desperate to find any survivors. Video from the World Trade Center showed dozens of fire trucks and police cars parked close to the towers, thoroughly destroyed during the collapse. In many cases the people who responded in those vehicles were among the dead and missing. Hundreds of off-duty firefighters and police officers had self-reported to the initial calls for help, and many had perished during the collapse. The early reports were that over three-hundred NYFD firefighters and more than sixty NYPD and Port Authority police officers were deceased or missing (the final count was three hundred and forty firefighters and seventy-two police officers). Simply incomprehensible and impossible to digest at the moment.
Everyone reported back at the Hilton to follow-up on overnight leads and information generated from the investigation. The Boston F.B.I. Office supplemented their core team with special agents assigned to smaller satellite offices throughout New England. An additional contingent arrived from the Washington office later in the day. Our command center was only dealing with the Boston and Portland part of the investigation. The leadership team at their headquarters in Washington was pulling together the information on all four aircraft crash scenes and centralizing all of the investigations into one large one national case.
Day two at the Command Post had a slightly different feel; not exactly comfortable, but we had a better grasp of where we were, what we knew, and what direction we must go from here. We still needed to bring some new faces up to speed, but other than that, we were prepared to go forward.
The procession of devastated family members and loved ones continued throughout the day. By now it was evident there were no survivors from either plane. The scenario wasn’t any easier to stomach or accept, but at least the folks knew the situation and the outcome as they headed to the ballroom to meet with airline personnel, grief counselors, and clergy.
As the week progressed, the investigation advanced and was coming together as more pieces to the intricate puzzle fit together. There was still a lot of legwork to do but as additional Special Agents joined the case, the need for our presence and assistance diminished. That was welcome news for all of us. Come the following Monday, with the exception of several troopers assigned to Federal task forces and statewide detective units, everyone was freed up to return to their regular duty assignments.
For those of us that lived through that horrific period in our history, now is as good a time as ever to not only reflect upon it, but to take stock of where we stand today. In the aftermath our military responded with great force. They found and fought our enemies and won the battle, however, the war against terrorism is not over; it will never end. 9/11/2001 was our nation’s wake-up call and a view of what was to come. We must remain ever vigilant to protect our people and our land. The greater and very current question is do we American’s still have the resolve and the courage to fight our enemies to protect our freedoms. In twenty years will we still be the leaders of the free world? We can only hope; but hope alone is never a successful plan.
Five years ago, the Dean of Students at a small college in Massachusetts sent out a “never forget” message to the student body a few days before the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks. They were invited to attend a brief flag raising ceremony on the morning of September eleventh in remembrance of those who lost their lives that fateful day. A half dozen students responded and stood solemnly with their hands over their hearts as the flag was raised and then lowered to half-staff. Afterwards, they shared their personal remembrances of the attacks. They had none. They were only three-to-five years old and only knew what they learned from others and in school. More than a third of our current population were less than five years old in two-thousand-and-one. They don’t remember. They only know what they have learned from others at home and in school. No matter how difficult, those of us that do remember must keep the painful memories alive, so our future generations learn, react, and never again suffer through another terrorist attack on our shores.
I’ll close with a quote from President George Bush from a speech he delivered three months after the terrorist attacks.
“In time, perhaps, we will mark the memory of September 11th in stone and metal, something we can show children, as yet unborn, to help them understand what happened on this minute and on this day. But for those of us who lived through these events, the only marker we’ll ever need is the tick of a clock at the 46th minute of the eighth hour of the 11th day.”
Photo Credit: Michael Foran, Wikimedia commons.