As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, members of the Infinite Blue Crew recently compiled their memories from that tragic day. While each experience is vastly different, their sentiment is consistent. Regardless of the stage of life each was in, or where they were located, the sense of uncertainty, uneasiness, compassion and concern for the nation reigned supreme.
In my lifetime, there are very few events I can recall with near crystal clarity experienced by more than just me or my close social group: the Challenger explosion, the verdict of the OJ Simpson trial, and 9/11.
On September 11, 2001, I had just ended an early morning class at Syracuse University in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and decided to get a coffee from the third-story café in the building before going to my next class. On the second-floor lobby, the three large-screen TVs were tuned to news stations just like any other day. Today was different, but I didn’t notice right away as I walked up another floor past a dozen or so people intently focused on the news. I got my coffee and stopped in the lobby on the way downstairs around 8:50 am to learn that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, possibly by accident or so CNN was speculating. It didn’t register to me then that the world would change moments later as I stood in a building where many influential leaders in government had passed through during their education and would go on to decide the response we would take as the events of the day unfolded.
“It is easier to conquer than to administer.
With enough leverage, a finger could overturn the world;
but to support the world, one must have the shoulders of Hercules.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
On September 11, 2001, the world stopped spinning, or so it seemed to many of us. Anyone alive that day can remember exactly where they were when they learned a second plane hit the World Trade Center and realized the first plane wasn’t an accident. The small group of terrorists architected the attack not to only kill innocent people and bring down physical symbols of America, but to leave a psychological impact that would persist far longer than that day. The touch of the “finger” that overturned our world started, among other things:
Twenty years ago, one-third of Americans alive today were either children or weren’t born when 9/11 occurred, Wi-Fi internet was just getting into homes, text messaging was limited to 50 messages per month without overage charges, and the iPhone didn’t exist. Technology has brought us much closer together to better inform us more quickly with both facts and falsehoods. As Alan Jackson’s song “Where Were You” shows, most people watched CNN to see the initial addition of the news ticker that day but didn’t know “the difference between Iraq and Iran.” Our allies around the world jumped in to respond quickly to an enemy we broadly couldn’t identify and didn’t understand the motivations of until a long time later.
To better “shoulder” the administration of counterterrorism, the United States has spent at least $2.8 trillion there since 9/11. We continue to evolve our capability to respond to events in as near real-time as possible as terrorism shows up in less emotionally impactful ways like cyber and ransomware attacks. Beyond that, we must remain diligent as we protect our teams and our organizations from all threats, foreign or domestic, known or unknown, in an effort to stay operationally resilient. The moment we let our guard down, someone will probe the vulnerability and take advantage of it. We owe it to those who have gotten us to where we’re at today and to future generations to carry the torch forward as long and as high as we can.
I was sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot waiting for a co-worker as we were on our way to a software conference. From the moment it came across the radio, I sat thinking about how horrible it was that this accident occurred to this one plane and those poor people. Then, the news came across that a second plane hit, and I sat frozen – unable to process what this meant, what had happened and more importantly, the unknown of what was still left to happen. None of us could have foreseen the horror that unfolded that day as we continued onto the software conference with everyone sitting around a small TV watching in real-time and learning about the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA while not having any answers. The lessons from that day have lived with all of us through our daily interactions both personally and professionally.
From 9/11 to today, we all need to be prepared for the unknown of tomorrow and make sure we don’t take any day for granted, ensure people know how valued they are in our lives, and most importantly know how to reach those loved ones by any means possible to ensure they are safe. The scramble of tracking people down was the other element that sticks with me vividly as the busy signal was heard around the room on 9/11 and everyone was frantically hitting redial. Thankfully technology has matured over the past 20 days with multiple modes of communication via our cell phones (text, call, email) along with social media messaging apps.
Lastly, the unity of people and our country is what I also teach my children about 9/11. It was a horrible, traumatic event that impacted people worldwide, and the outpouring of love and support stood out amongst the tragedy. People were unified in grief and resiliency at the same time and I’m nothing but thankful to all the men and women who sacrificed so much on that fateful day.
The day began as most, our son David who was three, was up early and hungry. Kathy, my wife, was feeding him as I left our home in Schwenksville, PA to my office in King of Prussia. I remember how clear the sky was for a late summer day. The workday started as usual until a colleague notified me she saw a breaking news report of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers. We watched in horror as the national news teams tried to explain what had happened. At that moment no one knew of the gravity of that day. Only moments later we saw another plane strike the second tower. It was then that we all realized that our homeland was under attack.
As the hours unfolded, I thought about the customers that I served in the World Trade Center complex, from Lehman Brothers to Dai-Itchi Kangyo Trust and many others. I thought about having lunch at Windows of the World and visiting with The American Bureau of Shipping on the 91st floor of the North Tower. I thought about people; wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children and precious lives lost or trapped in rubble.
As the day evolved, I saw the attack on the Pentagon and worried about men and women that I had served with. My battle buddy LTC John Fasching was stationed at the Pentagon, I worried for him and prayed for his family.
Surely, 9/11 was a turning point for our industry and profession. We’ve come a very long way; however, I think that we have a long way to go. We’ve benefitted from increased resilience, more attention to world events and increased public private partnership. As we witness the withdrawal from Afghanistan I worry about our future and wonder about the last 20 years.
I was a CIO in higher education in center city Philadelphia when the word spread through the administration building like wildfire. The news was playing in the waiting and lounge areas.
We did not have live internet news feeds as prevalent as they are today, so getting live, and updated information was difficult. Immediately following the first news broadcasts that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, the reactions of those around me, including myself were that it was overblown, thinking it was really a private plane. The concept of an airliner full of passengers, for any reason crashing into the towers was incomprehensible.
There was disbelief that an event of this scale could ever happen. The series of events that followed with the additional attacks on the second tower, The Pentagon, and the field in Shanksville, PA just exacerbated the shock, and the reality of this being a terrorist event was now settling in.
Not only was internet news in its infancy, but so were Smartphones. No one was able to get a landline or place a cell call due to circuit overloads. As the day progressed the uncertainty and panic increased. This was compounded with speculation reported as news that all bridges were closing as a precaution. With myself and over half my team living in New Jersey, this was a major concern.
Business came to a standstill. My office was on the top floor and overlooked Market Street in center city Philadelphia. By noon, what should be a bustling downtown was eerily quiet.
Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, and Incident Management was under my responsibility, however there was no plan for this, nor centralized communication system. Crisis communication plans were forgotten, and leadership was making emotional, sometimes conflicting decisions and communications. Chaos ensued as everyone focused on getting to their families.
It’s easy to apply hindsight to how the event was managed. I did not have annual exercises to leadership tabletops. Those would have helped provide structure when stressed. The adoption of Smartphones and News apps would have negated a large amount of speculation and confusion. A Mass notification system and scenario-based messages for all stakeholders would have also lessened the chaos and strengthen the much-needed visibility of leadership.
September 11 is a distant memory for some people, and others, it is an excerpt in the annals of history. I know that it helped to shape my career and profession. I decided that never again, would I have that feeling of helplessness and being unprepared. Today, I am a proponent of planning, testing, and communication tools, so that regardless of the event, we can persevere.
Sound asleep. I had just come off a midnight shift at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. I awoke to a non-stop ringing of my phone and buzzing of my state police pager. I was groggy when I picked up the phone only to hear a frantic voice on the other end order me to turn on the television. I immediately snapped to, jumped out of bed and turned on the TV. The news media was just reporting the second plane crash into the twin towers. I hung up the phone and watched intently at what was unfolding. I was now very wide awake.
My attention turned to my work pager that was still buzzing constantly. Multiple recall codes for the state police executive protection unit with 911 behind them. I called in to my office and they shouted, “get here immediately.” I dressed out, jumped in my unmarked unit and sped to our office at the governor’s property.
The property was on lockdown, but we had a big challenge in front of us. The Governor was out of state, aviation was grounded, and communications with my counterparts and our pilot were very spotty. While we were securing the property, first family and making arrangements for the Governor and his traveling detail, I clearly remember this sinking and overwhelming feeling of “we don’t have enough information” and “what’s going to happen next?”
Interestingly, while dealing with my state police duties, I wore a couple of other important hats that required my immediate and simultaneous attention.
I was an Assistant Chief for a local fire department and while scrambling to get to the Governor’s Mansion for my law enforcement duties, I was on the phone with my Fire Chief suggesting that we go in to lock down of all facilities, change our response posture, put backup staff on standby and coordinate with local police. We simply didn’t know what was happening or how bad it would get.
The other hat was my family. As the security/safety professional in the family, I received dozens of calls on what’s happening and questions of what to do next, only for those to be emotionally exacerbated by the constant dropping of the calls due to communication system overload.
While we’ve evolved technologically in an age of information on demand, the same challenges hold true today. When an event that ‘shocks the consciouses’ occurs are we really prepared? Do we have a means to obtain good information (without overload)? And can we communicate effectively to determine and execute our courses of action?
Reach out for a no obligation, initial conversation.