September 11th is worth remembering

September 11th is worth remembering
© Courtesy Kevin R. Brock

Each year, just prior to Sept. 11, 2,977 little American flags are neatly pushed into the front lawn of Loudoun County High School in Leesburg, Va., by the student body. The students lead this initiative — the school administration is not involved. This year, for the first time, most in the senior class were born after that terrible day in 2001.  

It is a touching display carried out by young folks with no memories of a day that still doesn’t seem that long ago, especially to the family members of the nearly 3,000 souls who perished in New York City, Washington and Shanksville, Pa. It is remarkable that a group of our youngest citizens, who have no direct memory, nonetheless strive not to forget. 

For the victims’ families and friends, for first responders, and for many, many Americans, early September brings resharpened emotions.  

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All those immersed in the events of that day have their own unique memories that return for an annual visit, little startling remembrances floating below the larger horrible story that was almost too much to take in. Small recollections that animate how we processed that day and how we recall it now.

Mine were obtained from inside the FBI’s command center conference room, where the FBI director and deputy director sat that morning along with executive staff absorbing a rapid, boiling stream of information — some of it accurate, much of it not. There is a fog that always accompanies the early stages of a crisis event, there’s no denying it. Crackling Hollywood dialogue and snappy, instinctive decisions are not real life. The fog has to be methodically worked through.

We were originally told by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) representative detailed to the FBI command center, who darted into the executive conference room with his notepad bobbing in front of him, that eight planes had been hijacked. In an effort to sort out the truth, all non-military aircraft in the U.S. then in flight had been ordered to the ground immediately, like 6-year-old soccer players when a teammate is hurt. It was startling and daunting news and, thankfully, not true.

Shortly after, United 93 was positively identified as the only remaining hijacked aircraft and it was on an unmistakable trajectory toward Washington. With a specific target unknown, the director ordered the evacuation of all non-agent personnel at FBI headquarters. The FAA rep now assigned himself a town-crier role, popping his head and notepad into the room every few minutes to announce how far UA 93 was from Washington. This endeared him to no one.

Around that time, another visitor to the conference room informed us that the president had ordered the military to intercept and shoot down UA 93. The room — which, to this point, had been filled with chaotic chatter — fell absolutely silent. The unprecedented enormity of such a decision and its sad, deadly implications pressed down on each of us. The new FBI director, Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE, was the first to speak: “Maybe this would be a good time to say a prayer.”

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Mueller had been on the job for exactly one week. We didn’t know him, and he didn’t know us.  I would have many meetings and conversations with him in subsequent years, and his legacy was to take dramatic turns, but this statement of his — quietly uttered in the raw moments of that terrible morning — is the one I recall, word for word, and will never forget. Leadership has its strongest impact when spoken in humility.

By late afternoon, traditional blocking-and-tackling investigation had determined the identities of all 19 hijackers, and FBI deputy director Tom Pickard held a conference call with the agents-in-charge of the 56 FBI field offices. At one point, Pickard referred to the devastated World Trade Center site as a “crime scene,” a normal investigative phrase. But the assistant director-in-charge of the New York field office interrupted.  

Barry Mawn had narrowly escaped death earlier in the day when the collapsing South Tower plumed through lower Manhattan. “Tom,” he said, rendered as “Tawm” in his native Boston accent, “Tom, there is no crime scene.” Again, silence. We were absorbing and trying to process that which was new and horrible and so different.

Around midnight, I left the building to return home to a Maryland suburb. The smell of a still smoldering Pentagon was in the air. As I approached my home, I noticed on a nearby corner sidewalk the remnants of a dozen or so candles where neighbors had gathered spontaneously to comfort each other, to pray, and to honor the unimaginable number of victims. I choked up when I spotted the candles. I still do at the memory.

My wife and I were inundated with cookies and food from our neighbors as I became the visible connection and conduit for some everyday Americans who just wanted to “do something.” I took the food to work in the following days, respecting their heartfelt, simple acts of generosity and solidarity. We, the American people, are good people. Evil was done to us, but it did not diminish that goodness.

These small but powerful memories that we each possess illustrate a mosaic of bonded experiences, a communion of shared grief, that brought us together in an intense way for a time. It is a comfort that some young people in a small Virginia town have endeavored to keep fresh a remembrance of Sept. 11, 2001. May they never endure something similar.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). On 9/11, he was a special assistant to the FBI deputy director. He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.