Local Officials Respond to Terrorist Attack
(from Maine Townsman, October 2001)
by Douglas Rooks
It was late afternoon on Sept. 11 when the Portland Police Department got a call from the FBI. Agents were in possession of a bag left behind by an alleged terrorist who hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston and crashed it into the World Trade Center in New York that morning; the agents then traced it back to the Portland Jetport.
As the whole world shortly knew, Mohamed Atta, who is thought to have flown the plane, and Abdulaziz Alomari, who helped lead the attack, flew out of Portland on an early morning flight after spending the night at the nearby Comfort Inn in South Portland.
Even though more than two weeks had passed when he was interviewed, Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood recites the events as though they had just happened: "We got a call asking about the security area of the airport and whether there were videotapes. It was clear they [the FBI] were focusing on U.S. Air Flight 5930, which left that morning." By evening, FBI agents in Portland had identified the two men on the security tape, and took it with them. Portland police kept a still photo of the frames, which allowed them to identify the hijackers; the FBI has still not commented publicly on their identities.
Later, police were asked to look for a Nissan Altima with a Massachusetts license plate - a rental vehicle used by the hijackers that was soon impounded and towed to the State Police Crime Lab in Augusta.
Many Mainers were stunned that the hijackers had used Portland as their jumping-off point, and alarmed by reports that the two men had been seen repeatedly in Portland during the summer and in the days just before the hijacking. While many Portlanders are still convinced they saw Atta and Alomari, Chitwood said that despite "intensive investigation" of hundreds of leads, police have turned up no actual evidence that the two spent significant time in the area. "We had reports that they were living here, that there was a girlfriend, but to date we haven't substantiated anything," he said.
Chitwood admits that a stronger Maine link is possible. He said "It's a one way-street" with the FBI, and, as far as getting any information back, "It's a black hole." But so far he doesn't see any further connection to Maine.
Asked if the events of Sept. 11 have shaken Mainers' confidence in public safety, he said "It's shaken our complacency and raised a lot of security concerns. Never in a million years would you expect anything like this to happen here. This is a city where there was one murder last year, and none the year before." Yet the vulnerabilities of a city like Portland are apparent. "We have open borders," Chitwood said, "and 500,000 people pass through the airport every year."
DOING THEIR JOBS
At the World Trade Center, nothing impressed many of those escaping from the twin towers as much as the sight of firefighters coming up the same stairways they were using to flee. As those seeking safety left the building, rescuers were flooding in to help those trapped, and to fight the fire.
Yet Maine firefighters say their New York counterparts were not doing anything extraordinary, that they responded just as firefighters always have. "In light of what people knew at the time, they were doing just what they should have," said Jon Marshall, deputy fire chief in Ellsworth. "They probably didn't know just what the risk of collapse was. We know that no building is going to stand forever through a fire, but we'd never consider not doing our jobs."
Marshall said that when the adrenaline starts flowing in a hazardous situation, "That's when the training takes over. It becomes second nature. We don't forget safety - that's when it becomes even more important." But risk is an ever-present part of fighting fires, he said. Firefighters approach such life-threatening situations by telling themselves, "It's not going to happen to me."
Asked whether the New York firefighters, police and rescue workers were heroes, Marshall said, "I don't think they consider themselves to be." Firefighters, as a rule, "are self-effacing and humble. They get paid to do what they do." Marshall recalls seeing a cartoon showing a firefighter carrying New York City on his back, and observed, "They certainly appreciate that, but it's not how they see themselves. They're not going to pound their chests and proclaim themselves to be heroes."
Robert Lefebvre, fire chief in Gorham, agrees. "We do that every day of the week. The only real difference is the size of the building. Every time we go into a single-family house with wood trusses to look for people, we know there's a danger of collapse. On a smaller scale, it's the same kind of danger."
The scale of what happened, though, is of course on every firefighter's mind. "When we lost five firefighters in the Worcester [Mass.] warehouse fire, it sent shock waves all over New England," Jon Marshall said. "It's hard to imagine losing 300 all in one day." Yet even this loss "pales in comparison to what happened to all those thousands of civilians," he said. "Firefighters know that this is a dangerous job, that there's a chance you won't come home. But for everyone else, it was a normal day at the World Trade Center. There was no way to prepare for what happened."
READY TO BE READY
While one of the early impressions of the catastrophes of Sept. 11 was that America was caught completely unprepared, that wasn't entirely true. For the past 18 months, Maine public safety departments, along with their counterparts elsewhere, have been engaged in large-scale training for what the federal government has termed Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMD.
In fact, the morning of Sept. 11, several teams were engaged in a simulation of an attack of a tour ship off Rockland, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. "It only ran a few minutes," he said. "All the people involved had to leave to go to work on the real disaster."
Widespread training for response to major terrorist attacks got its impetus, ironically, from the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. A law passed by Congress in 1996 mandates training, and provides some funding, for drills and planning down to the regional level in each state. Maine's WMD team is commanded by Lt. Gerald Dunlap of the National Guard, operating out of Waterville. Later this month, State Police will appoint a lieutenant to be in charge of "special services," including anti-terrorism activity, McCausland said. The new leader will work with the National Guard as well as local officials, and with the Maine Emergency Management Agency, which organizes most of the disaster drills. Both positions were authorized long before Sept. 11, and the timing of their startup is coincidental.
Gary Fortier, a city councilor in Ellsworth, is vice chairman of the State Emergency Response Committee, or SERC, and has been active for several years on the oversight board that's working on a wide variety of new initiatives. He sees the WMD training as a logical outgrowth of previous efforts to train for hazardous materials accidents and toxic waste spills, which have been largely successful. Maine is now much better able to call on the resources of police, fire and rescue services, as well as industry officials, to contain and neutralize chemical spills and factory mishaps.
While WMD training is far less developed, Fortier isn't sure it would ever have covered something like the airliner attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. "We were all flabbergasted. We never imagined there were people who were so sick of mind that they could actually do this."
The experience of such training has been sobering, said Robert Lefebvre. After hearing from training experts, he said, "There was no question about if it would happen, but when." In fact, although "There's no question that the loss of life was enormous and horrific" on Sept. 11, it could have been even worse. "When you consider what could have happened, with chemical and biological weapons, the number of deaths could have been hundreds and even thousands of times greater," said Lefebvre, who added that "this certainly doesn't lessen what the country's going through."
While he's pleased that the federal and state governments are "taking a serious look at training," Lefebvre thinks the process "should have been on a faster timeline." All emergency departments should be trained, he believes. "Are we ready?" he asked. "Not by a long shot."
And though the recent events will no doubt spur renewed activity, how prepared each community is may depend on "how serious town officials are," he said. It's a matter of providing adequate money and equipment. Asked whether this will be forthcoming, Lefebvre said, "I don't know."
Other recent changes in training techniques will affect responses to all emergencies, and not just terrorist attacks, according to Saco City Administrator Rick Michaud. Training for emergency response involving hostage situations or shootings used to emphasize "local officers securing the perimeter and calling for the [state] tactical team," he said. Based on this system, Saco had been looking into forming its own tactical team with other nearby communities, including Biddeford and Scarborough, in an effort to reduce response times. Lengthy waits in such situations, such as occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado, have drawn considerable criticism. In just the past few months, state police training has switched its emphasis to local officers taking immediate responsibility for such situations. "A lot more local police officers will be putting their lives on the line," Michaud said.
Saco is one of a handful of Maine communities receiving a Designated Project Impact grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is intended to help towns and cities plan to become "disaster-resistant communities." In Saco's current plan, it identified flooding - the overflow of Sawyer Brook in 1997 caused $500,000 in damage - and erosion at Camp Ellis as the most likely threats. More recently, security at the harbor - a possible terrorist target - has been added to the priority list, and the Coast Guard is being asked for help.
In early October, the city council voted to add a "reverse 911" system. Such systems, already in use in Scarborough and a few other communities, permit police departments to send automated phone calls to residents in selected neighborhoods during an emergency, which could potentially include a terrorist attack.
STRUGGLING TO COPE
While public safety professionals react differently to some events than others, none of them are immune from the emotions of the moment.
"We were sitting around the station house the next days, saddened by what had happened, and talking about it," recalled Jon Marshall. "It was an awesome and overpowering thing, and to some extent we're still in shock … it points up that we can plan all we want, but it's the simple things, the little things, that can haunt us."
While none of those interviewed said the events of Sept. 11 would change their outlook on their jobs, they agreed that many other things will change.
Americans will not look on air travel the same way for many years to come, Gary Fortier said. "Security is so tight now that this is probably the safest time to fly in the last 20 years" - which doesn't mean that American will flock back to airports. "It reminds us of how vulnerable we are, as a race." Yet people will also come to realize that "You can't protect from every conceivable danger. Otherwise, you'd spend all you time hunkered down in a corner of the cellar. You have to go on with your life."
One thing Chief Chitwood hopes will change is the information-sharing practices of federal agencies. While he understands some need for secrecy in the present investigation, he also notes that information known to the CIA and FBI about some of the hijackers was not shared with appropriate authorities, such as airport security. "I don't have to know about what's happening in Boston or New York, but if it concerns Portland, I need to know that," he said. "After all, if there's a suspect at large, who's the most likely to have contact?" Chitwood said, "I have 150 officers to put on the streets. There may be five FBI agents in the whole state of Maine."
But will such traditionally secretive agencies really be willing to take on local law enforcement agencies as partners? "I think they have to," he said. "This is a whole new game. I don't think they have a choice."
Even 150 officers may not be enough for all the increased local responsibilities, however, Chitwood added. He currently has 19 officers working overtime, seven days a week, at the Portland Jetport. "For awhile, you can do that. But after two or three months, it starts to take its toll." The effect on local budgets is significant, too.
When Gov. Angus King announced that National Guard troops would help provide security at the state's five commercial airport, Chitwood said they were needed more urgently along the waterfront, where large cruise ships dock and oil tankers arrive daily - potentially attractive terrorist targets. Ultimately, he thinks the federal government will have to take over airport security, where the requirements exceed the ability both of local law enforcement and the airlines.
Maine has other vulnerabilities, Bob Lefebvre said - from the long border with Canada to the Brunswick Naval Air Station and Bath Iron Works. "When you look at all those factors, we can't exempt ourselves from danger."
Still, a smaller, more rural state has its advantages, said Jon Marshall. "I'm darn glad that we live in Maine. I never would have wanted to be in New York City anyway. Fire burns the same way everywhere, but there's a big difference in the local environment." When he and his colleagues in Ellsworth thought about volunteering to help at ground zero, he said they realized that "There are more firefighters in New York than there are in all of Maine - there are more firefighters there than there are people in the city of Ellsworth."
LIFE HAS CHANGED
It didn't take him long to realize that "Our lives had changed," Mike Chitwood said. "When you walk through the Old Port, the restaurants are empty. People are staying home, and traveling less. In time, you think it will go back to normal, but what happens if there's another incident. What then?"
It will take Americans a long time to get over the events of Sept. 11, Chitwood said. "It's almost like we've been raped. We thought it could never happen. Now, a part of our life is gone. Our eyes focus on the TV even when we don't want to."
Portland's police chief, a 37-year veteran with experience in tough inner-city neighborhoods in Philadelphia, says that he sometimes reacts just like every else: "You can feel depressed, shed a tear at what you see, become angry."
After one long day, he turned on the television at home and started watching the world news. After a few minutes, he told himself, "This is nuts," and decided to go back to work. It was 3:30 a.m. He decided, "I'd rather be here, where I can do some good."