Twenty years ago, our country experienced the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2001.
Whether you witnessed the attacks firsthand or watched them unfold on television from thousands of miles away, the harrowing sights and sounds (and, for some, smells) of the tragic events of that infamous day are indelibly imprinted on our national collective memory. Everyone knows where they were on the morning of 9/11, a day that changed our country and world forever.
It also had a lasting impact on the law enforcement community. The attacks were the deadliest incident ever for first responders — nearly 400 law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency personnel lost their lives over the course of that horrific day and the ensuing two decades.
As we reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we honor the men and women who showed remarkable courage in the face of terror. Their ultimate sacrifice is a testament to their unwavering dedication to their chosen profession and their duty to protect and serve.
A day of tragedy
On 9/11, as thousands tried to escape the destruction and devastation that befell lower Manhattan, first responders rushed in. Within minutes of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, police, firefighters and paramedics arrived on scene and began evacuation and rescue efforts.
As millions watched the events unfold in New York, terrorists crashed a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, killing 125 military personnel and civilians, along with 64 people aboard the plane.
Less than 15 minutes after the attack in Virginia, in New York, the south tower collapsed in a cloud of dust, and less than 30 minutes later, the north tower crumbled to the ground. Before the towers fell, first responders heroically saved more than 25,000 lives amid the chaos. But 71 officers from seven local, state and federal agencies were killed, along with 343 New York firefighters and more than 2,000 civilians.
A short time before the north tower’s collapse, Richard Guadagno, an officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, died aboard United Flight 93, along with 43 others, when the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, after a group of brave passengers and crew stormed the cockpit to regain control from the hijackers. Their selfless actions saved many lives and may have thwarted an attack on either the U.S. Capitol or the White House, according to the 9/11 Commission.
Rescue and recovery
After the attacks, rescue, recovery, investigation and cleanup efforts began almost immediately at all three sites. In New York, thousands of first responders and volunteers descended on ground zero to carefully sift through debris, maneuvering the wreckage, unstable piles of rubble, huge fires and sharp pieces of iron and steel to search for survivors. Several people were rescued through these efforts — including Port Authority Police Department Sergeant John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno, whose dramatic rescue is shared in this issue.
As workers continued to search for victims’ remains and clean up in the days and months after the attack, they were exposed to toxic dust composed of more than 2,500 contaminants that surrounded the site and nearby areas for months. According to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, an estimated 400,000 survivors, first responders, recovery workers, lower Manhattan residents and others were exposed to caustic dust and toxic pollutants on 9/11 or during the nine-month rescue and recovery operations at ground zero. Tens of thousands of people are now sick with cancer and other chronic illnesses, such as respiratory problems, skin cancer and leukemia, and many suffer from mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders. More than 2,000 have died as a result of these conditions, including hundreds of law enforcement officers.
Support for survivors
The federal government established the original September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) from 2001 to 2004 to provide financial assistance to those who suffered physical harm or the families of those who were killed as a result of the attacks. However, as more and more responders and survivors were dealing with or succumbing to illnesses and injuries sustained from the attacks and their aftermath, it became evident that the VCF needed to be reactivated to provide compensation for victims who could die decades after the attacks.
In 2011, funding was renewed when President Barack Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — named after an NYPD officer who died in 2006 of respiratory disease contracted from ground zero — which reactivated the VCF for another five years at a total of more than $7 billion. The act also established the World Trade Center Health Program, a federal program that provides free medical monitoring, treatment, mental health services and benefits counseling for 9/11 responders and volunteers. (As of June 2021, more than 80,000 ground zero responders had enrolled in the program.) In 2015, the VCF was reauthorized by President Obama for five more years.
In 2019, NPR reported that the fund paid out about $5 billion to more than 20,000 claimants and had roughly 19,000 additional unpaid claims to address. Due to a lack of resources, VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that it would be cutting payouts by as much as 70%. Sick and injured responders and other survivors were shattered by the news, but it galvanized them and lawmakers to push for legislation that would extend and fully fund the VCF past its 2020 expiration. Responders worked tirelessly to advocate for the passage of the law and advocated for compensation for all survivors, famously sharing emotional testimony to Congress alongside Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who admonished lawmakers for their inaction on appropriating funds for the VCF.
Finally, later that year, President Donald Trump signed into law the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act,” which extended the fund through 2090. The bill is named in honor of Zadroga, as well as FDNY firefighter Ray Pfeifer and NYPD detective Luis Alvarez, who succumbed to their 9/11-related illnesses in 2017 and 2019, respectively. The responders were outspoken in the fight to secure compensation for others like them who were suffering the effects of the attacks long afterward.
The unprecedented events of 9/11 brought immense changes to our nation’s politics, policy and culture, and their impacts are still felt today.
In the wake of the attacks, President George W. Bush announced the “war on terror,” and American troops soon invaded Afghanistan (and Iraq two years later), starting the longest-running war in U.S. history, which spanned four administrations. (As of this writing, troops are in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan.)
Air travel also became a lot stricter. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created two months after the attacks to protect all of the nation’s transportation systems. The TSA assumed responsibility for security at U.S. airports and deployed a federal workforce to screen all commercial airline passengers and baggage. The TSA has since employed the use of advanced technology, like biometrics, full-body scanners and explosive detective systems, to check travelers and thwart attacks.
Another significant development was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002. The DHS, composed of 22 government agencies, is a cabinet-level department responsible for counterterrorism, border security, administration and enforcement of our immigration laws, detection of and protection against chemical, biological and nuclear threats, and more. While largely focused on combating threats originating from abroad, in recent years, the DHS has shifted its attention inward. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in June that domestic extremists posed more of a threat to the country than al-Qaida, the Islamic State and others.
The attacks also brought widespread changes to American policing, adding a whole new dimension to law enforcement. According to a 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS Office, it became apparent after the attacks that a large degree of responsibility for identifying terrorist threats rests at the local level. “Experience now tells us that the first responders to any future incidents will most assuredly be local police, fire and rescue personnel,” the report stated. “Therefore, law enforcement officials must now strategically rethink public security procedures and practices in order to maximize the full potential of their resources.” After the attacks, local agencies created whole units dedicated to counterterrorism, developed terrorism prevention and response plans, increased communication and collaboration with state and federal law enforcement agencies and task forces, engaged in new response training and tactics, capitalized on technological advancements to address terrorism and much more.
Each year on the anniversary of 9/11, millions commemorate the fallen in public and private memorial ceremonies throughout the nation. Many of the victims’ loved ones make the pilgrimage to ground zero, where an annual ceremony is held at the 9/11 Memorial to pay tribute to the fallen and honor survivors. Family members of the victims read aloud the names of those killed in the attacks and moments of silence are observed for when each of the World Trade Center towers was struck and fell and the times corresponding to the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93. At sundown, the annual Tribute in Light art installation comes to life — two vertical columns of light that represent the twin towers illuminate the New York City skyline.
We will never forget the lives taken from us that day and the lives lost to illness in the decades since. We will always remember the valiant efforts of the law enforcement members, firefighters and other emergency first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to save countless lives. You were and will always be heroes.