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Monday, November 29, 2021
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State of the First Responders: A Witness to Terror on September 11, 2001

The FBI had learned through on-the-ground experience what al-Qaeda was capable of doing and what lengths those bent on the destruction of the United State of America would take to attempt to destroy us.

To tell the story of being a street agent in the FBI on September 11,, 2001, we will first have to go back a few years. This is a personal story and does not reflect the experiences of all FBI agents nor does it detail all of the changes within the FBI following 9/11.

This is the story of two FBI agents assigned to the Washington Field Office, I (Tom) and Jean O’Connor. As a new agent joining the FBI in 1997 I was assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Jean graduated the FBI Academy on September 11, 1998, and was assigned to a healthcare fraud squad. Prior to joining the FBI, Tom was a police officer in western Massachusetts for 15 years, leaving the department as a detective sergeant working narcotics. Jean was a banking executive running an audit department for a local bank for over 12 years.

After landing at the Washington Field Office, Joint Terrorism Task Force (WFO JTTF), I began working cases in both international terrorism and domestic terrorism. The investigative priority for my squad was following up leads for the Timothy McVeigh bombing trial and running down any international terrorism leads related to cases like the Khobar Towers and Lockerbie Pan Am Flight 103 bombings. The JTTF was also the first line for any potential threats to the D.C. area from both international and domestic actors.  Transitioning from being a police officer working narcotics to working terrorism cases was a steep learning curve. I was lucky to have some the most knowledgeable counterterrorism agents in the Bureau as my mentors.

The Washington Field Office was one of four field offices with an extraterritorial responsibility, where squads on the National Security Branch (NSB), renamed the Counterterrorism Division, traveled the globe working international terrorism cases. The ET squad, as it was known, worked some of the most high-profile cases in the Bureau. The old joke was “Criminal Branch makes headlines, National Security Branch makes history.”  Included in these rapid deployment teams were members of the FBI’s Evidence Response Team (ERT). Several members of the ERT were on the JTTF and became friends and co-workers. When a major event took place they packed out for a bombing or other acts in which the U.S. had an interest or were requested by the host country to assist in the investigation. I dreamed of becoming a member of this team. I joked that I could carry their bags as a straphanger if I could go!

Dreams come true. Just raise your hand. In 1998 I applied for and was accepted onto the Washington Field Office’s ERT. My training began and my gear was issued. I received so many mandatory shots to fill my yellow card I felt like a pincushion.

In May 1998 Jean received her orders to attend the FBI Academy in Quantico. As Jean concentrated on her studies at Quantico and assured her aim was true with the FBI-issued pistol, I continued to learn my new trade at the FBI Field Office. On Aug. 7, 1998, I was working out in the office gym and watching the ever-present TV news. Two bombs had been detonated in East Africa outside U.S. embassies in both Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.  The scenes were horrific. Another agent in the gym said, “Hey, you’re on ERT right? Have a good trip.” I showered and went up to the fourth floor where the JTTF was housed. The squad room was really active and the boss was collecting passports. We were sent home to get our clothing for what we were told would be a monthlong deployment. Within hours we were waiting at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for our military transport to Kenya.  Again, the office nurse was there topping off our shot cards with exotic shots for things I had never heard of and hoped I would never get!

Arriving in Kenya the Evidence Response Team members went directly to the bombing scene in downtown Nairobi. As we pulled up to the chaotic scene I looked up at the blast damaged and destroyed buildings. I had never seen anything of that magnitude. I swore to myself that I would continue to work counterterrorism issues and be part of the Evidence Response Team for the totality of my career. Two hundred and twenty-four people were killed in these two bombings. Twelve U.S. Citizens were killing in the Nairobi bombing. More than 4,000 people were injured. The evidence collected was used at several trials and in the indictments of Osama bin Laden.

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Tom O’Connor and Jean O’Connor at the scene of the Pentagon after the 9/11 attack. (Photo by Jennifer Hill)

The team arrived back in the Washington D.C. area in early September of that year. Jean was scheduled to graduate from Quantico on Sept. 11. I hoped not to miss this event and we were lucky that the team made it back just in time. At the graduation I handed Jean her FBI credentials flanked by Director Louis Freeh. A week before I had given Director Freeh a tour of the blast-damaged U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. We had now become close friends … OK, that’s a stretch.

In 1999 the WFO ERT deployed twice to Kosovo to investigate war crimes in a country torn apart by a civil war, which included a genocide by the forces under Slobodan Milosevic. The WFO Team and teams from Pittsburgh and Cleveland processed hundreds of graves to determine the cause and manner of death. All were from homicides, blunt-force trauma, gunshot and explosives. These two deployments to a war-torn country showed me how civilized people could be led down the road to unspeakable atrocities. This was the first of several deployments to active war zones in an effort to find the truth through forensic evaluations and investigations.

In October 2000, Jean and I were driving into the office from our home in Virginia. This commute took about an hour for a total less than 20 miles. It is a good thing we get along.  We made it into the office safely; Jean went to her squad and I went to the JTTF. At 7:30 a.m. it is usually pretty quiet on the squad. People arriving for the day and getting a coffee while making plans for the day to come. The interesting part of being on the JTTF and the ERT is that you never know what your day will hold. On this day, Oct. 12, 2000, the squad was anything but quiet. The ERT members who had arrived at work were all gathering at the squad supervisor’s area. SSA Jimmy Rice, one of the best bosses I have ever had the pleasure to work with and for, pulled me aside. He explained that reports were coming in that a U.S. Navy destroyer had been attacked in a place called Aden in the country of Yemen. Jimmy advised that an ERT was being put together to deploy with assets from both the Washington Field Office and the New York Field Office. New York had the ticket on all things “Osama bin Laden”-related following the 1993 World Trade Center attacks and the bombings in Africa. Jimmy advised that I would be the Team Leader for the ERT’s deployment to process the bombing scene aboard the vessel.

Following the bombings in Africa and the deployments to Kosovo, the FBI had developed a system for deployments called the Rapid Deployment Teams (RDTs). Major field offices in D.C., N.Y., L.A. and Miami housed these teams made up of ERT members, investigators and other specialists. The RDTs were responsible for regions of the world. At that time WFO and New York were responsible for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Once again our teams scrambled to put a load out package together and get our personal gear in order for a monthlong deployment. The teams met at Andrews Air Force Base and the office nurse made sure our arms were swollen for the ride and we had enough malaria medicine to get us through the job.

The teams landed at Aden International Airport and were greeted by an imposing Yemen military, who unlike the Kenyans were pointing their guns at our plane instead of helping us offload our gear. There are a million stories about this deployment, but this is not the time nor the place. Our teams eventually made it to our hotel, which would become our command center. A forward team made it to the ship and found that 17 U.S. sailors had been killed in the attack by two suicide bombers in a small boat. The blast had blown a hole in the side of the ship 40-by-40 feet. The ship’s crew, under the command of Captain Kirk Lippold, was doing amazing work keeping the ship afloat. This would prove to be no small task. We learned that five of the deceased sailors killed in action had been removed from the ship along with 37 injured sailors. Twelve of the missing sailors were somewhere onboard the tangled debris of the ship. The FBI met with Captain Lippold and explained that our ERTs had experience in difficult remains recovery and that this was part of the Evidence Response Team duties. Captain Lippold would be there by our sides as the teams made the recoveries. The team that did the recoveries was what I personally consider the “A Team”. Agents I had traveled with to Africa and Kosovo and knew they had the mental strength for this difficult task. Agents Kevin Finnerty and John Adams and I had worked some difficult scenes; this would prove to be one of the more difficult. Agent Garrett McKenzie had one of the most difficult and important jobs of photographically capturing the recoveries. Our partners from NCIS were invaluable in helping the team navigate the interior of a Navy ship. All of the missing sailors were recovered and identified. In the highest honor of my career, Captain Lippold asked the team to place U.S. flags on the body bags of each recovered hero. These sailors, along with a Marine security guard killed at the Nairobi Embassy, would be some of the first victims in the Global War on Terror. Sadly, they would not be the last.

I have spent 1776 words (interesting number) in building up to the events of September 11, 2001. I wanted you to understand the amount of work that had been done by agents and professional staff from the FBI and our JTTF agencies and international partners in the fight against al-Qaeda. The FBI had learned through on-the-ground experience what al-Qaeda was capable of doing and what lengths those bent on the destruction of the United State of America would take to attempt to destroy us. I was still not ready for what was about to happen.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Jean had reported to Quantico for training as a new member of the Washington Field Office Evidence Response Team. I made my way into the field office and onto the JTTF squad for the beginning of a new day. As I said before, it is difficult to plan your day as an agent assigned to the JTTF. The WFO JTTF was one of the larger JTTFs in the FBI. At the time there were probably 10 agencies assigned to the Task Force. All the major players: MPD, USSS, DSS, Fairfax County, U.S. Capitol Police, and a few others. That was about to change.

When the first plane hit the Towers, reports came in that it was possibly a small plane.  Maybe a tourist plane and a bad day for several people. But, another day in NYC where some crazy stuff happens. When reports started coming in that it was a commercial airliner, that changed the game. As America watched the second plane hit the towers everyone on the JTTFs around the country knew we were under attack. The JTTFs in NYC and WFO knew who was behind it. It would be our jobs to prove it. As we were getting the teams ready to move toward N.Y. to assist with the events in that city, we received a call from an agent who was with the D.C. Fire Department conducting and participating in training. SA Chris Combs had been a firefighter and he called back to the squad to let us know there were reports that there had been an explosion at the Pentagon.

FBI Agent Scott Stanley, a former Fire Department Medic and part of the RDT Medical Team, and I knew that the place we did not want to be was inside the Washington Field Office getting caught up in important but not on-the-ground tasks. We did what we train others not to do: we self-deployed to the Pentagon, and made it to the Pentagon within minutes. When we arrived our worst fears were realized. The military was pulling victims from the burning building; fire departments from across the area were arriving on scene. A triage had been set up on the lawn outside the area where American Airlines Flight 77 had been flown into the building.

As some of the first FBI agents to arrive on scene and knowing this was going to be an enormous crime scene, we went to work from the trunk of my Bureau car setting up an FBI “on-scene command post”. We called back to the Washington Field Office and requested all Evidence Response Team assets be deployed to the south parking lot of the Pentagon. The word we got back was that due to the evacuation of Washington, D.C., it would be several hours before full assistance would be able to reach the Pentagon. Agents from across the region including the Washington Field Office, FBI Headquarters and Quantico began arriving on scene. Jean, who was attending Evidence Response Team training at Quantico along with ERT members from across the country, was told to stand down at Quantico until a decision was made as to where they would be deployed. Jean and another agent from the Washington Field Office ERT knew that their team was being deployed to the Pentagon.  They, like Scott and myself, broke protocol and got in their Bureau cars and sped toward Washington, D.C., on I-95. Along the drive the Virginia State Police assisted by leading the way toward the Pentagon. As Jean drove north on 95 she monitored the radio traffic between the field office and the on-scene commander. She must have really known we were in trouble when she heard my voice filling that roll.

As agents arrived on scene we set up for line searches on the lawn outside the point of impact. American Airlines Flight 77 had entered the building at 9:37 a.m. As the plane blasted through the first-floor level and exploded inside the building, the force sent debris from inside the building out onto the lawn. This included office furniture and large airplane parts and other debris. (Conspiracy theories would say that a C-130 had dropped plane parts. Jean and I along with the rest of the first responders and military inside the Pentagon shake our heads at the sheer madness of those who believe in the conspiracies.)

“We did what we train others not to do: we self-deployed to the Pentagon. When we arrived our worst fears were realized.”

 

Cameras were issued to agents and professional staff photographers to document items that were being collected. We cleared the lawn area of evidence and debris as we knew this area would become the staging area for continued search-and-rescue efforts as well as a long-term crime scene and victim recovery command center. It was during this work on the morning of 9/11 that the teams were ordered off the lawn next to the building as Arlington County Fire had noticed a shifting in the building. All rescue efforts were halted and everyone was ordered away from the building and either onto the highway or into the courtyard inside the Pentagon. This action was not met with great support as we all were set on getting our jobs done inside the building, potentially saving lives. As we grumbled about the decision, we watched the building above where the plane had entered collapse.  The decision to evacuate the building and area in front of the building saved countless lives.

A short time later, all efforts were again halted. A flight that was being tracked by radar had gone off view. The flight had been heading toward Washington, D.C., and was initially 8 minutes away from the city. As I stood with a makeshift command group on the lawn, an official from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority held a radio for all of us to hear.  The flight was now only four minutes from potentially arriving in the D.C. area and was still off radar. It was unknown where the flight was headed, only that it was last heading in the direction of D.C. Everyone on scene was ordered to take shelter under the overpass of Interstate 395. It was there that I crossed paths with Jean for the first time that morning.

The damage to the interior of the Pentagon was so severe that FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (US&R) teams from across the country were brought in to shore up the structure so that teams could more safely enter the building. Firefighting continued inside the Pentagon for several days and is the subject of the book Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11. Evidence Response Team members worked alongside the US&R teams by documenting the area as they located victims during this process of firefighting and building shoring structures.

 

The FBI Evidence Response Teams from several FBI offices across the country augmented by multiple federal, state and local law enforcement agencies would methodically clear the interior of the Pentagon. The evidence recovery operations immediately shifted to two shifts. The overnight shift would run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. with team leaders overlapping.  Myself and SA Doug Edmonson oversaw ERT operations during the overnight shift while SA John Adams and SA Mary Collins-Morton and SA Jeffrey Bedford oversaw operations on the day shift. On the night shift we operated four to five teams of eight entering the building and clearing the interior of all debris, evidence and victims remains. Jean would serve as one of the team leaders for an operational team working inside the building. Teams worked in coordination with the U.S. Army Old Guard, who were tasked with mortuary affairs. As victims were recovered by the FBI Evidence Response Teams, they were removed from the building in a very honorable ceremony involving the U.S. Army and the FBI teams. A temporary morgue was set up in the loading dock area of the Pentagon.

Further sifting of the debris from inside the building was running 24/7 in the north parking lot. As an example, on one night shift we removed 72 dump trucks full of debris to the north lot for further review. Over the next three weeks these teams worked to recovery the victim remains, find potential evidence and sift through the debris. A warehouse was set up where potential evidence and other badly damaged debris could again be reviewed and processed as needed. This warehouse operation continued for months following the turn-over of the damaged portions of the Pentagon to the U.S. military.

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FBI agents Scott Stanley, Tom O’Connor, and Jean O’Connor at the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks. (Photo by Jennifer Hill)

Many Evidence Response Team members at the Pentagon did not learn of the collapse of the Towers in New York and the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., until many hours later. It was not until days after 9/11 that I learned of the death of Special Agent Lenny Hatton. Lenny had been a bomb technician who had worked with our teams on the Nairobi Embassy attacks and the USS Cole attack. Just three months prior to 9/11 Lenny had testified at trial against al-Qaeda. Lenny along with retired SAC John O’Neil died assisting people as they tried to escape the World Trade Center. SAC O’Neil led the FBI New York Field Office efforts at both the Nairobi bombings and on scene at the USS Cole attack in Aden, Yemen.  O’Neil was a tough leader who fought for the Intelligence Community to recognize the threat from al-Qaeda and specifically Osama bin Laden.

When the job was finished, 155 FBI employees from eight field offices, assisted by dozens of law enforcement and military specialists working alongside hundreds of firefighters from area fire departments and US&R teams from across the country had sifted through the debris to recover the remains of 189 victims killed during this attack. Close to 3,000 people would die on September 11, 2001, from the attacks in New York City, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa. Sadly, the death toll would not stop on 9/11/01.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of first responders and survivors who lived through the attacks have fallen to illnesses related to their exposure to toxins at the three sites.  The FBI has identified over 100 agents and professional support staff who have suffered from one or more certified 9/11-related illnesses. Eighteen of these FBI employees have died from these 9/11-related illnesses:

SA Paul H. Wilson
SA Robert M. Roth
SA Laurie Fournier
SA Jerry D. Jobe
SA Gerald D. Senatore
SA William Robert Craig
SA Mark J. Mikulski
SA Steven Carr
SA Wesley J. Yoo
SA Rex A. Stockham
SA Mark Johnston
SA Dennis Bonelli
SA Melissa S. Morrow
SA David J. LeValley
SA Brian L. Crews
ET William Homer Lewis
IS Saul Tocker
SA Thomas Monhal

Of the approximately 4,000 FBI employees who responded to a 9/11 site, 1,000 have registered for the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) and the Victims Compensation Fund (VCF). We are actively trying to reach the 3,000 who have not fully registered for these programs. I am encouraging all first responders (FBI and partner agencies) to register for both the WTCHP and the VCF. The WTCHP provides annual medical testing for first responders in an effort to identify illnesses early. Once identified and certified, illnesses can be fully covered leaving those dealing with the illness peace of mind that medical expenses will not become a further burden. The VCF is there to assist those first responders who have suffered from certified illnesses with financial assistance and, in the case of a death, will assist the family of the fallen. Contact the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) at 1-888-982-4748 or September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) at 1-855-885-1555 for more information.

I personally recommend Attorney Matthew McCauley of Turken, Heath, and McCauley          (914) 357-8600 to assist in registering for WTCHP & VCF or assisting with illness certification efforts. Matt McCauley is a WTC first responder and former NYPD detective who has shown that he cares for 9/11 responders and is an effective voice for those needing assistance with 9/11 illnesses.

Through the efforts of the FBI Agents Association and the FBI Human Resources Division FBI employees who become ill are recognized and families are cared for in these difficult times.

The FBI Agents Association Membership Assistance Fund has assisted dozens of agents and their families who are facing financial hardships due to these illnesses. The FBI Agents Association Memorial College Fund continues to provide college educations to the children of agents who have passed due to 9/11-related illnesses. At this time there are approximately 25 children who have participated in the FBIAA MCF, are currently enrolled in college or will soon be entering college. Sadly, we foresee that there will likely be additional children needing assistance due to 9/11-related illness deaths.

If you would like to help the FBI Agents Association in sending these children to college, you can go to fbiaa.org/donate or text FBIAA to 50155.

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Thomas O'Connor
Special Agent (SA) Thomas O’Connor entered on duty with the FBI in 1997. SA O’Connor was assigned to work in the Washington Field Office on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and during this time SA O’Connor has worked both International and Domestic Terrorism cases. Prior to entering on duty with the FBI, SA O’Connor was a Police Officer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where he worked for 15 years as a Municipal Officer leaving for the FBI at the rank of Detective Sergeant. As a Police Officer, SA O’Connor specialized in narcotics and violent gang investigations. SA O’Connor served as the program coordinator for investigations involving criminal activity/violence conducted by racially motivated and antigovernment violent extremists in the Washington Field office area of responsibility. These investigations include neo-Nazi and other hate-based groups as well as lone actors. SA O’Connor was Case Agent for both the Pentagon lone offender shooting and the Family Research Council lone offender shooting. SA O’Connor was a Team Leader on the Washington Field Office, Evidence Response Team (WFO ERT). In this capacity, SA O’Connor has led forensic teams to multiple terrorist attacks around the globe. These deployments include the 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing, two deployments to Kosovo in 1999 for war crimes investigations, the 2000 USS Cole attack in Aden Yemen. SA O’Connor served an evidence team coordinator at the 9-11 attack on the US Pentagon, responded to the 2006 attack on the US Consulate in Karachi Pakistan, and deployed six times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan. SA O’Connor processed evidence at both the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting and the Virginia Beach government building shooting. SA O’Connor specialized in Post-Blast Investigation and shooting reconstruction evidence recovery. In 2005 SA O’Connor was assigned to investigate hostage takings in Iraq Theater of operations. During this deployment, SA O’Connor was involved in the rescue of US Citizen Roy Hallums who had been held by extremists for 311 days. SA O’Connor has provided instruction on Domestic and International Terrorism issues across the United States and overseas. In 2004, SA O’Connor was awarded the Department of Justice “Instructor of the Year” award and was named as an FBI “Master Police Instructor” in 2010 and is a certified Adjunct Faculty member for the FBI Academy. SA O’Connor is a 2011 graduate of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Program on Terrorism and Security Studies (PTSS) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany where he continues to instruct as an Adjunct Faculty member. SA O’Connor served as a member of the FBI Agents Associations (FBIAA) National Executive Board for three years, as the Vice President for seven years and President for 3 years, retiring from the FBI on September 11, 2019. This date was chosen to honor the FBI Agents who had passed due to the 9-11 attack and the illnesses related to that terrorist attack.

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