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TSA Workers Recall 9/11

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has shared two stories from its workforce as they look back on the events of September 11, 2001.

Grace Ridley’s story

Grace Ridley was nearing the end of a successful career in the New York Police Department and counting down to retirement. Then, on September 11, 2001, the world came crashing down.

As a member of the NYPD since 1982, Ridley quickly rose to the rank of sergeant and had a variety of assignments during her tenure. She spent time working in employee relations, organized crime, internal affairs, public relations, the criminal justice bureau and even conducted undercover operations in the narcotics division and the vice enforcement unit.

However, it was her work in the Queens and Manhattan morgues and her role as a peer support officer that provided her with the specialized skills that were key after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and would prove to be equally valuable when she chose to join the Transportation Security Administration.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Ridley was just getting off the night shift at the Brooklyn auto impound location. She was driving home across the Queensborough Bridge and “I glanced at the Twin Towers in my rearview mirror and thought to myself, ‘what a glorious sunny day this was going to be.’ Sadly, it was the last time I would ever see the towers again.”  

When she arrived home, Ridley turned on the TV and saw what she thought was a commercial for an upcoming action-packed movie being filmed in New York City. If only it had been.

Ridley turned away from the TV for a few moments and when she turned back, she witnessed the second airplane hit the North Tower. “I thought to myself, ‘This looks so realistic.’ And as I continued to watch, I realized it was actually happening.”

As an NYPD officer, Ridley was trained for critical incidents and disaster planning, what she refers to as “all hands on deck.” Ridley packed a “go-bag” to head back to work. She figured she would need to pack for a week. She was gone for eight months.

As Ridley walked around the site, she found it to be “very emotional as my thoughts of the workers and children who would usually mingle in the sitting area flashed before my eyes,” she says. Ridley thought about her own two children who worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Center (WTC). Her youngest son’s job as a bus operator took him past the WTC hourly. Her oldest son, a NYPD officer, worked in the Emergency Service Unit and was dispatched to the WTC site when the first plane hit. Fortunately, both were safe. 

Ridley was assigned to the “hot zone,” which later became known as Ground Zero. She was assigned to handle logistics, and coordinated operations out of the nearby Federal Reserve Bank Building a few blocks away from Ground Zero. She also organized the Police Officers Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA), a voluntary and confidential peer-based program, which provides emotional, psychological and personal assistance for officers and persons dealing with traumatic events.

As the logistics manager, Ridley coordinated and set up the temporary morgues for the intake and cataloging of human remains discovered in the rubble and debris of the towers. At the end of her regular eight-hour shift, Ridley transitioned to a second shift, and worked with the POPPA teams to help provide supplies, equipment, and providing sleeping details for all visiting first responders. Some of the peer support was geared for people who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts, as a result of the attacks and its aftermath.

Her POPPA teams also gave meal and relief breaks and supported first responders who had been searching and digging daily in search of survivors. Ridley’s training in identifying and supporting those who showed signs of fatigue and depression were key. “I realized that the first responder teams would not voluntarily stop digging on their own, so I ordered my teams to ensure that first responders took a break from looking for survivors,” she says.

When her days would come to an end, she would retire to the nearby Federal Reserve Bank, where a floor had been dedicated for police officers. There she would sleep on a cot.

“The smell of burning airplane fuel, the sight of liquefied bodies of those who jumped from the towers and the smell of burning flesh, are etched into my memory forever. Even though I had worked in two active morgues for years, the smells will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am grateful that my life’s work with the POPPA personnel aided me in maintaining a healthy overall work-life balance, both mentally and physically,” Ridley says.

In May 2001, eight months after the towers fell, Ridley finally went home. She retired from the police force the following month.

Nineteen years have passed and Ridley has not returned to the site of what is now Freedom Tower, the 9/11 Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “I have seen the new tower from a distance. I cannot bring myself to go back, as I can still see and smell the horror of what happened on that day and the days that followed.”

Two years later, in July 2003, Ridley joined the Transportation Security Administration where she currently works as a program analyst at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Leonard Mitchell’s story

Nineteen years ago, Leonard Mitchell was a police officer with the New Jersey State Department of Corrections and a member of the Special Emergency Response Team, so when terrorists attacked on 9/11, he “saw our brothers and sisters in blue in distress and I felt it was my duty to respond.”

Mitchell has worked for the Transportation Security Administration as a TSA officer for nearly seven years, first at Newark Liberty International Airport and more recently at Richmond International Airport for the past three years. He looks back on the tragic events of 9/11 with mixed emotions. 

What initially began as a rescue mission to help locate survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center soon turned into a recovery effort. “Most people can never understand the devastation and destruction that took place at the World Trade Center that day,” he said.

Mitchell was assigned to assist with digging through the rubble to help find any possible survivors. “We worked digging through the rubble for the next three days, but no survivors were ever found.”

His next assignment was morgue detail at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, a few miles from Ground Zero, where he was to transport body bags from the site of the attacks to the hospital for possible identification.

“The smell of death permeated the air. Body bag after body bag came in,” he said. “As we unloaded the remains, we all stood at attention and saluted. Tears fell almost every day. We worked around the clock. We gave up our vacations, personal time and days off to help work the site.” He worked that detail for three months. “It was a horrifying scene every day,” he said.

Mitchell’s emotions ran from anger toward the attackers to humiliation that the U.S. could be attacked in such a manner, to pride for his fellow volunteers who were coming together and gratefulness to complete strangers who stopped by the site to share food, extra clothing and words of encouragement as they worked. “I never felt more proud to wear the uniform” of a corrections police officer, he said.

As he reflected back to 2001, Mitchell said he thinks back to the men and women who he worked alongside at Ground Zero. Many passed away from illnesses contracted from breathing in the air at the site. Yet, he continues to stay in touch with some of his fellow officers who he worked with” during those sad days.

“I’ve been fortunate, but the mental scars remain. To this day, I have not visited the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. It just brings back too many bad memories,” he said.

After he retired as a corrections officer, Mitchell wanted to continue to serve and give back, which is why he joined TSA. “I wanted to continue to honor those who lost their lives and be the first line of defense so that a tragedy like that would never happen again. September 11th was my motivation to join TSA. I hope I can continue to live up to the memories of those who lost their lives on that Tuesday morning in September, 19 years ago.”

TSA remembers

TSA hosted a 9/11 commemoration event at the agency’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., to mark the 19th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, remember the victims and honor their families.

“September 11th was a traumatic day and a tragedy that continues to be felt by all Americans, including many TSA employees who were directly affected by the attacks and subsequently joined the newly-formed agency,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “We continue to commemorate this day to comfort each other, to strengthen our resolve and to recommit ourselves to the mission entrusted to us by our fellow Americans. We also continue to aggressively adapt and mature as an agency in the face of new challenges. The pandemic has given us a renewed urgency in our pursuit of new solutions to enhance transportation security.”

TSA was created shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to fulfill an urgent and vital need to secure the nation’s transportation systems. Pekoske pointed out that TSA has a great responsibility to its tens of thousands of screening officers, its Federal Air Marshals and all TSA employees as well as the traveling public to ensure that transportation systems remain secure, especially during the pandemic.

This year’s 9/11 commemoration ceremony at TSA headquarters was largely virtual as a result of COVID-19. The event’s keynote speaker, Robyn Towles, is the agency’s Director of Credentialing, Screening and Intelligence Acquisition in the Contracting and Procurement office.

“Just like this country shifted immediately after 9/11, we need to be resilient, strong, compassionate, agile and innovative to manage differently. Nineteen years have passed and thankfully most of our junior workforce does not have a 9/11 story because they were children in 2001. However, they will have a COVID-19 story that will impact and shape their lives to come. A new generation of leaders at TSA have emerged to take the lead and carry out TSA’s mission to protect the traveling public,” Towles said.

Towles’ own career was impacted by the events of 9/11. In 2008, she applied to work at TSA. She said it was a natural progression from supporting the Office of Domestic Preparedness at the Department of Justice before it was transferred under the newly established Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Towles set up the first suite of contracts for the Office of Domestic Preparedness’s training center at Anniston, Ala. At the time, the training center was the only live agent training facility for first responders in the United States.

The commemoration ceremony also spotlighted several TSA employees and their personal stories, showing how 9/11 impacted their personal and professional lives. As the ceremony came to a close, participants stood together and recited their recommitment to TSA’s mission to protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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