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The unthinkable had happened over the last two hours—the World Trade Center obliterated, the Pentagon in flames, unknown thousands dead and injured, downtown Washington gridlocked in a mad rush to escape the city—when Mayor Anthony A. Williams first stepped out in public to address his anxious city.
It was a little after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, and the mayor was speaking to reporters and TV cameras arrayed in the lobby of the Franklin D. Reeves Center on U Street NW, where the District’s emergency preparedness agency is headquartered.
First, Williams—still feeling ill from a bout of stomach problems the night before—read woodenly from a prepared statement expressing sorrow for the victims of the morning’s terrorist attacks. Then, he sought to assure “the citizens of the District of Columbia that all of our emergency agencies are fully deployed to meet any emergencies that might arise.”
And then the mayor said this: “I’d like to ask our citizens to remain calm. I’d also like to ask that everyone obey all streetlights. We don’t need additional emergencies. And I’d like to also, as always, urge our citizens to call 311 for nonemergencies.”
Across the city, residents were still warily eyeing the skies for the next potential airliner-bomb. Rumors of riots in Georgetown and explosions at the State Department and the Capitol had ricocheted from radio and TV throughout the morning. The Secret Service had decided that Washington was not safe enough for the president to return home, so he hid out for several hours at secure military bases in Louisiana and Nebraska.
And the mayor of the nation’s capital was talking about people running red lights.
Williams did, eventually, get around to dispelling the wild rumors, at the end of the press conference. And he repeated two more times that the District government was fully in command of the emergency situation. “In the event the worst were to happen,” Williams said, “we are completely prepared and ready to act.”
But the mayor’s performance at that crucial moment during the worst terrorism crisis in the nation’s history fell far short of reassuring. And his assertions about the District’s preparedness fell far short of the truth.
Even before the fire at the crippled Pentagon across the Potomac had been extinguished, frightening shortcomings in the District’s emergency preparedness were laid bare. Communications broke down, and key District leaders scrambled to exchange information via e-mail and pagers. The fire department had scant reserve equipment, a single hazardous-materials unit, and no search-and-rescue units available to dispatch. There was no master terrorism-response plan in place, so agency heads reached for whatever was available on the nearest shelf—which for some meant Y2K plans and, for the fire department, a 1968 deployment guideline drafted in response to the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And officials of federal Washington, as they had so many times in the past, blithely ignored the municipal government and ordered mass evacuations of all federal office buildings, without thinking to tell the Metropolitan Police Department.
There were some bright spots during Tuesday’s harrowing hours. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials, so often the beleaguered source of grim academic news, handled the crisis exactly right by quickly deciding to keep 69,000 children in school rather than release them early into uncertain streets and empty homes. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority opted to keep Metro trains running. Washington hospitals took in Pentagon victims and were ready for many more potential casualties that, thank goodness, never came. The police quickly deployed to unsnarl traffic and scrambled effectively to get a new tactical operations command center up and running days ahead of schedule.
But where things went right, it was often because of improvisation rather than coordination or central direction—a point that, by early this week, the mayor himself was ready to concede. “There are different levels of unpreparedness,” Williams said in an interview with the Washington City Paper. “People love to think, when they think of the District, that we’re completely clueless. I don’t think anyone argues that’s the case. Everyone was doing the best they can, improvising the best they can.”
In other words, within the quaint provincial confines of the 68 square miles of the District of Columbia, we had a dry run for disaster on Sept. 11.
In other words, we were lucky.
“We weren’t prepared.”
D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department Battalion Chief Stephen Reid minces no words as he reviews his department’s Sept. 11 performance. “When the city’s leaders say we were ready for this, they’re not telling the truth. We’re the fire department of the capital of the free world, and we’re not prepared to protect it.”
The District’s firefighters were first called into action minutes after a hijacked jetliner plowed through a side of the Pentagon, and eventually 90 D.C. firefighters sped to the scene to help put out the blaze. Much of the equipment used to extinguish the fire was the District’s, including a vital tower truck. The skills and bravery of those firefighters were unquestioned.
But back on the District side of the Potomac, the department’s performance looked alarming.
Six minutes after the Pentagon was struck, the Secret Service notified the D.C. Fire Department of a calamity. But the information the dispatchers were given was wrong, city officials say: Emergency crews were incorrectly told by the Secret Service that the White House had been struck and was in flames. In a matter of seconds, a fleet of trucks, firefighters, and medical workers—known as a “box alarm”—was sent to the White House from a nearby station, Engine Company 16.
“It was mass confusion,” says Lt. Jeff Wright of Engine Company 16. “We go down to the White House and no one knows what’s going on. We could see smoke coming from Virginia.”
It didn’t take long for department chiefs to figure out what had really happened, and at 9:48 a.m., another box alarm contingent was dispatched to the Pentagon while the first team stayed near the White House.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Fire Chief Ronnie Few began putting into effect the only major emergency protocol on hand to organize his forces: a 33-year-old guideline created after the riots that devastated the city in the wake of the King assassination.
“We were using a plan that was left over from the ’68 riots,” says Michael L. Smith, the deputy fire chief who was the incident commander at the Pentagon.
Chief Few enacted “Plan F”—which means he compelled every firefighter and emergency medical worker to report to duty. Some within the department have criticized that decision, saying the chief should have moved to “Plan E”—or a mobilization of half the workforce. This posture would have allowed a backup shift to relieve the first group after eight hours or more. About one-fourth of the department’s firefighters and emergency medical workers are on duty during a normal shift.
Soon, a second box alarm was sent to the Pentagon. With three box alarms in place—or more than one-third of the city’s entire roster of trucks occupied—the city was left vulnerable to routine fire outbreaks. In response, department officials asked for help from Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties; these departments sent trucks into D.C. so that the city would have enough equipment to protect itself.
“The mayor is saying we can handle whatever happens, and it’s not true,” Wright asserts. “Under normal circumstances, we can have two working fires at one time and feel stressed at the limit.”
By 2 p.m., almost all of the department’s 1,900 firefighters and medical personnel were on duty. But “a lot of them were standing around with nothing to do, because we didn’t have any equipment,” says Reid.
That’s because the District, as a result of the ’90s budget crises, has almost no extra equipment or trucks in reserve in case of an emergency. “After ’95, our reserve stock was depleted,” says Smith. “Chief Few was first to put back a reserve fleet of six engine companies and two firetrucks. But it’s still not a fraction of what we need to deal with something like this. We need more money. We need more apparatus.”
Even more startling, given the distinct danger of a terrorist attack involving biological or chemical weapons, the District’s only dedicated hazardous-material identification and suppression unit was downgraded almost two years ago and made a subordinate part of a firehouse, Engine Company 12. The hazmat unit isn’t operated or checked regularly, the firefighters assigned to it contend—and they must attend to routine firefighting duties even as they are expected to keep up-to-date on hazardous-material prevention.
Nor does the city have its own urban search-and-rescue team; it would have to depend on other such teams in the region if a building in the District were ever struck. And chronic problems with the fire department’s radios—a new digital service doesn’t work underground—create huge blind spots in the communications network.
Williams insists that, even before Sept. 11, the District was trying to address the fire department’s needs—although the fiscal 2002 budget for the fire department that was submitted to Congress over the summer requested $3.2 million less than the 2001 budget.
“We’re doing an inventory now of additional resources we need,” Williams says. “We’ve been trying, within the budget we have—we’ve been rebuilding fire equipment for the last two years….All I can say is the state of readiness of our hazmat unit goes to the state of readiness for terrorism in general. This is part of rebuilding emergency management in general.”
The firefighters remain skeptical.
“The federal government is relying on this fire department,” says Ray Sneed, president of the firefighters’ union, “and we’re not prepared. It’s just that simple.”
The first clue that all is not well at the D.C. Emergency Management Agency (EMA) comes as you step into the elevator at the Reeves Center: The EMA command center is located on the eighth floor.
The federal government, state governments, municipal governments—most all of them place their emergency-management centers in secure facilities at ground level or below, precisely because they must be able to function in the event of catastrophes such as earthquakes, civil unrest, and terrorist attacks. Here, our vulnerable emergency agency sits about as high in the sky as any office in the District is allowed to be.
“We shouldn’t be in a public building,” says EMA Director Peter LaPorte. “We shouldn’t be on the eighth floor. We shouldn’t have a garage in the basement. The current center is not even close [to what it should be].”
The lofty perch is just one legacy of the laughingstock agency LaPorte inherited when Williams appointed him in July 1999. The tenure of LaPorte’s predecessor, Samuel Jordan, a longtime crony of former Mayor Marion S. Barry, was distinguished by his arrest and conviction on four misdemeanor charges for assaulting his girlfriend and carrying an unlicensed pistol. And the agency’s biggest concern was organizing special events.
LaPorte, who was previously the executive director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, has set about to reverse that legacy, but he must contend with some formidable obstacles. The EMA staff numbers just 33, and its proposed 2002 budget is $4 million—which, to put that figure into perspective, is less than a tenth of the amount donated by philanthropist Betty Brown Casey to care for the city’s trees.
Facing down the challenges, LaPorte immersed himself in the primary task of preparing the District to handle a major emergency. He led the agency’s responses to the August flooding, and the exploding Georgetown manhole covers before that. But suddenly, in the wake of Sept. 11, his job has become much more complex.
“This isn’t just manholes blowing up,” LaPorte says. “We need to bring a sense of urgency. This is about competence in the city.”
LaPorte himself was trapped outside the city on Sept. 11, attending a meeting of the National Emergency Management Association in Montana with 50 other state emergency directors as well as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That meant he wasn’t around to personally witness the failures that afflicted District government during the crisis.
Foremost among them was the collapse of telephone service upon which government officials depend, when both land lines and cell phone circuits quickly became overloaded. That left officials scrambling to communicate via text pagers and e-mail—and trying to comprehend the cascade of information that was flooding in. (The District has a set of satellite phones for use in emergencies, although as of Sept. 11, they hadn’t been distributed to key officials. Nevertheless, officials note, the satellite phones are of limited utility because they must be used outdoors.)
“Everyone has, in retrospect, concerns [that] there are things we need to get better at,” says Margret Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “This was a cataclysmic event….Not every piece of information went where it was supposed to. In the overall scheme of things, things went well, [but] we would have preferred to know every piece of information in real time.”
One such piece of information was the status of District hospitals, many of which decided independently to move to a disaster footing. But the city’s Department of Health, for example, had no rapid way of learning that, because it was not a participant in the interhospital emergency radio communications system. (That omission was fixed last weekend.)
In the absence of any established central plan for dealing with a terrorist emergency, Kellems says, government agencies resorted to earlier plans drafted to cope with feared Y2K disruptions or World Bank/International Monetary Fund protests.
That’s what Metro officials did, placing the transit system on high alert at 9:15 a.m. and then, at 9:50 a.m., establishing an emergency command center according to protocols prepared for Y2K, protests, and snowstorms.
“There was some discussion throughout the morning about whether or not we should shut the system down—whether or not Metro might be considered a target,” says Metro spokesperson Ray Feldmann. But, after consultations with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, Feldmann says, “we felt that the most important role that we could play was to help people get to where they needed to go.”
At one point, Feldmann says, Metro officials saw a rumor communicated on a TV broadcast that the subway was about to shut down. “So we immediately jumped on that rumor,” he says, “and by going through the media, made people aware that was not the case.”
Yet Metro’s alacrity in putting down that rumor only underscored the failure of the District government to do the same thing.
“There were rumors of other things going on, like bombings at the State Department, a bomb at the Capitol,” says LaPorte. “Boy, it went on for one hour. And that was causing a real unease out there….Why didn’t we use 727-1000 [the District government’s main information line]? Why didn’t we use Channel 16 [the District government’s cable TV channel]? Why didn’t we use our Web site, which we eventually did?”
To that list, LaPorte might have added the emergency broadcast system, that Cold War relic (“This is a test. This is only a test”) that has long been routinely tested on broadcast stations across the nation.
“It’s not a question of using the emergency broadcast system—that’s a 1950s technology,” Williams says. “How do we get information to the public through a variety of communications mediums—that’s what we have to address now.”
In the past week, LaPorte has moved swiftly to shore up his agency. District government sources say he suspended a senior staff member for failures associated with the Sept. 11 response. And he’s accelerated work on the District’s first terrorism-response plan—a document ordered up by Williams last January because there was none in existence before.
“I want to have every possible scenario, where every government entity knows their roles and responsibilities,” LaPorte says. “If they have to have little cheat sheets next to their bed or they have to be trained, then we have to do that.”
It’s no secret that Mayor Williams—bow-tied, soft-spoken, bean-counting policy wonk Williams—appears to loathe the political limelight. He’s awkward in front of cameras and microphones even in the best of times, almost an anti-politician, preferring the meticulous business of actually running the city behind the scenes to boasting about it out front.
That’s what District voters wanted, of course, when they overwhelmingly elected Williams in November 1998—a no-nonsense financial manager who could lead the crumbling city out of its hopeless mire of chronic insolvency. The last thing voters wanted was another glad-handing, grandstanding, profligate politician.
“I think what’s called for by me is not a lot of talking but joining this community in praying,” Williams told a gathering at New Bethel Baptist Church on the evening of Sept. 11.
“I’m not here as mayor to win a speaking derby,” he echoed in a later interview. “I’m here to be supportive of people.”
It’s no secret, in other words, that Anthony Williams is no Rudy Giuliani.
Yet comparisons between the performances of the two mayors whose cities lay at ground zero on Sept. 11 are inescapable. Giuliani—the famously flawed, pugnacious, lame-duck extrovert lion-tamer of New York—so ubiquitously soothed, commanded, and rallied his stricken city on Sept. 11 that even his harshest critics were falling over themselves to praise him.
Williams, meanwhile—well, he was Williams. Even allowing for the fact that he felt ill, Williams was laconic to the point of looking almost bored at his two brief Sept. 11 press conferences (the second was held at 5 p.m.), which constituted his only public appearances during the anxious daylight hours. He didn’t tour the District or visit evacuated office workers waiting uncertainly on the sidewalks. Those were, he says, conscious choices.
“In terms of being out in the city, I’ve been at thousands of public events,” Williams says. “I’m not sure what more public things I could have done. Where there was a flood for me to go to, I’ve been there. Where there were manhole covers, I’ve been there. I think the worst thing to do would be to stand out there providing information when you don’t have information….
“I spend the overwhelming majority of my time outside the office, going to events where there is an event to go,” Williams continues. “Here there wasn’t an event. It was a condition.”
Yet some senior District officials believe it was a condition that urgently required the mayor’s public presence.
“I wanted the mayor,” says one Williams cabinet member, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We needed to get him out there. It affects people’s confidence. They need to see the boss, the voice of the city.”
“The thing about Mayor Williams is he appears disinterested—always,” notes a councilmember not normally hostile to the mayor, also on condition of anonymity. “You have Giuliani out in the community, talking to people, shaking hands. The mayor doesn’t do that. He has never done that. He attended various services, but he appeared bored.
“Why don’t any of his advisers counsel him about this? I don’t think he’s really uninterested—he just appears to be,” continues the councilmember.
The mayor does have his defenders, to be sure. “I think the mayor’s actions were appropriate,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. “Some political figures hunt down opportunities to be in the limelight—and I mean hunt them down—but this is not a mayor that does that….He knows when it is his turn and when it isn’t.”
Kellems, too, is emphatic in defending her boss. “The people of this city elected Mayor Williams not because he’s an evangelist preacher or prophet or an enormous, larger-than-life personality,” she says. “He’s a smart, capable, competent leader….I’d rather see him inside making important decisions, thinking and analyzing and discussing, than rushing out and seeking opportunities to get on television.”
But Kellems herself, however inadvertently, showed up Williams by her own public performance on Sept. 11. At a midday Reeves Center press conference she attended in place of the mayor, she appeared poised and focused, projecting absolute confidence that everything was under control.
“Our advice to the citizens is to continue to live your life normally,” Kellems said. “We’re asking everyone, to the best they can, to go outside and enjoy the day and lead your life as normally as you can.”
It was an appearance made all the more remarkable by the incredible personal stress Kellems had been under for much of the morning. If Williams was physically ill, Kellems was emotionally hammered by the uncertainty surrounding the fate of her husband, a public affairs officer at the Pentagon whose office is located just one corridor over from where the plane hit the building.
Two hours after the crash, he finally managed to get word through to her that he was OK.
Last week began as all too many have over the years at DCPS headquarters: messily. Superintendent Paul Vance had just fired three financial staffers, the hapless trio having taken the blame for the abrupt discovery that the school system had overspent its budget by $80 million so far in the fiscal year.
As news of the mismanagement broke, a feeling of disappointment overcame District officials who had placed so much hope in Vance’s brash efforts to reform the dysfunctional school system. You didn’t need to pass calculus to understand that a financial screw-up of such magnitude suggested more systemic problems than a few sloppy bookkeepers.
And so, when something unimaginable happened on Sept. 11 and the District found itself scrambling under the threat of terrorist attacks, parents of the city’s schoolchildren held their collective breath. Could a school administration that so badly bungled as core a function as budgeting possibly handle a potential state of war?
It absolutely could, it turned out. And every week should pass so smoothly.
When the horror began Tuesday morning, Vance and his advisers consulted the school system’s emergency-management playbook, which painstakingly details how things are supposed to work in a crisis. There’s a code system—red, yellow, green, and orange—that, like the hierarchy of military readiness conditions, dictates when and where students and personnel must report when problems arise. But there is no section specifically addressing what to do when terrorists are feared to be attacking the city.
“There are some situations that one could consider a typical emergency, where there are some plans in place,” deadpans the school board’s director of communications, Elena Temple. “Obviously, this was not a situation where there was a contingency plan. People adapt.”
Vance began caucusing with his staff, with school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and with city officials. Early on, before lunch, school officials decided to scrap the codes: The schools would simply stay open for the full day and classes would proceed. The traffic was horrendous, the location of subsequent threats uncertain, and most parents were unlikely to be at home—some, in fact, may have been in harm’s way. Cafritz says she decided it was best that everyone simply stay put during the day, although parents who wished to pick up their children early were welcome to do so.
“I appreciated that they did not do a blanket closing,” applauds Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools Co-Chair Iris Toyer, an outspoken schools watchdog. Toyer’s two children attend Stanton Elementary in Southeast, but she works in Dupont Circle, and she says she wouldn’t have made it through the area’s chaos to greet her kids at home. “It was comforting to know that they were still at school and being supervised.”
“Some of the kids were going home to where there were no parents,” echoes Parents United board member Mary Filado, whose daughter attends Woodrow Wilson High School. “To just let loose [all those] children on the District of Columbia all of a sudden would have been stupid.”
It may in fact seem like a no-brainer in retrospect, but other school systems weren’t so adept. Schools in both Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties closed early.
Late in the day Tuesday, Vance decided to close the D.C. schools on Wednesday. Again, logistical concerns were primary. With traffic likely to remain chaotic and security around the city still uncertain, officials thought it best not to put students on the move as well. Moreover, like everyone else, the students and teachers needed a day to catch their breath. West Elementary PTA President Janet Myers, who has two children at West and one at Deal Junior High, appreciated that decision most of all. Her husband was among the firefighters dispatched to the Pentagon, and she needed time to explain everything to her kids.
“There was so much uncertainty,” Myers sighs. “I think they would have felt uncomfortable going to school and worrying about whether their father was safe.”
When officials reconvened school on Thursday, they unleashed hordes of counselors on the three elementary schools where the D.C. students and teachers killed in the Pentagon crash had studied and taught. Teachers were instructed to welcome dialogue about the attacks, just as they had been told on Tuesday to honestly inform students of all ages what was going on. Cafritz dispatched her executive assistant, Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell, to console the victims’ families. And she joined Vance, Williams, and other school board members in leading two memorial services that night.
“There may have been some glitches—things never go exactly how you plan them—but overall, they reached out to try to make sure that the children were taken care of,” says a clearly impressed Linda Moody, president of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers. “I think the schools did really well on this one.”
So what happens now?
Clearly, many of the troubles with the District’s preparedness for a terrorist attack are direct legacies of the city’s dark bankruptcy years, when essential services, such as fire protection and emergency preparedness, were gutted. Within the confines of a delicately balanced budget that must satisfy outsized demands for myriad social services, Williams has been trying to restore core public safety functions. He does not deserve blame for inheriting a city with no plan for dealing with a terrorist attack—he deserves credit for ordering one to be prepared.
But all of that planning, rebuilding, and restoring will have to occur much faster now. And it’s absurd for the federal government—which relies on the District for crucial municipal services—to expect the city to foot the bill without federal help.
D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton made this point sharply last weekend. “Official Washington and hometown Washington are joined at the hip when it comes to emergencies,” she said in a statement. “The federal government cannot protect official Washington without D.C. agencies, such as the police and fire departments, and the District cannot protect our neighborhoods or do its part to protect the federal presence unless D.C. is at the table throughout the planning and execution process.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.