Charles H. Ramsey

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey was in Washington DC on September 11th. He was then the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department for the District of Columbia . The experience in overseeing and managing the police response to the attack on the Pentagon, gave him a new perspective on homeland security issues.

An eerie quietness

Commissioner Ramsey remembered the day hours after Washington DC and Arlington Va. were shaken by the attack on the Pentagon.  He was on a surveillance tour after the city had calmed down, most people had gone home and Washington was empty of traffic and pedestrians.

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I remember Gainer ( Terry Gainer , was Executive Assistant Police Chief, second in command of the Metropolitan Police Department. of the District of Columbia)  and myself, the head of the secret service in D.C. and the head of the FBI,  got in a car and we drove around and the streets were literally deserted, not a soul, not a car, nothing. But the visible presence of law enforcement I’d never seen before.

Normally when you go by the White House,  you know the security’s there but it’s not real visible, but there were uniform secret service in plain clothes, you could see the plain clothes on the roof of the White House, you could see them all around the interior and standing right on 15th Street. you could not make a right turn onto 15th St. that was totally shut down. And 17th St. was also shut down.  The two  are by the old executive office building and also the east part of the White House, the treasury and the White House right next to it , and visibly with the MP5 sub machine guns.. When you went by the Capitol right around the rotunda of the Capitol there’s a little walkway that goes around and you saw cops out there, you saw cops out on the west front, east front, all over, again with automatic weapons visible. And it was kind of an eerie feeling.  That’s when we realized that our sense of normal was redefined in one short period of time, that it would never ever be the same again and it was very apparent that that was the way it was going to be for a while, that things had changed dramatically.

Interviewer: Did you really have a sense that things would never be the same?

Oh yeah , that’s what struck me, I didn’t initially. Because my initially reaction,  when I saw the second plane hit the tower, was why would anybody fly an empty plane into a building. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that someone would be vicious enough to take a plane loaded with people and crash it into a building full of people. Obviously I know better know, but at the time that came as a surprise to me I just couldn’t get my head around anybody doing anything like that. But towards the end of the evening is when that struck me is when we took that ride around town and we saw the visible security, that was the wake up call, that this is different, it’s not ever going to be the same, certainly not in Washington.

The first impact

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Well I hear 911 I think about the terrorist attacks, I think about that particular day, what went on in Washington D.C . Of course the Pentagon was struck which is right across the river in Arlington county, not actually in the District but directly across the 14th street bridge. In fact you could see the columns of smoke coming up from my office on that particular day. So that’s what comes to my mind whenever someone says 911.

We had just finished up a meeting when my chief of staff came in and told me I needed to go into his office and take a look at what was going on in New York. He had the Today Show on and he was looking at images of the first tower burning, the second tower had not yet been hit.  I asked what happened and he said nobody seems to know. A small plane is the way it was described must have flown into the building. Everybody was still kind of not sure if it was an accident, on purpose or whatever and as we were standing there looking we actually saw the second plane strike the second tower,  so we immediately knew that that was certainly no accident.

So we immediately activated our command center in Washington. The way it works in Washington the Metropolitan Police Department is the largest agency and whenever there’s a big event, a protest or whatever, other agencies tend to come into our building and participate in our command center and we had just built a brand new one in fact it hadn’t even been officially opened yet. The first day of its operation was on 911,  2001, out of necessity. They had just put in the TV monitors and all that sort of thing but we didn’t have phone lines yet because it had not yet been done. So everyone began to show up so you had not only surrounding jurisdictions, you had Park Police, Capitol Police, they sent a representative from the FBI, secret service, the FAA military district of Washington. All these different entities came to the headquarters. So we got it up and running, we started a recall of personnel just in case, and that’s about the time that we heard the Pentagon had just been struck.

Organizing security

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Interviewer : How about your own security?

Well I wasn’t too concerned about that, I mean that’s part of my job is to do whatever so I wasn’t worried about that. You don’t even think about that, you think about what your responsibilities are in a time like that;  I mean you can’t stop and think about yourself.

You know,  I was concerned about my son,  I mean that was my biggest concern and once I got my hands on him and I said you just sit put and he just stayed in my office on the computer and so forth,  but at least I knew where he was and I knew he was safe and that’s what mattered most. And my wife and I were able to make contact I just told her to stay out of the city until she heard back from me.

We also had to work because a lot of our guys wanted to go up to New York to help and we said no you have to  stay here and once we explained it to them,  we have  to protect the nation’s Capital,  you can’t go to New York, we need to stay here and make sure we don’t have another attack.  It’s easy to look back 10 years from now and nothing happened. When this stuff is going down,  I don’t think there’s anybody who could honestly say they thought that would be it for 10 years, everybody was waiting for the second shoe to drop, whether it was an airplane, car bomb, captive shooter. I mean, everybody thought something else was going to happen and to be honest with you I’m surprised it didn’t.


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