- Wreaths at the Pentagon. (Photo: flickr/The U.S. Army)
Disasters immediately create transit nightmares. We saw this with the recent natural disasters of the earthquake and hurricane. All thoughts turned to the roads and Metro trains — would people be able to navigate through the chaos to wherever they wanted to go?
At the September 11 White House cabinet briefing, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told people, "One of the most cherished freedoms is the freedom of movement, the ability to move freely and safely. But today that freedom was attacked. But we will restore that freedom throughout the national transportation system as soon as possible, and we will restore the highest possible degree of service. These terrorist acts are designed to steal the confidence of Americans — we will restore that confidence."
At the time, Mineta grounded planes and people around the country watched their transit systems. He told people that major rail systems were acting to protect their assets. The Coast Guard eyed navigable waters.
In December of 2001, WMATA noted that on the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, "Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAcess operated a near flawless, back-to-back rush hour when Washington, D.C. was evacuated. With the specter of terrorism a continuing reality, the Metro system is a crucial element in the region’s emergency preparedness." No employee died or suffered injury, and no property was damaged. The spirit of 9/11 continued to live on in WMATA's announcements years later, as in the September 9, 2003 press release entitled "Top reasons why Metro riders are safer now than they were before September 11, 2001." The transit agency spoke of the steps it had taken in increasing its security forces, adding buses to cameras, and reconfiguring recycling bins so a terrorist couldn't place a bomb in them. WMATA proudly announced it was the first transit system in the world to have the capacity "to safely and effectively decontaminate trains and buses of most biological agents in the event of exposure." It was the nation's capital, and WMATA wanted to ensure safety. 9/11 "led to a full internal review of WMATA Safety and Security Program," according to one WMATA presentation, and in November of 2001, it received $49 million in Congressional and White House emergency funding.
"There will be more security officers and random identification checks," Mineta cautioned on September 11.
Those aftereffects are still felt in our transit system today.
The random bag checks and security implemented in more recent times reflect that Homeland Security-style sense of caution and care. Travel no longer always has the convenience it once did — and sometimes, there's a loss of liberty, which should always be a healthy part of the debate surrounding transit security. These questions are especially relevant to train riders and plane passengers. People today have already noted the greater number of officers and checks around the Metro system, which is gearing up its efforts in light of the September 11 anniversary. This Friday morning, two days before the terrorist attacks' anniversary, WMATA announced, "At this time, there is no specific or credible threat against Metro. We are working in close coordination with local and federal agencies." The transit agency says there'll be more Transit Police patrols.
Communications is, as always, vital to these transportation questions of disaster, and just as with the above press security, during September 11, 2001, WMATA experienced people hungry to learn how the system was doing. It received twice the number of hits on its website (23,000) and twice the number of calls (13,000). "Further, we never lost communications throughout the day," WMATA general manager Richard White noted a month after the disaster. "We established and maintained contact with local, state, and federal authorities, and we communicated with our riders through in-system messages, our phone system and over the internet through the website." WMATA's enhanced communications in 2011 should only aid in navigating these disasters, as they did during the recent earthquake and hurricane. Without 9/11, would we have some of the classic announcements on the WMATA platforms such as "Excuse me, is that your bag?" Doubtful.
As we reflect on what happened a decade ago, video can often be helpful in understanding the day. To see how September 11 affected Washington, D.C., watch the news broadcasts from that very day, from morning to night. Internet Archive provides these broadcasts conveniently for us, with coverage broken down by city. Skim down to D.C. to catch broadcasts from WJLA, WUSA, and other local stations reporting on the crisis throughout all the hours of what felt like the longest day.
News outlets and people more broadly are also reaching back into their memories as we come up on the anniversary of the disaster. One critical way to track how a city responds to disaster is how fast they're coordinating emergency services. Again transportation is a crucial element here. What spots need attention and how fast? Who can be deployed?
I'll leave you with this video, which shows members of an ambulance company responsible for operations in Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey, and Baltimore reflecting on what happened that day: