I was angry, BEYOND angry. My thoughts continued to return to payback. With several of my HRT teammates who were also veterans, we mused about the pending war we sensed was impending, and briefly flirted with the idea of leaving the FBI and rejoining the U.S. military. Hell, as a former Army Officer, I was thinking of enlisting. Crazy thoughts spinning around inside of my head. And then I snapped out of it, refocused on the immediate tasks at hand. I had a job to do, by God. And I resolved to suppress my anger, stifle it, settle in for the long haul, and perform my duties as part of the hastily assembled government team. Maybe these little bastards would attempt to return to the port and finish the job of the now vaporized bombers. Keep scanning the water and the coastline, I reminded myself.
We FBI-HRT “shooters” were also charged with making it safe(er) for FBI Counterterrorism Division investigators who were methodically building the criminal case against Osama bin Laden’s shadowy al-Qa`ida network of terrorists. When an investigator is bent over a piece of evidence, defenseless, they need someone to provide cover for them in a lawless place like Yemen in Y2K. We handled convoy security for these brave special agents, as well. If something jumped off, we were the ones to confront it head on. The investigators had their work cut out for them in Yemen. Providing security for them as they went about their business was an essential piece of how the FBI operates in dangerous overseas environments. We worked in concert with the U.S. military in places where we were at war. But in places like Yemen in the year 2000, we WERE the only armed forces, other than a small contingent of U.S. Marines and the Navy personnel reeling from the unprovoked attack on the mighty U.S.S. Cole.
This security work could be monotonous, tedious, nerve-wracking, and, at times, mind-numbing work. But it was ever so critical to mission accomplishment.
[Author’s Note]: While deployed to Yemen in support of the U.S.S. Cole investigation, we answered to Special Agent in Charge John P. O’Neill. He had oversight of the FBI’s New York Office Counterterrorism Division. He retired from the FBI the week before 9/11, taking a position as head of security at the World Trade Center (WTC). He perished when the buildings collapsed. For years, he had tried to raise the profile of al-Qa`ida within the FBI Headquarter’s senior executive circles. After his death, the media referred to him as “the man who tried to warn America.” I knew the man fairly well. This was an apt description of him. His bronzed face, in bas-relief, stares back unblinkingly from the 28th floor executive corridor at 26 Federal Plaza. One of two FBI martyrs who perished while saving lives on September 11th, 2001.
After a month and change, I redeployed back to the States from the Middle East, and returned to garrison life within the HRT compound at Quantico, Virginia.
March soon arrived and with it came a flurry of administrative activities and out-processing as I hustled to sell my house and transition from HRT back to the regular FBI. Thanks to Roger N., the revered former HRT Commander and now the head of the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG), where HRT was assigned, the transfer back to New York was relatively painless. I arrived in New York thinking the U.S.S. Cole investigation was now to be left to the folks in the Counterterrorism Division. I had my sights set on returning to drug cases as a member of C-11.
I was eager to return to street agent status and ready to place my tactical response professional life behind me. I soon returned to the inner-city streets I had missed so much, working complex narcotics conspiracy cases in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, and out in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in housing complexes gutted by gang violence and a proliferation of the illegal drug trade. My daily existence became consumed with drug buys, and undercover meets, and cooperating witnesses, and dirty telephone calls essential to securing the probable cause necessary for a Title-III wiretapping warrant. There was a (re)learning curve. I retaught myself how to sit motionless in my car on a stakeout, for hours on end, reacquainting myself with the necessary surveillance tool of relieving oneself in a Gatorade bottle, without spilling a drop on the seat. One of my closest buddies in the FBI, Neil D. was my partner, and a former attorney. The guy was a SOLID investigator and one of the smartest guys I knew in the bureau. He was also a veritable wrecking ball when it came to disrupting and dismantling New York City’s most violent street gangs. I rejoined the task force and began shadowing Neil on a large case he was wrapping up in the projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn, I was finally back in the game. Life was good.
And then came the request.
A group of novice FBI SWAT Operators from the New York Office was to be deployed to Yemen, in rotation, in order to provide support to the continuing Cole investigation. HRT was pulling out, as the occupying force detail in Yemen had severely consumed their personnel resources and they needed to reconstitute stateside. They were essentially a civilian version of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). So the FBI’s New York Office SWAT Team picked up the assignment. I was asked to return to Sana’a, Yemen, the capital city, and lead a security detail.
The answer, of course, was an unwavering, “Yes, sir.”
I had yet to unpack my tac bag from HRT. So, I hauled it, complete, back up from my basement and set about to make certain that I had all I needed for a trip back to the sandbox for yet another “indeterminate amount of time.”
This return deployment saw me barely missing the repatriation movement of the patched-up Cole to her home port of Norfolk, Virginia. The transport back was a success. But the mission to identify and capture the planners of the attack continued, unabated, somewhat obstructed by a less-than-forthright government in Yemen, and the difficult particulars of conducting a forensics-heavy investigation in a place like the Middle East. I returned home after a month, having worked under the guidance of U.S. Department of State chief-emeritus Michael J. Metrinko, one of the original Iranian hostage crisis captives during the 444-day siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The U.S. State Department had called him back to active duty to oversee diplomatic operations related to the Cole investigation. He understood the Islamic world better than any Westerner I had ever met. He was an invaluable resource and a trusted adviser to the investigative team.
While relieved to be returning home from the oppressive heat and choking dust of Yemen in the late summer of 2001, I somehow felt that I was finally withdrawing from the real fight one final time. Maybe my days as a “snake eater” were finally done. I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. Maybe this is truly it. Time to get back to street work. Again, I’d had a good run…
And work on C-11 kept me busy. There wasn’t a moment to dwell on what I might be missing elsewhere. For the second time in as many months, I settled back in to New York and a drug agent’s workload.
But, I had been putting off that damned dental appointment for months. I confirmed the date for my cleaning and an exam. “Please call us if you have to cancel,” the receptionist cheerily reminded me.
“No worries,” I chirped, “I won’t miss it. My Mom has been on my back about scheduling this for weeks,” I said.
“Then you’re all confirmed, Jimmy. See you on Tuesday, September 11th, at 9:30AM, sharp.”
However, as fate would have it, I never made it to that dental appointment…
Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, as has been well chronicled, dawned cloudless, the sky the richest blue anyone could recall of recent vintage. I got a late start as I headed south from upstate New York, intending to travel to Rego Park, Queens and that scheduled date with my dentist. Typically, I eschewed the typical FBI-NYPD task force drug squad schedules that were 10AM-6PM shifts, because, well, drug dealers typically don’t arise before noon. With that in mind, the later shifts made perfect sense. But, I was an early riser. I liked to get my morning workout in first thing, have my coffee uninterrupted, and peruse my array of New York tabloids before the rest of the cops and agents arrived for work at 26 Federal Plaza, or, “26 Fed,” as we referred to it. I was typically at my desk NLT 7:45AM. That’s how I rolled.
But this morning was different. As I left the house, much later than normal, I attempted to tune the FBI vehicle’s radio selector to 92.3 K-Rock, anticipating the raucous hijinks of Howard Stern and his coterie of in-studio wackos. Instead, my Bureau-issued Nextel buzzed. It was my brother-in-law, Kevin. He worked in the mid-town Manhattan Verizon building. He described a plume of smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. It was just after 8:46AM. His office windows faced downtown. He asked if I was at my desk at 26 Fed, where I typically would have been at this hour. I explained I was headed to Queens for an appointment. Must have been pilot error, I thought to myself, as I fumbled with the radio dial to find 1010 WINS, the New York City based all-news station.
The South Tower was suddenly ablaze, consumed with flames that licked up the side of the magnificent structure. Thick black choking smoke billowing from the upper floors and mirroring the damage done to the North Tower. There was to be no more polite and naïve speculation, conjecture of a probable accident; no possible pilot error as the contributing cause. America was now under attack. Damn them, I thought to myself. Damn them. We should’ve gone to war after the Cole attack. The bastards had now reached our fucking homeland.
I violently yanked the wheel to the right, quickly diverting away from Queens, and pointed my government vehicle in the direction of Manhattan. I slapped the red bulb on the roof, engaged the flashing wig-wags in the vehicle’s grill, and flipped on the police wailer. The police-package equipped Chevrolet Caprice neared 100 mph down I-287, and I soon was forced to negotiate the median, as traffic slowed to a full stop, the result of all accesses into Manhattan being closed by the NYPD and the TBTA. Weaving my way in and out of the traffic jam, and riding the narrow median, I flashed my FBI shield at the cop at the Triborough Bridge and he immediately waved me through. His grim look met my steely-eyed countenance. We both dipped our heads in an affirmation nod to one another. We were now a country at war. What more would today portend? I shuddered to imagine the incalculable scenarios of a committed enemy who could have pulled THIS off. And were more planes en route to New York?
The road in front of me was empty.
Talk about eerie…
As I sped down the Harlem River Drive until it met up with the FDR, the north-south running, eastern side corridor of Manhattan, I thought to myself that I would never, ever, EVER encounter a traffic pattern like this one again — I was the only car on the road. There were no others. And, from midtown Manhattan, I could finally detect the plumes of smoke from the crippled towers that I had been listening to described in radio reports. I shuddered at the thought of the lives lost. My Bureau steed whipped off the FDR and negotiated an exit ramp into lower Manhattan that was clogged with panicked civilian pedestrians fleeing lower Manhattan. I bailed out of my car and began to awkwardly limp towards 26 Federal Plaza [more on this later], where my office was located on the 22nd floor. While assigned to HRT, I had been certified as an EMT-B, and I had a tactical medical kit bag in my lower desk drawer, upstairs. Just let me get to it. Maybe there were injured and dying that I could tend to. I needed to do something.
“Jimmy, you can’t go in there,” one of the federal contract building guards I knew shouted at me.
“What? Why? I need to get my med-kit,” I stammered, “You have to let me pass!” “Building’s on the radar,” he stated. We have evacuated it and believe it could be a potential target.” This, I understood. But, regardless, we needed to help with the rescue efforts I knew were going on just a few blocks south of where we stood.
“The FBI is mobilizing at St. Andrew’s R.C. Church, next to the SDNY,” he allowed. “That’s where I’m directing all you FBI guys to await further guidance.”
I knew the spot. But I damn sure wasn’t headed there now.
var zergnet = document.createElement(‘script’);
zergnet.src = (document.location.protocol == “https:” ? “https:” : “http:”) + ‘//www.zergnet.com/zerg.js?id=47152’;
var znscr = document.getElementsByTagName(‘script’);