How the National Park Service responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks

Pentagon September 11 2011 9/11
Aerial view of the Pentagon Building located in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), showing crews responding to the destruction caused when a highjacked commercial jetliner crashed into the southwest corner of the building during the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Photo September 14, 2001 by TSGT Cedric H. Rudisill, USAF.

When a hijacked 757 airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 shortly after two others were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, no one knew what would happen next. The National Park Service has many parks, facilities and employees in the Washington D.C. area. The agency is responsible for managing and protecting those areas as well as others across the country, such as the Statue of Liberty, St. Louis Gateway Arch, Liberty Bell, Washington Monument, and the other 385 units (at the time) within the NPS system.

In an effort to document the events of 9/11, determine how the National Park Service responded that day and the months that followed, and learn lessons, agency historians and ethnographers conducted more than a hundred oral history interviews with Service employees in parks, regional offices, and the Washington headquarters. Janet McDonnell, a Historian for the NPS, started with those interviews and wrote the 132-page report, “The National Park Service: Responding to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks.” It is very well written and comprehensive, broken down by geographic area, Washington and New York City. It also covers the use of multiple incident management teams that helped to mitigate the wide-ranging effects across the country.

One of the sections concentrates on the role of the Park Police Aviation Unit, which is a division of the NPS. Fire Aviation has a story about how their personnel and two helicopters assisted in the D.C. area after the attack.

Another section describes how the other NPS employees in Washington responded to the events. That is below, but first a few details that will add some background.

The document refers often to Rick Gale — on 15 different pages, according to the index. Before 9/11 Mr. Gale had been the Chief Ranger of the NPS, based in Washington and responsible for law enforcement within the agency. After that and at the time of the attack he was the Director of Fire and Aviation working out of Boise. He had been a Type 1 Incident Commander, an Area Commander, and the Incident Commander of the NPS Type 1 All Risk Incident Management Team. He was very well known and respected in the wildland fire and incident management community. When I was the Planning Section Chief on his All Risk Team we were activated and detailed to Washington to develop Continuity of Operations (COO) Plans for the NPS facilities at the Main Department of the Interior building and three other Park Service facilities in and near Washington. The plans that we completed in March of 1998 are referenced many times in the report.

The purpose of the COO Plans, as we wrote then, were to establish procedures “to ensure that essential functions and activities of  (___the facility___) are able to continue or be reactivated as quickly as possible during the full range of human-caused, natural, technological, or national security emergencies that have some reasonable likelihood of occurring at this facility.”

On 9/11 Mr. Gale happened to be temporally in the city at the Main Interior building in Associate Director Dick Ring’s third floor office when they learned about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Mr. Gale and Mr. Ring knew each other well, and had spent weeks working together in hurricane-ravaged Everglades National Park in 1992 when our Incident Management Team was assisting with response and recovery from Hurricane Andrew. At that time Mr. Ring was the Superintendent at Everglades.

The report points out that after the attacks Mr. Ring convinced Director of the Park Service Fran Mainella that it was in her best interests to keep Mr. Gale within shouting distance at all times so she could take advantage of his wisdom and experience in emergency incident management.

Mr. Gale, who spent 41 years with the NPS, passed away in 2009.

Below is the section of the report that describes the initial response by the NPS in Washington, mostly centered around the Main Interior building.


arrowhead NPSAt 8:45 a.m. (EST) American Airlines Flight 11 carrying ninety-two people from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Twenty minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 with sixty-five passengers and crew also heading toward California ripped through the South Tower. At 9:40 a.m. (EST) American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 commercial airliner carrying sixty-four people and 30,000 pounds of fuel for its long flight from Dulles to Los Angeles, smashed into the west façade of the Pentagon with such force that it penetrated four of the building’s five interior rings. The Federal Aviation Administration promptly banned takeoffs nationwide and ordered all flights that were in the air to land at the nearest airport. Then came the alarming news that United Airlines Flight 93 with forty passengers and crew en route to San Francisco had crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Not long after, reports circulated that this plane had been headed toward Washington, D.C., and heroic passengers had intervened to thwart this plan.


Main Interior Building, Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Rick Gale, chief of the National Park Service’s fire aviation emergency response and head of its incident management program, was sitting in Associate Director Richard (Dick) Ring’s third floor office in the Department of the Interior’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, when a call came in advising Ring to turn on the television. It would prove fortuitous that Gale who normally worked at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, happened to be in Washington that day. Ring turned on the television just in time to see the second plane strike the World Trade Center in New York City. Gale headed back to his temporary office in the ranger activities division. Not long after, Ring received word that the Pentagon had been struck. He stepped outside onto his small balcony and glancing south saw an ominous cloud of smoke rising in the distance.

Meanwhile, a few floors above, the acting chief of the Park Service ranger activities division, Dennis Burnett, was working at his computer when an employee ran down the hallway announcing that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Burnett walked down to the vacant office of chief of ranger activities at end of the corridor, where he knew there was a television. After checking the news, he returned to his office. Moments later, he learned of the second plane attack. At that point, Burnett gathered his small staff, which included national law enforcement specialist Maj. Gary Van Horn, U.S. Park Police, and Search and Rescue Emergency Medical Services Coordinator Randall Coffman. They headed to the department’s law enforcement security office, where they continued to monitor the television news coverage.

Pentagon terrorist attack 9/11
Injured victims of the 9/11 terrorists attack on the Pentagon Building in Washington, District of Columbia (DC) are loaded onto an ambulance, at the medical triage area, for transport to a local hospital. Photo by JO1 Mark D. Faram, USN.

Major Van Horn, an experienced career law enforcement officer, quickly recognized the need to immediately locate the Service’s decision-makers and get them to a secure location in case there were incidents in the Washington area. He hurried back to his office and got on his police radio. After learning of the Pentagon attack, Van Horn became concerned about potential threats to the monuments and memorials on the National Mall. He climbed into his police cruiser and quickly drove to each of these monuments and memorials to conduct quick inspections and to make sure that Park Police officers were in position in the event of another attack. He spotted a suspicious package on the Memorial Bridge, a major route in and out of downtown Washington, and waited there until more officers arrived. After assuring himself that the bridge was secured, he returned to the Main Interior Building.

Meanwhile, Burnett and other employees in Main Interior discovered that they could no longer make outgoing phone calls on either landlines or their cellular phones. Wireless networks had collapsed under the barrage of calls. When Burnett’s daughter called to check on him a half hour after the Pentagon attack, he used this opportunity to establish what would become an important phone link. He asked his daughter to have the Eastern Interagency Coordination Center (EICC), a dispatch center located in Shenandoah National Park, call him. When the center contacted him, he asked the staff to continue calling every twenty minutes so that they could maintain a landline connection. Although phone service was severely restricted, Burnett was able to send an e-mail message to the regional chief rangers and to the dispatch center, informing them that the Washington headquarters had no communications capability.

In his message, Burnett asked the dispatch center to become the agency’s “eyes and ears.” He directed parks and regions to channel all their messages for the Washington office through the center. Finally, he reported that the department had activated its continuity of operations plan and was relocating people in accordance with that plan. In another message he encouraged regional chief rangers to step up security at Park Service facilities and sites.

The EICC had been established at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in 1980 and had grown from a small center that coordinated responses to fires and local emergencies into a national coordination center. Combined with the coordination center was a communications center that provided emergency notifications of crisis situations and mobilizations for the Park Service, other federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and for senior department officials. While the communications center did the notifications, the coordination center directed the actual mobilization and demobilization of resources within the Service.

Upon learning of the attacks, the center’s manager, Brenda Ritchie, an experienced emergency operations manager, immediately called in additional dispatchers to staff the communications center. Her first task was to contact senior department officials to find out where they were and verify that they were safe and to determine the status of all the parks and employees in the Park Service’s Northeast Region. As already noted, initially officials in the Main Interior Building were unable to make outgoing calls, so the center called them every fifteen to twenty minutes. Faced with major communications problems, Ritchie quickly arranged to bring in a mobile satellite truck, a so-called cellular on wheels. The satellite truck and 150 cellular phones arrived within the first eight hours, and the center distributed the phones to key managers and operational staff. Bringing in the satellite dish on such short notice was no small feat and required unprecedented cooperation between two major telecommunications companies—Verizon and Sprint. As a result, phone service was restored to most sections of the Main Interior Building.

The center performed the communications role for both the Service and the Department of the Interior. It provided direct support to the parks and also to FEMA in New York and New Jersey. When the staff for the intelligence, coordination, and communications functions grew to more than twenty people, it became clear that the modest 1950s-era building that had housed the communications center in the past could not hold them all. Ritchie got approval to bring in a trailer to house the coordination center.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, director of the National Park Service Fran Mainella; Pacific West Regional Director John Reynolds (who was acting as deputy director at the time); Associate Director for Administration Sue Masica; Associate Director for Cultural Resources and Partnerships Kate Stevenson; Dick Ring; Dennis Burnett; and others gathered in the deputy director’s third floor office to plan a course of action. They quickly recognized the need to get to a safe environment where they would have effective communications.

When Rick Gale joined the group, Reynolds introduced him to the director and recommended him to Mainella as someone with extensive experience in emergency response. Dick Ring suggested that Gale stay close to the director to enhance communication and coordination with the department. He also wanted Gale to coordinate the director’s activities, communications, and directions regarding the emergency operations within the Service. The director quickly tapped Gale to go with her to meet with department leaders on the sixth floor. Gale would remain close to the director throughout the day and in the days that followed. He offered her advice on how best to organize the Service’s response and laid out possible missions. In effect, Gale became a self-described sounding board for the director.

Much like the rest of the country, in those first hours Service leaders were stunned by the attacks and struggled to understand the full scope and implications of what had happened. They were just beginning to receive some reports from the Park Police about its security-related activities and about the worsening traffic situation around the city. The leaders were not aware of any specific immediate threats to or attacks on any National Park Service areas, so they were not yet focused on planning a Service-wide response. They knew that Federal Hall and Castle Clinton National Monuments were located near the World Trade Center, but they did not yet know the status of those parks. Little information came out of New York in those first hours. Service leaders had concerns, but with landlines down and cellular phone system overloaded, they had little solid information and chose to proceed cautiously. Years earlier, as superintendent of Everglades National Park when Hurricane Andrew struck, Ring had learned that the best approach was to proceed slowly and to gather solid information before taking action. Since there were no reports of a park being struck, he believed the immediate task was simply to gather more information.

The director issued “Emergency Operations Instructions,” authorizing all regional directors, at their discretion, to reduce their staffs to essential personnel only. She specified that, if possible, parks should continue minimum operations with basic visitor contact services, provide updates on the incidents, and monitor television and radio reports. She directed that campgrounds remain open as appropriate. Finally, the director encouraged superintendents to advise their employees to become more security conscious.

As the morning progressed, Service leaders learned that the federal government in Washington was shutting down its operations. Around 10:00 a.m. federal authorities ordered government offices closed and approximately 260,000 federal workers in Washington began pouring out into the streets. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton ordered the evacuation of the Main Interior Building and released a memo dismissing all nonessential employees for the remainder of the day. Her memo indicated that the dismissal would remain in effect the next day September 12, unless employees were informed otherwise.

Continuity of Operations

When officials gathered in the deputy director’s office, one of the first topics under discussion was the need to implement the Service’s continuity of operations plan. The National Park Service headquarters, each regional and support office, and some individual parks had what is called a continuity of operations plan, which outlines specific measures to ensure that operations continue as smoothly as possible during an emergency. Park Service continuity of operations plans were designed to correspond to the department’s continuity of operations plan. The department’s plan spelled out the succession of authority and provided for the removal of the secretary, deputy secretary, and each bureau head to a remote location well outside the Washington area. The plan specified that the National Park Service director would go to the same location as the secretary or to another location specified by the secretary.

Initially the secretary wanted department and bureau leaders to go to what the plan designated as Site B—an office about ten miles away in Northern Virginia. Leaders considered Site B to be a safe location where they could organize the department’s operations. The director and Rick Gale got in a car to drive to the site, but with the horrendous traffic congestion in downtown Washington it took them twenty minutes just to get out of the Main Interior Building’s underground parking garage. As the minutes passed, Gale observed that with cellular phone systems overloaded, the director would be without any communications link for hours while she sat in traffic. The director agreed with his assessment. They got out of the car and went back up to the sixth floor. Soon after, the department set up operations in the department’s National Business Center conference room in the basement, presumably the safest part of the building. The large conference room became the department’s coordination center. The director joined Deputy Secretary of Interior J. Steven Griles and other key department leaders there.

Later in the day, the secretary decided to relocate to what the department’s continuity of operations plan designated as Site C, an hour’s drive outside Washington. As noted, the plan provided that the director and other bureau heads would join department leaders at this alternate site. The Service’s own continuity of operations plan provided that its deputy director and other senior leaders would go to the Service’s designated site in West Virginia. This facility had a conference room outfitted with extra phone lines and all the other equipment these leaders would need to continue their management functions. Staffs at both alternate sites quickly and efficiently organized to receive the senior managers. At the request of department officials, a U.S. Park Police SWAT team came to the Main Interior Building and escorted senior department officials to Site C.

Major Van Horn offered to escort the director to the alternate site, and being fairly new to the Service and unfamiliar with the site, she gratefully accepted. He led the way in his police cruiser, while the director followed close behind in her own vehicle. They stopped at her home first so she could pack some extra clothing. While she did this, Major Van Horn went to his home where he quickly grabbed extra clothes and a couple sandwiches that his wife had prepared for him and the director. He went back to pick up the director and the two headed for Site C. Meanwhile, Gale returned to his hotel room and, at the director’s request, began contacting all the Service’s senior managers to arrange for them to go to the designated West Virginia site the next morning.

Once at the alternate site, department officials and bureau heads discussed the immediate challenges and made decisions about how to proceed. Their task was made more difficult because they had no clear sense of what sites were potential terrorist targets. They knew that economic centers, such as the World Trade Center, and military facilities, such as the Pentagon, were targets but did not know if any of what they considered to be the department’s national “icons” were at risk. Since they did not know which sites, which national icons, were potential terrorist targets, initially they decided to increase security at all areas and to close some parks and facilities. Service leaders immediately initiated twenty-four-hour security coverage at Boston Navy Yard where the USS Constitution was berthed, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Mount Rushmore, and at the major monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C.

The senior leaders at Site C also dealt with the question of whether employees should come to work the next day and, once the decision was made, how to get the word out to them. They tried to gather accurate intelligence information about potential threats in order to make informed decisions. They were prepared to stay at the alternate site as long as necessary. Later that evening when the initial frenzy had subsided, Van Horn quietly offered to escort the director back to the Washington area. Both agreed that returning to work in the Main Interior Building the next morning would send a strong message about the resilience of the federal government. After some discussion with department officials, the director decided to return. Meanwhile, in a televised address that evening, President Bush had announced that federal offices in Washington would be open for business the next day, September 12, so many other officials returned to Washington late that night as well. In line with the president’s address, the Office of Personnel Management announced that all federal agencies in the Washington area would reopen on September 12, though employees would be allowed to take unscheduled leave.

Before leaving the alternate site, Major Van Horn asked the dispatch center to send a message from the director to all regional directors directing that the parks “as much as reasonable” assume normal operations on September 12. However, through delegation from the regional directors, park superintendents would have the discretion to limit or augment personnel and operations at sites where they deemed such measures appropriate. They were to grant nonessential personnel unscheduled leave. The memo went out to the field offices by e-mail.

As soon as Gale received word that the director was returning to Washington, he began calling the associate directors back to advise them to cancel their plans to go to West Virginia. Around 10:00 p.m. Burnett sent word through the dispatch center in Shenandoah National Park that the secretary had canceled all activities at Site C. He advised Gale, Ring, and other Service managers to report for work in the headquarters building the next morning.

Reflecting the White House’s desire for the federal government to resume normal operations as quickly as possible, Secretary Norton made it clear that she expected as many parks as possible to be open on September 12. In a memo to department employees the morning of the 12th, she reiterated, “by providing uninterrupted service, we reaffirm that we will not be intimated by acts of terrorism.” She announced that the monuments and memorials in Washington (except for the Washington Monument) had reopened at 11:30 a.m. and that the National Park Service sites were open, except for those in the New York City area. In a press release, she said, “Our focus remains on the safety of our visitors and our employees. We must remain vigilant as we provide the American people access to our nation’s monuments, memorials, and parks for the solace and inspiration they provide.” The secretary added that operations at the New York sites were more limited and Manhattan Sites remained closed. In closing, she wrote, “We encourage everyone to draw inspiration from our greatest national treasures and let them serve as reminders that this nation will endure and prosper.”

Bureau and department leaders, including Director Mainella, were back in their offices on the morning of the 12th. In an effort to reassure employees, Deputy Secretary Griles personally greeted them as they returned to work. All too soon, however, it became clear that this workday would be far from routine. Griles was in a meeting with the secretary when she received a call advising her that an unidentified and unaccounted for commercial airliner was heading from Canada toward Washington. Griles immediately directed that all employees move to the basement. Unfortunately, the department had no good mechanism for communicating with employees throughout the building. There was no public address system. No individual or office had specific responsibility for informing employees that they needed to evacuate to the basement cafeteria. Confused and anxious employees did not understand why they were suddenly being sent there. When they arrived in the cafeteria, the scene was chaotic and reliable information was scarce. Officials tried to organize employees by bureau, but were unsuccessful.

In the midst of the confusion, Griles and Mainella did what they could to calm employees and keep them informed. Griles explained the situation and offered employees the option of leaving. Meanwhile, Major Van Horn contacted the Park Police and determined that the information about an unidentified plane heading toward Washington was inaccurate. He also learned that the U.S. Air Force had sent up fighter pilots as an added precaution. Van Horn climbed up on a chair in the midst of the crowded cafeteria and used a hurriedly borrowed megaphone to convey this information.

Notification of employees throughout the building was haphazard. There was an existing plan for evacuating the Main Interior Building in the event of a fire or bomb threat, but the plan did not provide for an alternate site for employees. There was no operations center identified for bureau heads that could provide employees with information and instructions. No group or function had been identified as having primary responsibility for this task. The Service’s head of risk management and employee safety, Richard (Dick) Powell, later emphasized that employees need to know where to go in an emergency. In the months after the attack, the department would develop a more detailed evacuation plan for Main Interior.

Park Closures

Repercussions from the attacks were felt well beyond the Main Interior Building that first day. As news of the tragedy spread, virtually every unit of the National Park System grappled with the impact to one degree or another. At Independence National Historical Park, for example, park staff had the emotionally difficult task of explaining to visitors why the park was closing and giving them their first information about the terrorist attacks. Across the country, at Yosemite National Park, the superintendent decided to keep the park open. He immediately increased the ranger presence and the staff at the visitor center and the public information office. He also quickly dispatched rangers out to Hetch-Hetchy Dam, a major water supply source for the city of San Francisco. As at Independence, Yosemite staff had to perform the delicate task of informing visitors about the attacks. Comforting distraught visitors in the midst of a national tragedy was a new and unfamiliar role for many park employees.

Superintendents had to carefully weigh a number of factors in deciding how to respond to the attacks. At Delaware Gap National Recreation Area, Deputy Superintendent Doyle Nelson closed the park and began implementing the park’s continuity of operations plan even before receiving official word that government facilities would be closing. Nelson was not overly concerned that Delaware Gap might be a terrorist target, but he and his staff began shutting down operations in order to free up rangers for duty in other areas that had been more directly affected. That morning Nelson received calls from the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area in New York requesting ranger assistance.

Initially department leaders considered closing all 385 units in the National Park System. However, Rick Gale pointed out to the director that closing parks could sometimes require more resources than leaving them open. Full closure often required sweeping the backcountry areas and in some instances could be difficult to enforce. The director thus recommended to the secretary that they reduce services in the parks rather than implement a total closure. The secretary and director decided to keep the parks open, though there were exceptions. For example, all the units in the New York City area and all the national monuments and memorials in Washington were immediately closed.

Other parks were closed temporarily as well, either because they were considered to be potential terrorist targets or because of their proximity to military or other sensitive installations.


Support to the Department of the Interior

On the morning of September 11, department officials quickly identified high priority sites that they believed were potential terrorist targets to include some major Bureau of Reclamation projects in the West. They called upon the Park Service and other bureaus to provide security at the Main Interior Building and asked the Service to help protect some of the department’s other high priority sites. The department’s list of national icons included several Bureau of Reclamation dams. The bureau had no law enforcement or security personnel of its own except at Hoover Dam, so department officials asked the Park Service to provide law enforcement personnel to protect these dams. Meeting the Bureau of Reclamation’s long-term security needs was a challenge. Service leaders found themselves in the difficult position of having to pull law enforcement rangers from their own key sites to provide the security the department requested.

Protecting Bureau of Reclamation sites presented two major problems for the Park Service: the first related to legal authority, and the second related to resources. The Service had no statutory authority on land outside park boundaries. It had no jurisdiction on many of the Bureau of Reclamation dam sites. Hoover and Davis Dams were located within the boundaries of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but the legislation establishing the recreation area specifically excised the dams and related facilities. As a result, park rangers could only provide law enforcement support under authority as deputy U.S. marshals. Each ranger had to be deputized as a special deputy U.S. marshal, a process requiring considerable time and effort. The Service had difficulty responding because only a small number of its rangers had been deputized.

Traditionally, the U.S. Marshals Service deputized the rangers for a single designated site for a specific period of time. Officials quickly discovered this practice was too restrictive because they needed the ability to transfer rangers from site to site. They began deputizing rangers for multiple sites for thirty days. Later, rangers were deputized for all department facilities, including the Main Interior Building, through December 31, 2003. Yet, even with the new, streamlined process, months later there remained a backlog of 500 to 800 applications for rangers waiting to be deputized.

The Service sent several of its “special event teams” to secure the departmental icons, each with ten to twelve trained law enforcement rangers. Because of disruptions to commercial air travel, the Service tried to assign teams to nearby installations. These teams were fully equipped and ready to deploy on short notice. However, there was growing concern that the Service could not continue to rely on the relatively small number of rangers on special event teams who had been deputized. Four months after the attacks, park rangers remained on duty protecting these sites, and these special event teams, Burnett observed, had been “used to exhaustion.” By that time, some teams had been on three or four rotations at various dam sites in the West, and the Service had begun deploying individual rangers instead of teams. If there were not enough individual replacements, the teams had to extend their duty.

Filling requests for law enforcement rangers at the Lake Roosevelt, Whiskeytown, and Lake Mead National Recreation Areas became increasingly difficult. On September 20, Pacific West Region Chief Ranger Jay Wells reported that he had no indication that additional rangers would be arriving soon and his rangers were “pretty well tapped out” with the coverage at the three recreation areas and their traditional firefighting assignments. Wells asked for assistance from other regions and warned that it was “getting to be a safety issue,” particularly at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. If no relief came the following day, he added, the region planned to send a special event team to Lake Mead National Recreation Area that it had been holding in reserve in case it was needed in Washington, D.C., or New York City. Six rangers were providing twentyfour-hour security at Lake Mead, and the park was clamoring for more rangers. Ten rangers were stationed at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Grand Coulee Dam at Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area and four were assigned to the bureau’s Shasta Dam project.

Months later, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area superintendent reported that the post–September 11 security requirements had “heavily tasked” the park’s protection division. At one point, the special event teams and park staff were providing maritime security above and below Hoover Dam and also staffing highway checkpoints east and west of the dam. In addition to securing the dams, the rangers still had their ongoing mission of protecting visitors. Providing around-the-clock coverage at Hoover and Davis Dams had taken “a tremendous amount of manpower, time, and resources,” he noted.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area faced similar challenges. On September 11, park rangers joined with local and state law enforcement agencies and the Bureau of Reclamation to enhance security at the bureau’s critical Central Valley Project facilities located in or near Whiskeytown. This massive project supplied water for irrigation and provided flood control for the Sacramento River basin. It also generated and supplied a significant portion of the electrical power on the West Coast. The secretary had identified the Bureau of Reclamation’s Shasta Dam as “a critical national asset.” Whiskeytown staff provided continuous support to the Shasta Dam security personnel and helped them close off the dam and the surrounding area to public access. On several occasions the park’s entire law enforcement staff participated in this operation. Park rangers managed security at the dam and supervised the twelve-member special event teams that rotated through every twenty-one days. As a result, the superintendent reported, “there has been a major reduction in proactive ranger patrol and resource protection/ education as a result of Whiskeytown’s commitment to dam security.”

By mid-October, the visitor center at Lake Mead National Recreation Area had reopened, but tours of Hoover and Davis Dams remained suspended. The same was true at Shasta Dam at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and Grand Coulee Dam at Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area. The Service’s support at Bureau of Reclamation projects and other department sites continued to have a great impact on its law enforcement resources and capabilities.


Much like every other federal agency, the National Park Service found itself ill prepared to respond to an emergency of the type and magnitude of September 11. The Service implemented its continuity of operations plan quickly, and for the most part, effectively that first day, but the implementation was not as smooth as officials would have preferred. Some officials evacuated reasonably quickly to designated alternate sites, but traffic congestion hampered the evacuation of others. With phone service disrupted throughout the city, contacting some officials was difficult.

The response also revealed some flaws in the Service’s continuity of operations plan. The plan was somewhat dated and designed more for responding to a fire or bomb threat than a terrorist attack. Officials discovered that in some instances, particularly with the confusion and traffic gridlock they encountered, it might be more effective to shelter employees on-site than to evacuate them. Some leaders concluded that the Service needed a more flexible plan. At the same time, the response demonstrated that Department of the Interior and Park Service leaders understood their roles under the plan and were willing to pitch in and do whatever was required. “It was,” Major Gary Van Horn said, “a combined effort of a lot of well-meaning, well-intentioned individuals.” Decisions were made in a timely fashion and information flowed smoothly between department officials and Service representatives.

As a result of the September 11 experience, Service leaders later brought in a group to revise and update the continuity of operations plan. Over a ten-day period, the consultants revised the plan to address the new security concerns and risk management concerns and added an even more remote alternate work site so that leadership could continue operations should another event occur in the Washington, D.C., area.

While Service officials in the Washington headquarters grappled with the immediate issues of maintaining basic operations, enhancing security, and supporting the department, park superintendents throughout the country also faced the challenge of maintaining operations and keeping park employees, visitors, and resources safe. This challenge was particularly great in the Washington area and in New York City.

(End of excerpt)

The entire report can be downloaded. (Large 4 MB file).

On September 11, 2001 I was working as Planning Section Chief on the Swamp Ridge Fire on the North Rim in Grand Canyon National Park. As I arrived at the site for the morning briefing I was about to lead, someone had the AM/FM radio on in his truck and we heard the report of the second airliner that crashed into the World Trade Center. We knew then it was not an accident, like the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building in 1945. We went on with the briefing as planned, and I remember Incident Commander Wayne Cook briefly emphasizing that we needed to ignore what was going on in the rest of the country and to move on. Of course we still needed to manage the fire, but I thought it was a little cold and lacking in compassion for thousands that died. A little recognition of the gravity of what had just happened and how we all might be affected one way or the other might have been a better response from a leader.

In the following days our helicopters on the fire were grounded like all other non-military aircraft. We eventually arranged for a satellite TV receiver setup and at the end of our shifts were able to watch a few minutes of the 24/7 coverage about what was happening in the rest of the country.

I remember lying in my tent at night in the quiet remote area trying to go to sleep and hearing what seemed to be a lot of large aircraft flying far overhead. The skies appeared to be very busy considering no civilian aircraft could fly. I was thinking — if military aircraft are THAT busy, WTF is going on?

If you read this far, congratulations!

What were YOU doing on September 11, 2001?

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

6 thoughts on “How the National Park Service responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks”

  1. Morning of 09/11/01 driving up the New Jersey Turnpike on AL to help my parents move into a senior residence from the house they had occupied for 52 years in Northern New Jersey. Huge smoke plume spotted from miles away. Stopped for gas and people clustered around TV in the station. Went to Statue of Liberty. The entire staff was in a state of shock. Looking across the river I saw the once familiar towers gone, ( I had seen them grow as a kid). Called my park dispatch and told them where I was and available for assignment for my eastern NPS all risk team. Took actions to check on the status of in city NPS employees and impacts to nearby sites. Walked around the perimeter of WTC site in smoke and ankle deep dust observing some scenes that were totally shocking for even a veteran first responder like myself. Returned to Statue of Liberty at dark and observed hundreds of emergency vehicles staged in NJ or lining the city’s west side highway with lights flashing Out of control and growing high rise structural fires lighting the night over a darkened lower Manhatten. Unbelievable but very real. Here were fires totally out of control and growing that confronted the largest and most experienced fire department in the world and they were losing ground big time. Called my wife and for the first time in 15 years she said I’m worried, please be careful. I arrived late at my old family home and they noticed at once I was covered head to foot in a fine white dust. Called by team leader early next morning and told to self-dispatch, assess the situation at NPS area sites and report to the ICP once established. Spent two weeks on assignment in the area.

  2. I just started my shift as an Ops Battalion Chief in our HQ fire station as the second plane hit the tower. (This was a west coast city of about 250k population)
    The entire front office staff was gathered around a TV in our shift commander’s quarters. A neighboring city in our metro region held back (on OT) the entire off-going shift to staff up all reserve apparatus, etc, not knowing what was next. We heartily concurred with that plan, but could not convince our FC to allow us to do the same for our nearly 1 dozen stations, despite several national-significance targets in town. At some point in that first hour, I called home to tell my wife that we seemed to be at war. That was a very tough phone conversation, as she prepared our kids to catch the school bus through tears. The day was an absolute blur of meetings with federal, state and local law enforcement, and ever-changing strategizing with our on-edge fire companies. And of course, the steady pace of fire and EMS calls continued like any other day. I woke up in my quarters the next morning after a pretty uneventful night, and was totally convinced for about 5 minutes that it had all been a bad dream. That was a very good 5 minutes.

  3. I was sitting in an office at the NPS Center for Urban Ecology in NW Washington DC. After watching the coverage on our 11″ tube TV screen in the conference room, and hearing reports about a plane heading towards Dulles airport (I lived out that way), I told everyone good luck and went to my parents’ house (who were ironically moving from my childhood home that day) in Northern VA. My brother is a Fairfax County VA firefighter and I knew he’d be moving to staff stations closer to the city, so our thoughts were with him. I’ll never forget sitting in traffic and watching an F-16 fighter jet scream up the Potomac River at about 200 feet above ground level. Also, crossing the Potomac over Chain Bridge, looking downriver, and seeing the massive black smoke column coming from the Pentagon about 5-miles downstream. Totally surreal day.

    Thanks for the article, Bill. A little cathartic and provides some great insight about the internal response within NPS.

  4. I was in a high school French II class. It was distance learning, so we joined the main class over TV. The librarian was supervising us during the second half of a double period that day when her husband called. She rushed in, said, ” We are under attack” and switched one TV to the news. We were all stupified. About 10 minutes after we started watching, the second plane hit the Towers.

    1. Hello,
      I see no mention of the Special Agents from the National Park Service (Northeast Region) that served on the FBI JTTF in Boston after 911 in any report. I was one of those Agents that contribute to the NPS support.

      SA (Ret) Nicholas J. Valhos, NPS ROVA


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