9/11 U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Remembers

September 11

By Wendy Laursen 2016-09-09 19:15:39

Admiral James M. Loy, 21st Commandant of the USCG (Ret.) served as Commandant of the United States Coast Guard at the time of the 9/11 attacks.  He directed all U.S. Coast Guard response to the national tragedy. Loy spoke to MarEx about the experience:

I was actually in my office in an important meeting with several heads of major U. S. companies when my aide interrupted us to turn on the TV after the first plane hit the WTC.  The CEOs quickly recognized the gravity of the moment and silently filed out. My first reaction was a simple hope that the first strike was accidental. The second strike confirmed in my mind that this was an intentional terrorist attack. 

Shortly after that, we actually felt the impact of the plane hitting the Pentagon. I gathered the appropriate senior officers at Coast Guard Headquarters and gained connection with the two Coast Guard Area Commanders who command all the field units of the service. We put together a game plan focused on our Port Security responsibilities and left the execution in the good hands of the field commanders and reported our intended activity to Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson at the Department of Transportation.

Norm Mineta, our Service Secretary, was leading the effort with the FAA to control airborne traffic and safely land the many planes in flight at the time of the strikes in New York. The bottom line regarding first thoughts was very straightforward … do your job, and do it well.

The extraordinary response of the maritime community in the Port of NY/NJ was truly heroic, as literally everything that floated was pressed into service taking 500,000 scared citizens off lower Manhattan to the safety of New Jersey and Staten Island. 

The local commanders realized this was more than search and rescue and paid focused attention to “closing” the port. Traffic in and out became controlled, and Coast Guard assets were diverted from their normal missions to do the same thing in all the ports across the nation. Bottom line: we had no idea whether another attack would take place, and the possibility of it being maritime in nature galvanized our focus on port security. 

Using the training and experience drawn from exercises provided a framework for the Coast Guard response in a collaborative manner with all the other first responders. That effort proved to be really important, as the scope of the tragedy played out over not only that day but in the weeks that followed.

There were three aspects to the heroism I saw. First is the professional response to a national nightmare. Heroism is often about keeping your wits about you and performing your duty responsibly when many about you are panicked. The Coast Guard units and personnel in NY harbor that day did just that. 

Secondly, the senior officer in New York RADM Dick Bennis was on the NJ Turnpike headed south after a treatment at Sloan Kettering for his cancer. When RADM Bennis heard the reports on the radio concerning the two planes hitting the towers, he turned around and went back to work.

His quiet dedication to duty, despite every good reason to keep driving south, became an inspiration to his team. Their performance that day under his leadership is a very proud moment in Coast Guard history.

Third, RADM Rick Larrabee USCG, (Ret) escaped from his office in the tower and survived.  He too, headed for the Coast Guard offices in the Battery to find a way to contribute. As a member of the Board of Directors of the National Coast Guard Museum Association, I believe deeply it is stories like these that we need to put on public display in our new museum. Our citizens deserve an opportunity to reflect on such moments and gain appreciation and pride in their Coast Guard.

In the middle of the third day after 9/11, it occurred to me that our founder, Alexander Hamilton, was buried in the cemetery adjacent to Trinity Church at the foot of Wall Street. The churchyard was under several feet of ash and debris. We gathered a Coast Guard work party and cleaned that churchyard with the permission of the rector. Special attention was paid to the Hamilton gravesite and it was cleaned and polished until it gleamed. 

The workers on 12 hours on and 12 hours off at the WTC site next door came to help when they heard what we were doing. It became a symbol of intended recovery from the nightmare, then three days old and counting. That story is, in miniature, what the Coast Guard is all about.

I’ve thought many times about what we should or could have done differently that day.  The 9/11 Commission report is a very good place to go to answer the question. For me, the biggest breakdown at the scene was with public safety communications. Young men and women died that day because the police could not talk to the firefighters or the emergency medics and the confusion that resulted contributed to the loss of life. 

Four years later, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans showed we still had a serious problem. Only now are we as a nation about to fix the problem when First Net, the government entity created to do so, announces its intentions in November.

The Coast Guard prides itself in keeping lessons learned on the front burner. In my lifetime, the most memorable event was 9/11. It is to our generation what Pearl Harbor was to our parents. The memory will remain strong. 

The Coast Guard performance on 9/11 and many times since (Katrina/Superstorm Sandy etc) was legendary. The sevice’s motto is Semper Paratus (Always Ready).  The U. S. Coast Guard is in fact ready for whatever the next tragedy demands.

Admiral Loy became Commandant of the Coast Guard in May 1998 and served through May 2002. Admiral Loy focused his leadership during his tenure on restoring Coast Guard readiness and shaping the future of the nation’s oldest continuous sea-going service.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.