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Sugar Grove man among 250,000 committed to Homeland Security

Ten years later: Remembering Sept. 11
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Updated: November 30, 2011 12:27AM



On March 1, 2003, the massive U.S. Department of Homeland Security was formed from 22 government agencies that employed 250,000 people.

“It’s a new mission — and it’s growing,” said Sugar Grove resident Mike Fagel, a national emergency management consultant.

And although that mission didn’t form into a new agency for two more years, the mission began the day the World Trade Center towers fell in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Formed out of diverse government groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and Secret Service, like all new agencies, the Department of Homeland Security had growing pains, said Fagel, who previously worked for FEMA.

“All of the focuses funneled into one organization to fight terrorism and assess homeland security risk,” Fagel said. “It was a gigantic reorganization.”

Logistical
nightmare

Fagel said that the American people remember the haunting images of disaster crews pulling people from wreckage in September 2001, “but the public really doesn’t understand what really went on.”

Fagel was on the scene in New York by Sept. 14 and remained there for about three months, until Christmas.

Lower Manhattan had no electricity, gas or water, as the lines had been severed and punctured by falling steel beams.

The 16-acre site and much of everything around it was destroyed, leaving a heavy debris field that covered at least three square miles, Fagel said. Fires remained burning for days in rubble, and dangling structures were anything but secure.

FEMA officials were faced with a unique challenge because World Trade Center building #7 had been the headquarters of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, and the planned place to set up shop in the event of a disaster. The Secret Service was also stationed there.

With no access to databases, Fagel had to rely on help from the Chicago and Aurora fire departments for some information he needed in the days following the attacks.

“We just had our minds and they were foggy,” Fagel said. “I needed the answers that I had trained them to know.”

The demands created a logistical nightmare.

“The puzzle was so huge that people have no idea how interconnected every problem at Ground Zero was,” Fagel said. “You moved one piece, and there were ramifications.”

Many agencies,
many priorities

Fagel said that with 85 different agencies working at once to accomplish a goal following the 9/11 attacks, priories sometimes clashed.

“You had 70 people who all wanted to get their issue across first,” Fagel said. “They weren’t always polite.”

Fagel said city officials, safety, security, police and fire groups butted heads at times about which problem to tackle first.

But the groups learned to work together, and were able to accomplish vital tasks quickly, Fagel said.

Within hours of the towers being hit, a great reorganization occurred to develop an operations command post from scratch. Government agencies set up shop at Pier 92 within 48 hours.

“A gazillion people came together to bring Pier 92 into fruition,” Fagel said. “People don’t know how fast it came together and how well it worked.”

New York Public School 89, a building that was in the debris field but was intact, became a distribution center for issuing masks, gloves and other safety equipment for Ground Zero crews.

Fagel said safety became a top priority — from educating crews about hand washing and wearing masks to keep dangerous debris off of their skin and out of their lungs.

“There was lots of safety going on behind the scenes to make sure people didn’t die,” Fagel said.

There were a lot of security measures that were developed immediately, too, to keep the site intact and crews safe.

By the middle of October, it took an armband and three government-issued clearance IDs to access Ground Zero sites.

“We had huge, epic problems with fake IDs. Looters, people wanted to get stuff from this sacred burial ground,” he said.

Fagel recalled being especially careful about accepting homemade food from city residents and well-wishers that was left for the crews.

“We accepted it graciously — but what would happen if it was tainted?” Fagel said.

Future of the agency

Fagel said the Department of Homeland Security will have a deeper focus on all risk hazards — natural and man-made catastrophes — in the future.

Prevention and education will remain the agency’s top priorities, he said.

That will include a greater focus on critical infrastructure and “helping to ensure and reinforce that the public needs to be as self sufficient as possible for the first 72 hours” following an incident.

“I personally don’t see a larger organization, but (an organization) with much more interactivity,” Fagel said, that could include greater social media outreach and other communication strategies.

More information for readiness plans can be found at www.ready.gov.



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