James Schwartz arrived at the Pentagon just 11 minutes after an American Airlines jet was deliberately crashed into it on Sept. 11, 2001. And for the ensuing two weeks, Schwartz – assistant chief for operations at the Arlington County Fire Department – would serve as incident commander, in many ways final decision-maker, on the scene.
Two decades later, he relived the tale of those days in remarks to the Arlington County Historical Society.
“I am enormously proud to tell the story,” said Schwartz, who spent his entire career in the Arlington government, retiring as a deputy county manager in Arlington after service as fire chief.
He pointed to collaboration among jurisdictions and agencies, built on years of collaborative effort and training, that helped keep an already horrific situation at the Pentagon from getting far worse.
“It was truly an all-hands-on-deck endeavor,” Schwartz said at the historical society’s annual banquet, held Sept. 9 at Washington Golf & Country Club. “We’re all in this together. There’s not a single agency or even a single jurisdiction that can handle this by themselves.”
Schwartz pointed to the county’s then-fire chief, Edward Plaugher, for his work building relationships with agencies like the FBI. Plaugher “was ahead of his time” in being concerned about terrorism, Schwartz said.
Also speaking at the event was Ron Carlee, who in September 2001 was settling in as Arlington county manager – to which he had been appointed just five months before after long service in the county-government ranks.
Carlee, too, said county public-safety agencies were ahead of the curve in 2001.
“There wasn’t a better-prepared community,” he said. “We have the best damn fire and police departments – there is an incredible level of dedication and professionalism.”
Still, the attacks on the World Trade Center and, shortly thereafter, the Pentagon forced county personnel to enter uncharted territory.
“This team didn’t have a lot of time to think,” Carlee acknowledged.
In the midst of the carnage at the Pentagon, which saw the deaths of 184 victims of terror ranging in age from 3 to 71, leaders from across the region worked to design on the fly a unified strategy and messaging to calm an understandably jittery public.
They decided that schools would be closed on Sept. 12 (a decision not supported by a number of jurisdictions, who nonetheless went along). But otherwise, it would be business as close to usual as possible the day after the attacks, with local governments functioning rather than locked down.
“It sent a very important message to the world,” Carlee said of the decision.
For the Arlington government, every department – literally every department – was given a role to play in the days following the attack.
“In a major event, you need to have everybody on board,” he said. “There were many leaders that emerged.”
Among those on hand at the Sept. 9 dinner were two members of the 2001 County Board – Jay Fisette (who was chairing the body that year) and Paul Ferguson (now clerk of the Circuit Court). Carlee said elected officials provided leadership but let staff do what had to be done.
“They were involved but they didn’t micromanage,” said Carlee, who after leaving Arlington in 2009 served a stint as city manager in Charlotte, N.C., and is now a professor at Old Dominion University.
In his remarks, Schwartz noted that mutual-aid agreements between localities in the Washington area dated back to the 1970s, and by 2001, “the relationships and the trust that existed” helped to carry the day.
“It was decades in the making. Decades of investment in relationships were fulfilled,” he said.
Perhaps lost in the mists of time is that, not long after the 9/11 attacks, the Washington region became a victim of anthrax mailings, exacerbating fears that another terror attack could be around the corner. The local community, given its prominent location, would be excused for thinking it had a target on its back.
“There was a consistent sense that there was another shoe or two to drop,” Schwartz said. “The ominous feeling that permeated this area, by my estimation, lasted for a number of years.”
Arlington Historical Society president Cathy Hix said the presentations by Carlee and Schwartz were just one way the society “is very committed to telling the story of 9/11” – in particular, the stories of first-responders and how the community rallied in its aftermath, she said.
“It just gives me such a sense of pride,” Hix said. “This is such a part of not only our history, but national history.”