World Trade Center: an interview with Coast Guard Officer Brandon Brewer

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

The first rescuers on 9/11 weren’t only firefighters and police officers. Other agencies, too, contributed to saving countless lives. A special mention goes to the US Coast Guard, which handled one of the greatest evacuations over water in history, ferrying to safety hundreds of thousands of people trapped on the southern tip of Manhattan.

To learn more about this action, Undicisettembre has interviewed Coast Guard Officer Brandon Brewer. His words bring out the courage and dedication of the men and women who carried out this massive rescue operation.

We would like to thank Brandon Brewer for his kindness and willingness to share his experience.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us an account of what you saw and experienced on that day? What happened to you on 9/11?

Brandon Brewer: On that day I was in the Coast Guard, I was a Chief Petty Officer, I was stationed in the Battery area of Manhattan, which is at the southern tip of Manhattan, about six or seven blocks from the World Trade Center complex. I was at work that day, I was on duty; at one point when I was returning to the building from a short break a coworker from down the hallway came running into the building yelling “The World Trade Center has been hit! The World Trade Center has been hit! A plane hit the Trade Center!” I didn’t know what he was talking about so I went into my office, turned on the news but in that moment there was very little information. I had a few people working for me and we were glued to the TV, we were watching what was happening, especially because we were so close. After a few minutes we decided that we didn’t have to watch TV, we could have seen the buildings from our building. Our building was situated at the edge of Battery Park, it was a Coast Guard building so it was obviously on the water and it’s a small building only three stories high.

We went to the roof and since we had a park in front of us, we had an unobstructed view of both towers. We were up there talking among ourselves, we were three people up there, and we were discussing what might have happened. There was smoke coming from the North Tower, there was a rain of paper, files and whatever else got blown out of the building. We had been up there for a few minutes when the second plane flew over us, it came from south of us, flew over the New York harbor and right over Battery Park and we saw it hit the South Tower. We didn’t really know what was happening. It was clearly a passenger jet – it was so close we could read the writing on the side of it – but my first thought was “This must be a reconnaissance plane of some kind.” It was the only thing that made sense in my mind. Of course after it hit that idea quickly changed.

There were about fifty people in that Coast Guard building, some uniformed Coast Guard members and some Coast Guard civilians, we started gathering in a large conference room and the senior officer in the building went over safety and security plans we needed to enact to keep ourselves safe and keep the building safe because it was a military installation. While we were doing this, the first tower came down and a lot of people who were evacuating from Ground Zero came to the Battery Park area because right beside our building was the Staten Island ferry terminal. So there were a lot of people gathering down there but they were not going anywhere because the ferries were taken out of service as some kind of safety precaution. When the first tower came down we were downwind, so all the smoke, debris and dust completely covered our building. At this point people started to panic and there were more people coming to our part of the city and getting stopped at the ferry terminal or at the sea wall at Battery Park. They were trying to get as far from the World Trade Center as possible but Manhattan is an island, so there is only so far you can go.

Our visibility outside the windows was a few feet at one point, just because of the dust and debris in the air. People were starting to take care of each other; people were giving each other water. Police and other first responders were starting to get to the Battery Park area to help people and to rendezvous with other first responders. After the second tower came down is when the waterborne evacuation of Manhattan started taking place and it was in the Battery Park area primarily. We had that evacuation happening all around us. Some of the Coast Guard people started helping out, so the main thing that we could do was giving water or anything like that to those who needed it and helping people getting where they needed to go because we knew the neighborhood. We helped people get to the right boats they needed to go to be taken to safety.

Buildings in Manhattan were closing, but our building remained open and we had a pier, so other first responders of different agencies started dropping off supplies at our pier and told us “Take these supplies up to Ground Zero, take it to the first responders that are there.” Everything from food to water to ice to personal protective equipment started getting dropped off at our building, just because of the convenience of the location and because we could take government vehicles and transport those supplies a few blocks up, and we did that for a couple of hours. There were a handful of us who stayed there at the Coast Guard building. That afternoon, that evening and that night, our biggest contribution was taking supplies from our building up to Ground Zero. We also had first responders come to our building for a place to clean up, a place to rest, a place to get something to eat; so we started housing as many first responders as we could and at some time every flat surface in our conference room had somebody sleeping on it, whether it was police or firefighters or anyone else.

Undicisettembre: One thing I did not get is whether you guys received orders to intervene or if you did it just because you were willing to.

Brandon Brewer: Mostly because we were willing to do it. Let me explain it a little bit more in the details. The majority of the Coast Guard in New York is not in Manhattan, most of them are in Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. So our building and the about fifty people that were there were the only Coast Guard personnel permanently in Manhattan. Of course more Coast Guard people were coming, but the main focus of the Coast Guard on that day – operationally and officially – was port security and safety of life during the evacuation and the role the Coast Guard played in the evacuation, which started happening organically with the mariners in the harbor; but then the Coast Guard called for more help. I don’t know if you have seen the video Boat Lift, it’s about ten minutes long and it’s available on YouTube, I helped the producers with the Coast Guard angle of the story. It’s amazing and in ten minutes it tells you anything you need to know about the waterborne evacuation. Those were the Coast Guard’s biggest priorities and then bringing in more forces to do the port security mission.

Undicisettembre: What happened in the next days?

Brandon Brewer: We were doing our official work in the next days, but in my office, we had more people coming. For the first couple of days we kept the Manhattan building open because of what happened on 9/11. More first responders were showing up at our building and our pier because everything was closed down in Lower Manhattan. We did our normal work but also helped other people among the first responders, whatever they needed: water, food, rest. Other agencies started doing the same, some Port Authority police commandeered a kiosk in Battery Park that had a kitchen and they started cooking food for first responders. A lot of personal protective equipment supplies started getting staged there, so if people showed up and they were headed to Ground Zero and needed PPE we took them to that area.

Moreover, people didn’t know how to get to Ground Zero because many ways were blocked – but since we knew what was going on we could also help them logistically. We did that, but we also did our normal Coast Guard work; I was the public information officer for New York City, so a lot of what my staff and I did in the next days was to make sure people knew what was happening with the port security and port safety. The Coast Guard shut down the port of New York and New Jersey to all commercial and recreational traffic and that’s a pretty big deal. Coast Guard forces in New York grew exponentially between September 11th and September 12th, we had cutters coming from all over the East Coast providing for security and dozens and dozens of small boat crews doing patrols. A lot of what we had to do was to tell people what the rules were for the port and make sure they heard them and understood them – that they knew what the boundaries were, where they could and could not go. Also tell people why we were doing what we were doing, talk about our security mission, talk about safety mission. In addition, there were some Coast Guard people doing non-traditional work, like working at Ground Zero doing air monitoring.

We did a little bit of everything and it was very busy.

Undicisettembre: How long did it take to get back to normalcy?

Brandon Brewer: We had a new normalcy and that’s what happened in New York. I was stationed there until summer 2002 and during that time I worked on something 9/11 related every single day. Things were different and even 9 months later the Coast Guard mission in the port of New York and recovery was still happening. Port operations eventually went back to normal, but there were many Coast Guard security and safety patrols happening, it was an ongoing mission, and there was a lot of Coast Guard forces in the city, just like other agencies brought in more people.

So it really was a new normalcy for us. The only time when my life got back to something normal, like it was on September 10th, was when I moved. In summer 2002 I got transferred from New York to Washington DC.

Undicisettembre: You have been part of the greatest rescue effort of the history of mankind. How does it feel and what are your thoughts about it?

Brandon Brewer: It’s amazing. I am really proud of what the Coast Guard did and I’m really proud of what the commercial mariners did and all of what the people in the port of New York and New Jersey did. They didn’t all have to do what they were doing and they didn’t know what was going on when they did it. They just came and rescued people, they took them to safety and went back and picked up more people. It was amazing to see that happen and even more amazing in the days after when we started finding out how many people were rescued. We had no way of knowing at first – we knew it was a lot, we could see a lot of people evacuating right in front of our eyes but we found out in the days after 9/11 that it was hundred of thousands of people. Some estimates say it was about half a million people, which makes it the biggest evacuation in the history of the world – bigger than Dunkirk! But Dunkirk was done in a matter of days, while 9/11 was a matter of hours. And it wasn’t a whole day thing – by the afternoon of 9/11 Lower Manhattan was empty, there were no people, no cars, no boat traffic, everyone had been evacuated and the only people in Lower Manhattan were first responders who were at and around Ground Zero.

It was a little surreal to be in that area that is so busy during a normal workday but was on that day empty. It was a ghost town. I’m happy I did the very small part that I played in it being in the Coast Guard. There are many people who did so much more. In my opinion every first responder was a hero: whether a firefighter, a police officer, a tugboat captain and crew that helped evacuate people. They are all heroes to me. It was amazing to see it happen but I didn’t think about it until a long time after, because of how busy I was in those months after 9/11.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Brandon Brewer: The memories of that day are there. I don’t know if it affects my everyday life, but it definitely changed my perspective about prioritizing what’s important in life. So it’s there, I don’t talk about it a lot. Especially 15 years later. Some people don’t remember 9/11. Somebody who is 20 years old now was 5 years old when this happened. So it’s there, it’s in the back of my mind, I see a lot of things that remind me of those times and it changed the lives of those who were in the Coast Guard and for the rest of my time in the Coast Guard it was a different organization.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?

Brandon Brewer: I have worked in emergency management and disaster response for 25 years. One of the big things I learned from that experience is that during time of crisis people get upset, that’s human nature. Upset people tend to think negative thoughts. People who are affected by any kind of crisis want to fix this as quickly as possible and they want to know why and how the crisis happened. Those are not easy questions to answer quickly. Typically the bigger the crisis the more time it takes to figure out how and why in great detail. In the absence of these answers people who are thinking negatively start to form ideas on what happened or start to agree with ideas of other people. Those ideas sometimes have nothing to do with the truth. And sometimes people form ideas to support an agenda that they have. That’s just another part of human nature.

Those ideas quickly turn into beliefs, and beliefs are harder to counter than ideas because they are more cemented in people’s minds and it can be very tough to counter, even when you do have answers. I had to do rumor control at other crisis events and it’s very frustrating to tell people the truth about a fact and hear them deny it, because it conflicts with their beliefs or agenda and, unfortunately, fighting these rumors for any situation is a tough battle and people who know the truth don’t always win.

The ultimate truth I know about 9/11 are the things I saw and experienced being in the city and in the Coast Guard. On that day and in days and months after I received a lot of information from people I met from different agencies that were part of the first recovery effort. I think a lot of conspiracy theories come from this process of not having information quickly enough – people start to believe their own ideas or the ideas of other people.

I watched the plane fly over and I know 9/11 was done by terrorists, not by our government.

Undicisettembre: Have you been to the 9/11 Memorial Museum?

Brandon Brewer: I have. I was there about one and a half years ago, on Veterans Day, 11th of November 2014. I was part of a group of about ten veterans who worked on a Multimedia Project that detailed our 9/11 experiences and there was a temporary display of our project at the museum. My part of the project was based on photographs that I took on 9/11 and the days after. Like I said, I was the public information officer, so one of the jobs that my staff did was taking photographs and one of the opportunities I had was to take media members on Coast Guard helicopters as a media escort to look at all the damage from the air and when I was up there I took a camera with me and I also took pictures.

So with my project you can fly around the area and see my photographs compared to what New York City looks like now on Google Earth, compared to what it looked like on 9/11 and the days after.

There were a couple of kiosks in the basement of the museum, next to the big wall, where people could come and watch the shows.

Undicisettembre: What consequences did 9/11 have on the Coast Guard and its way of working?

Brandon Brewer: It didn’t change the missions of the Coast Guard, but it changed the emphasis of the missions. Before 9/11, port security was one of the smaller percentages of Coast Guard operational work, while after 9/11 it became one of the biggest jobs. What the Coast Guard did before 9/11 it also did after 9/11 but to a much greater degree. It was a very big change. Some regulation for commercial or recreational ships changed because of 9/11, since the Coast Guard’s job is to enforce those regulations that became a new or different job for the service.

Those were the major changes.

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