World Trade Center: an interview with former US Secret Service agent Samantha Horwitz

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

We are offering our readers today the personal account of former US Secret Service agent Samantha Horwitz who on 9/11 intervened at Ground Zero as a first responder. After 9/11 Horwitz was a victim of post traumatic stress disorder and to tell her story and how she went through it she also wrote a book entitled The Silent Fall.

We would like to thank Samantha Horwitz for her kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Samantha Horwitz: I was on my way to work, the Secret Service field office in New York was located in World Trade Center 7, and while on my way to work I got stuck in an accident that - I didn't think about it at the time - would set into motion events that forever changed my life. When I arrived at my field office and parked underneath World Trade Center Tower 1, which was our parking area, I got into the elevator to go up to the Plaza level and while inside the elevator I thought there was a malfunction or I was getting stuck. The lights flickered and the elevator car shook and little did I know, 94 stories above, American Airlines flight 11 had just struck the tower.

We were very lucky that the elevator doors opened. We were met with a debris field that was already in the lobby level area. I got out of the elevator, made my way up an escalator and used an exit door that I never used before in all the time working down there. It put me on the Plaza level where I was stopped in my tracks by what I saw – debris was raining down from the sky. Pieces of metal, pieces of concrete and pieces of people. I knew something very bad had happened, I thought it was some sort of bomb that had been detonated and I made my way around the area across from building 7 and I could see into the lobby.

I could see some of my squad mates and my supervisor who was motioning for me to run. At that point where I stopped, I was shielded from all the debris and I had to run across a pedestrian bridge that connected the World Trade Center Plaza, crossed over the top of Vesey Street and into my building. I finally just took off running and made it into my building. We all thought the dust would settle and we’d be investigating what had just happened. Soon after, Tower 2 got hit and we watched the glass in our building bow inward and almost shatter. We were lucky it held and we then looked at each other, we didn't have to say a word. Everybody was thinking the same thing “We are the 3rd tallest building in the World Trade Center complex and we are next.”

In addition to the Secret Service New York Field Office being in World Trade Center 7, then Mayor Giuliani's Office of Emergency Management was inside that building along with other agencies that the public didn't have knowledge of. We decided to evacuate our building, we made it to West Side Highway where we got our first glimpse as to what had occurred. We were standing on West Side Highway looking at Tower 1 and you could see a huge gaping hole in it and Tower 2 behind it. A thick black smoke trail was coming out of it. We had no idea at that time that full sized passenger jets had flown into the towers.

We stood there assessing the situation as any good crime scene investigator would, figuring out what kind of explosion it was. Our concentration was broken by a fellow agent who was driving, he slammed on his brakes of his government vehicle and got our attention and he asked us if we had seen the planes. We were not comprehending and we were like “What are you talking about? Planes do not fly into the two tallest buildings in New York City. You would have seen them, they are huge”.

He was pretty insistent they were planes and then we heard over his radio that the Pentagon was hit. So we thought “Okay, we are at war. Something is drastically wrong here.” and for us being first responders we immediately thought “Well if we are at war, where's the enemy?” We were armed and there was nobody to shoot at and in our minds we were trying to figure everything out.

Passenger airliners had just flown into Tower 1 and Tower 2 and into the Pentagon, what was going to happen next? We were watching this horrific scene unfold, there's really no other word to describe it. Soon after, we watched as people started jumping out of Tower 1 and after the tenth one I stopped counting, you could feel them as they hit the ground. That's how close we were, we could feel the shockwave.

We watched the smoke and fire continue to pour out. As you can imagine there were a lot of different sounds related to what was going on and there was this one particular sound that stuck out, it was like a grizzly bear making a really deep growl; it got louder and louder and then all of a sudden Tower 2 came down. We took off running and we made it into the closest building that had a front door that was open which happened to be a school. I think there had to be thirty of us, obviously it got some attention from the front office and the principal came out.

We briefed him on what was going on and we decided that we were going to go back out and go down to where the tower collapsed because there had to be people to rescue. That's what we do as first responders. Responding to every day emergencies wasn’t necessarily part of the Secret Service’s mission, but we were trained to do that; we are highly trained in the first aid. There was one big problem though - that dust. You could not be outside without having your mouth and nose covered. A bunch of the guys started ripping up their shirts so we could fashion bandanas around our faces. Myself and two other agents decided to stay behind at the school to set up a triage so that we could receive the victims that were coming to us, we could triage them and then get the ambulances coordinated and get them off to the hospital.

None of that happened because about thirty minutes later the school got orders to evacuate. We were about three blocks from what would be called Ground Zero by the end day. Myself, the two agents that were with me, the principal and a student who is about six feet tall and his aide were the last ones out of that school and what we didn't know was the school was made up of a very large population of physically and mentally challenged kids. So we had an evacuation with walkers, wheelchairs, crutches.

We were walking back towards West Side Highway and the student was visibly shaken. He had no idea who we were and he was walking too slow for an emergency evacuation, we were encouraging him to walk faster. As we hit West Side Highway, we heard that low grumbling and growling sound again and the two agents and I looked at each other and said “We’ve got to go now!” I took one of the student’s legs, the other agent took another leg and the third agent scooped him up underneath his shoulder blades. We started running up West Side Highway. We had one mission - To outrun that dust cloud from World Trade Center 1’s collapse coming for us. We did, and we turned around and watched that dust settle.

It was as if watching a scene from a horror movie: people were coming out of this dust cloud completely covered, some of them had blood coming from different areas of their body. We continued our walk up West Side Highway, when we turned around and an ambulance appeared. The paramedics got their stretcher out, we loaded the student onto the stretcher and he and his aide went off to the hospital. The scene of us carrying the student was captured in People magazine. I didn't find out until somebody called me on the phone weeks later.

Again we were wondering “What's going to happen next? And what do we do now?” Our pagers went off and we received a message to go to Pier 63, which is one of the piers on the Hudson River. When we got there our supervisors had arranged with the US Park Police to use their small ferry boats, to ferry us from where we were across the Hudson River to New Jersey where the New Jersey field office agents were already waiting for us to take us home because we had lost all of our transportation. All the government vehicles were gone.

I’ll never forget as I pulled away from the dock. I was looking at a skyline that was forever changed, the two iconic towers and what everybody thought about when they thought about New York City were gone, and in their place was just thick black smoke. It started a new journey for me, called dealing with post-traumatic stress.

The symptoms started as soon as I got back to my apartment where I found that I couldn’t be in an enclosed space because it would cause an anxiety attack, my heart would start racing and I would start sweating. If I got out into the open the symptoms would go away. The nightmares, the hyper-vigilance and survivor’s guilt eventually lead to having to rely on alcohol to go to sleep at night. One day I was holding a gun to my head, it got that bad. It was not a fun time and not only for me, I know that other agents suffered as well.

What we soon realized, and what happened with me, was the mental game that post traumatic stress created in all of us. I remember sitting at my desk reading the same paragraph of a report I had to hand in for the umpteenth time and I thought I was losing my mind. At that time we had set up a makeshift office in some office space that we found, because our building was the last time to come down on 9/11 and we had nowhere to work. I knew I wasn’t able to function 100% so I told my supervisors “I can’t do this anymore” and they didn’t know how to offer help. We had one debriefing by the folks that came from our headquarters in Washington, DC, but other than that, despite asking for it, we didn’t have it, so I made the very difficult decision to resign as an agent. I couldn’t risk being a liability because an agent that doesn’t function 100% basically means someone might not go home that night and I couldn’t have that on my conscience.

Undicisettembre: What did you do on the next days after 9/11?

Samantha Horwitz: We had a few days off, the only ground rules were check in with our supervisors everyday, once a day if not twice, to let them know that we were okay, because we had some agents that were missing and one who was killed. We got orders to report to the JFK airport for a debriefing that took place three days later and that’s when the folks from the headquarters came up to find out where we were and what we saw.

Knowing we had some exposure to that dust, we were ordered to get chest x-rays but at that time nothing was visible. My family was in Maryland, I lived in New Jersey commuting to the city everyday, and I went back to Maryland just to get out of the city.

Undicisettembre: What role did you have in the following investigations and what were your major findings?

Samantha Horwitz: The US Secret Service was tasked with tracing the money from 9/11: what banks were involved, overseas and domestically, how money exchanged hands between the terrorists, how they got to the United States. Now we know the rest of the story with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden and it was very rewarding to help with that. We were part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and we were putting the puzzle pieces together. We were able to do that and to report our findings working together with other agencies. We pinpointed the ringleader who ended up being the same ringleader as for the bombing in 1993, what he succeeded in doing on 9/11 was what he wanted to do in 1993.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect the everyday work of US Secret Service even today?

Samantha Horwitz: The biggest change that we saw after 9/11 was when President Bush decided to create the Department of Homeland Security, no one of us thought we would have been absorbed into that agency because we had clearly defined roles and a skillset that no other agency had, and when that happened everything changed. I had already resigned my position along with eight other agents, so I did not go through that change in leadership.

We look at every case of fraud and see if we can tie it back to a terrorist organization, not only us but other federal agencies as well. The investigation revealed the terrorists had their hands in many different pies. So a fraud that was being perpetrated across the globe ended up putting money in their banks and help fund terrorist attacks. As federal law enforcement agencies, we have stopped numerous attacks both here and abroad. As technology expands, and as banking becomes more sophisticated, the terrorists became more sophisticated. It’s our job to level the playing field.

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

The cover of The Silent Fall,
the book by Samantha Horwitz
about her 9/11 experience.
Samantha Horwitz: I consider myself one of the lucky ones, despite floundering and struggling after 9/11 I got help and it was very effective. It’s a therapy called EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, and what it did was take me back and help me create new neural synapses, new brain connections where if I heard a loud bang or a plane flying low overhead I didn’t go into the “fight of flight” response or be triggered. That allowed me to live a normal life again, because before that if I was out in public and there was a thunderstorm, I’d be diving under furniture, so I didn’t want to be out in public fearing this might happen. This therapy saved my life.

Every once in while I get triggered but there’s no flashback or anxiety response the way it used to. I’m trying to help others, whether they are veterans or local law enforcement or anybody in the first responder community who is exposed to traumas, understand that there’s help out there and that they can get better as well.

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

Samantha Horwitz: I have had many conspiracy theories thrown in my face pretty much starting a year or two after 9/11 and I can confirm 100% what happened to WTC7. There is no conspiracy, the government did not plant explosives in that building. I watched hours and hours of videos, I’ve talked to engineers and I was there. When Tower 1 came down it sheared off the entire front of WTC 7 doing severe damage to the building.

In addition to the US Secret Service having their New York office in there, there were other agencies inside WTC7 as well; that means we had everything inside that building to do our job: ammunition, evidence collected from the crime scenes, and that was multi agency, not just us. At Ground Zero there were firefighters trying to put the fire out in WTC7 and point blank one of them asked me “What is continuing to explode inside that building?” I told them there were a lot of ammunition.

Being a first responder I saw things and I know things these conspiracy theorists don’t know and did not see. And of course they didn’t experience the after effects, I coughed for an entire year after 9/11 and I had a cancer scare last year. This was real, this was not something the government created.

I am not saying agencies didn’t miss stuff, we absolutely did. I mean if anyone comes here, goes to a flying school and only learns how to fly but not how to take off or land that should throw up some serious red flags. How were phone calls not made? How did they just disappear into public life? Of course it’s not easy, people want to sit back and be the “Monday morning quarterback”, as we say here in the United States, we can’t prevent all the bad guys from striking and it hurts us. But the Secret Service and other agencies are doing everything that they can every single day to make sure that we are safe.

Undicisettembre: Do you think 9/11 could have been avoided if different agencies communicated better between each other?

Samantha Horwitz: I’d love to say “Yes”, but one thing we learned at that time was that terrorist groups are so patient and we were a little too busy and distracted, so we did not pay attention as much as we should have. I think agencies communicate a lot better now, sharing information to prevent attacks from happening. But I don’t know if 9/11 could have been prevented.

President Clinton also had Osama bin Laden in sight long before 9/11, but it’s easy to look at any situation after the fact. That’s what debriefing is about, when any law enforcement agency goes and does a big operation we always come back to the table and we say “What could we have done better? What should we have not done? How do we move forward and do a better job next time?” And that’s what we had to do after 9/11, we had to admit our faults and that we missed these guys.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of security today? Is the country safer than in 2001?

Samantha Horwitz: Absolutely. We put in place security at the airports because there wasn’t any before, we now have the TSA – love them or hate them – and agencies are talking more with each other and exchanging information. Because our systems have become more sophisticated; there are technologies that are used to assist agencies and identifying new targets and if necessary eliminating them before they can do harm to overseas assets or here at home.

I have done wiretaps before, it’s not like the government is going after your neighbor who’s talking to his wife about what to pick up at the grocery store. There are levels and there are laws that govern what can be recorded and listened to and what cannot, and we always shut down any personal thing like that and if a certain word is used to turn it back on. It’s a necessary part of keeping us safe and if it’s going to prevent another 9/11 I am all for it. I do think we are safer, absolutely.

Nessun commento: