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Former Fire Chief Recalls a City Mobilized

City Administrator and former Fire Chief Chris Cotter remembers the events of 9/11

City of Summit Business Administrator Chris Cotter can recall the events of 9/11 like they were yesterday.

When terrorists crashed jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Cotter was in his role as fire chief, coordinating the city response efforts.

“(I was) so busy trying to think about what needs to be done,” Cotter said. “We didn't know if that was the end of it. There were a series of events but we didn't know if that was just a precursor to something bigger.”

When the first plane hit North Tower 1, Cotter said that even as a first responder, it was easy to dismiss news reports of a plane hitting a tower as an errant event, “then I looked at the TV just as the second plane hit,” he said.

Because of its proximity to New York City, a disaster recovery tent was set up at Summit’s train station to receive the soot-laden passengers who had been in or near Ground Zero.

As each passenger came off the train, there was some concern that there would be contamination. Overlook Medical Center, which had staff at the train station, was gearing up for a major influx of wounded, which luckily never came. 

Prior to September 11, 2001, America’s notion of terrorist attack was perhaps solely conceptual - a vague concept of a terrorist attack. The events of 9/11 brought it home in a real way that today is part of all Americans’ thinking. 

“All you have to do is see the response with the recent earthquake,” Cotter said.  “If we did not have the Sept. 11 experience, you would not have seen that level of response that we saw in New York City.  I think it brought people back -- a real fear to their core. And you don't lose that - you may think that you do. There’s the saying ‘Never Forget.’ I think those who lived through 9/11 wish that they could forget, but they will never forget.”

Cotter said that the events on 9/11 fundamentally changed the way first responders carry out their duties. First responders, he said, today have a greater awareness that an incident that they are responding to may not be what it appears to be. 

Countries such as Israel, which have more experience with terrorism, have found that there’s often an initial incident that is intended to draw in first responders and then there’s a more devastating incident that is intended to do harm to those responding.

“That’s not part of our (American) mindset,” Cotter said. “To get a first responder to start thinking like that is not easy. We’ve had to start (after 9/11) with that kind of training.”

What Cotter also remembers from that day, and those that followed, is the response he witnessed from a community that came out in droves to assist those were injured or lost their lives. Summit is known for its high number of residents who work in New York City. 

For the first time ever, his department sent a tuck to New York City to help vicitims of the attacks. 

“The community came together in an unrehearsed way,” Cotter said. “It brought out the best of Summit -- The YMCA just threw their doors open, at the Red Cross there were more people lined up to give blood or just volunteer than they could handle, Overlook Medical Center had pages and pages of people to give blood - so much that they didn't have facility to accept all the blood. People just wanted to help in some way.”

Although the events of 9/11 have changed the way that some members of the community do their jobs, America is perhaps forever affected by an incident that defied conventional thinking.

“Are we safer as a community or a nation?,” Cotter asked rhetorically. “It’s difficult to count things that have not happened, but I think we certainly have discouraged large scale tourist attacks. I think we are still struggling with that as a nation. How do you deal with terrorism? Very tough.”

BJ Coghan September 14, 2012 at 01:27 AM
As was the case when this article first appeared. The phrase "luckily never came" in the 6th paragraph should have been deleted. Wounded would have been way preferable to the horrific reality of the day.

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