The National Park Service Responds to the September 11 Terrorist Attacks
by Janet A. McDonnell
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath left few Americans unaffected. The National Park Service had a unique perspective and role in responding to this tragedy because of its fundamental responsibility for protecting and preserving many nationally significant sites, including several near Ground Zero. Although the most profound personal impact was no doubt on National Park Service employees who either witnessed the attacks firsthand or were directly involved in the immediate response, every national park was affected to one degree or another.
In the days and weeks after September 11, as the significance of the attacks became clearer, a number of Federal agencies, private institutions, and groups launched efforts to document the event. Columbia University's Oral History Research Office initiated a major project to conduct oral history interviews and collect personal accounts related to the attacks. Department of Defense teams began systematically interviewing survivors and eyewitnesses at the Pentagon. Individual military services and commands also conducted interviews with their members and collected documents and photographs. The Smithsonian Institution and other museums and agencies began collecting artifacts in New York City, at the Pentagon, and at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crash site. George Mason University's Center for History and New Media collected materials for a Web-based digital archive.
Within the National Park Service, historians and ethnographers soon recognized the need to document the impact of the tragedy on parks and park staffs. Collecting these first-hand accounts and personal recollections was particularly urgent because these sources are extremely perishable. Memories and the emotional power of events tend to fade with time. In the National Park Service's Northeast Region, where a number of employees had been eyewitnesses or were directly involved in the response effort, historians and ethnographers undertook an extensive oral history project with support from Eastern National and the National Park Foundation. In conjunction with this effort, an ethnographer from the National Park Service's Washington headquarters conducted interviews in the National Capital Region and in New York City. Excerpts from many of these oral history interviews and supporting materials are available on the National Park Service Website (www.nps.gov/remembrance/).
While much of the effort focused on collecting eyewitness accounts and personal recollections, some managers in the Washington headquarters also recognized a need to document the official response of the National Park Service. At the request of the Associate Director for Cultural Resources, I initiated a study to address the following questions: How did National Park Service managers and staff respond at the national level and in the regional offices and parks? What actions did they take and why? How did the attacks and their aftermath affect the way that the National Park Service and its parks operated? How did they affect park resources and the allocation of those resources? What impact did the attacks have on the way that park staffs viewed their jobs and the way that Americans viewed their parks? And finally, what lessons could the National Park Service learn from this experience? The goal of the study is to create a detailed historical record of the National Park Service's response that will provide managers and policy makers with information useful in responding to future emergencies.
The first phase of this study involved planning and conducting a series of oral history interviews. I conducted preliminary research to identify key themes and issues to be addressed in the interviews. Then I began contacting individuals who could best address the broad range of topics and issues that had been identified and who would provide diverse perspectives. It was particularly important to incorporate the perspectives of people from different disciplines and from park staffs as well as senior management. As of this writing, I have conducted nearly 30 interviews with National Park Service leaders, regional and park managers, park staff, U.S. Park Police officers, and park rangers. Each interview has been transcribed and edited to ensure that it is properly preserved and available for future researchers.
The second phase was to create a historical report that would provide a chronological narrative and address the complex issues involved. Research included identifying, collecting, and reviewing documents in the Washington headquarters and other locations. Some of the most valuable sources were the National Park Service's Morning Reports and superintendents' annual narrative reports; press releases; news articles; and various memorandums, correspondence, timelines, and telephone logs. A few interviewees provided particularly useful supporting documentation.
Using the themes and topics that emerged from the interviews and other source materials, the next task was to develop a concept for the historical study. The report, now currently in draft, addresses topics like communications and coordination within the National Park Service and with other agencies; resources and funding; park closures; security and risk assessment; implementation of the National Park Service incident management system; emergency use of park properties; and the roles of U.S. Park Police and law enforcement rangers.
The project has posed some unique issues. Perhaps the greatest was the scarcity of written source materials. Historians usually conduct research in primary and secondary sources before conducting interviews and collecting personal accounts, but in this case few written records were available. Decisions were made quickly in meetings or by phone and were not reflected in the written record. Officials often communicated by e-mail, which tended to be less accessible and more perishable than other sources. The scarcity of written records meant a greater reliance on the oral history interviews that National Park Service historians and ethnographers had conducted. This involved a certain amount of risk as memories can be faulty, especially after experiencing such a traumatic event. In this case, the oral accounts were sometimes confusing or lacked specific details.
The September 11 attacks were shocking and chaotic. In the aftermath, even determining an accurate sequence was difficult. Weaving together a history with the threads as diverse as law enforcement, security, funding, and deeply embedded cultural values, proved difficult. There were no historical prototypes or prior research upon which to draw. And, when dealing with recent history, providing historical context can be daunting.
The report reflects the flexibility and responsiveness of the National Park Service incident management system, the challenge of making operational decisions when security threats are unclear, shortages in the Service's law enforcement capabilities, the changing role of generalist park ranger, and the difficulty of balancing security with the National Park Service's fundamental mission to protect resources and provide for public enjoyment. Although it is far to soon to evaluate the long-term impact, it seems to have been a transforming event for the National Park Service. The attacks prompted changes in the way that the Service operates and is organized. For many in the National Park Service and for many Americans, September 11 gave the national parks new meaning and significance.
About the Author
Janet A. McDonnell is Bureau Historian, National Park Service, and can be reached at Telephone (202) 354-2259 or E-mail Janet_McDonnell@nps.gov.