Former Chief of Staff for Collin Powell during 9/11 recounts chaos 20 years later

Remembering 9/11

NEW YORK (WSYR-TV) — The calm of an early fall day was shattered by a hijacked plane slamming into one of the twin towers, by the time Bill Smullen got out of his daily high-level state department meeting.  

Rushing to his office, he then saw the second plane pierce the upper floors of the second World Trade Center tower. Smullen at the time was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“I knew something was clearly wrong. I quickly called my counterpart chief of staff in the White House, and they were scrambling for ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what should we do?’,” Smullen said. 

“It wasn’t long thereafter, about 9:30 or so, when I looked out my window and looked across the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon, a place I had worked in for 10 years. Smoke was billowing out of the pentagon,” he recounted. 

The third hijacked plane crashed, then in the nation’s Capital, and there were indications a fourth plane taken over by terrorists was still in the air.  Potential targets were the White House, Capitol Building, and State Department, where Smullen was then in a crisis meeting with top officials.

“I think I feared more for America that fateful day than I did [for] my life.”

By evening, the President had convened his cabinet.

Smullen said top officials were at this meeting, and it was concluded that this attack was an attack on America itself and should be treated as such. 

In October, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and by December the Taliban had fled the country, while Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda ran to hide in Pakistan.

“When we were convinced that he had gone to Pakistan, and we knew that through intelligence, we should have gone home,” said Smullen. 

Smullen says they also should have negotiated with Pakistan to send in a quick strike force to get Bin-Laden.  Instead, the war in Afghanistan has just recently ended, nearly 20 years later.  It’s not the only way life has been altered by 9/11 the past two decades.

“We lived in fear for many months after 9/11. There is still fear in America. I talked to people who say ‘could it happen again, could it happen again?’ Well it could, but I don’t think it’s likely,” he said. “Barriers have been put up, all sorts of boundaries have been erected.  All sorts of agencies have been activated.”

But, as time has rolled on, memories of the day America was attacked have faded.

Smullen says for him, it’s hard not to think often about that dark day, but it’s especially difficult on the 11th of every September. 

That difficult memory, among the regrets and pain caused by that fateful day, are all reasons why it’s important to never forget, now more than ever, just as it became a nationwide vow in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001.

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