I did not fully appreciate what had occurred at the time (both towers at the World Trade Center had been struck, a plane was down or on its way down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon was also under attack). It was the largest attack of domestic terrorism in American history. The County Executive was subdued yet resolute when he said, what is our plan? I was a bit shocked and didn’t respond right away as I mentally tried to process what I saw on the television and County Executive’s question. Suddenly, every bit of experience, training and fire service coursed through me. America was at war, Prince George’s County could possibly have been targeted and citizens and residents of the County were counting on us to insure their safety. I advised the County Executive the Fire and EMS Department was ready. I also let him know information would be forthcoming from the Council of Governments and other sources about what was happening in the District of Columbia and the Region. I then told him I needed to get to the Fire Services Building to initiate our response and coordinate planning. As I turned to leave I felt a bit of calm. It was as if I had trained and worked to be prepared for the day all my fire service life.
Outside the County Executive’s Office my team of emergency service professional’s had gathered. William (Bill) R. McGown, Lieutenant Colonel – Emergency Operations, Maureen Hennessey, Lieutenant Colonel – Special Operations and Tyrone N. Wells, Lieutenant Colonel – Management Services had began the process addressing public safety in Prince George’s County. I directed an emergency callback of all off-duty personnel, suspension of prevention maintenance activities so that all rolling stock that could be made available was to be placed in service, the hazardous materials and explosive ordinance disposal teams were to be placed on high alert and any potential terrorist target in the County should be identified. I further advised them we would meet at the Fire Services Building in one hour and that they should be prepared to provide an update. I then raced to my vehicle where Bill Hawkins waited to drive me across the County.
Over the course of the next several days all our attention was turned toward what had occurred. The men and women of our department performed at a very high level and in the highest traditions of the American fire service. Command and control, response to the Pentagon and filling of fire stations in the District filled several days. There was a feeling of unity during that time that is often rare. I am to this very day very proud of the combined career, civilian and volunteer emergency family in Prince George’s County.
Although there was much work that remained to be done, Glenda Wilson, Chief of Staff arranged to have the confirmation hearing take place on September 13, 2001. At the conclusion there was a brief celebration on the fifth floor of the CAB and then back to work.
Thank you Prince George’s County for opportunity serve and a special thank you to all who served during that period in our department’s history.
Ronald D. Blackwell served as Fire Chief of the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department from September 13, 2001 until August 4, 2004.
September 11, 2001 - Captain/Press Information Officer
September 11, 2011 – Retired as a Major from PGFD,
Executive Director, Security & Emergency Management,
Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC
First aware of the New York incidents – I was driving down Route 193 near the Newton White Mansion when several national news desks started calling about a plane crash in New York. Not long after that one of the networks called back saying a second plane crash had just occurred. Each plane had struck a separate tower of the World Trade Center.
Role/action on 9/11/01 – My first item of the day was the swearing in ceremony for Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell. We arrived at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro and could see a working fire off in the distance. We assumed that DC had a working fire underway. The only unusual item was the volume of smoke and the rich dark color of the smoke. At the time we were not aware of the incident at the Pentagon.
Once inside the County Administration Building, County Executive Wayne Curry discussed the D.C. and New York incidents with Chief Blackwell. Live television coverage was now being broadcast from both sites. The swearing in ceremony was cancelled and everyone went to work orchestrating the largest staff mobilization in the Department’s history.
The rest of the day involved reacting to rapidly changing details that we all know very well now, but were unfolding at the time. Making the connections about what was going on in New York, then to D.C., then to Pennsylvania. In the meantime increasing our readiness to respond to anything in Prince George’s County, and offer mutual aide where possible.
I don’t recall the end of the day. I recall it more as a period of time that lasted for several days and changed the way we did business going forward. After experiencing the loss of 343 firefighters on September 11, 2001, it was clear that the Fire/EMS service was now on the front lines of responding to terrorism threats as well.