LIMA — Russ Decker was Allen County Emergency Management Agency director when the planes hit the twin towers in New York 20 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001.
“That morning, we had the television on the news in our conference room in my office. I remember my secretary telling me that a plane just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers and I remember thinking, ‘what a terrible accident.’ I was just on my way to a commissioners meeting that morning. My next recollection was one of the secretaries from the commissioner’s office. We were in the commissioner’s meeting and she came in a back door and had a note that said the second plane has crashed and the sheriff wants you back in the office. That was the first time I realized that this wasn’t just a tragic plane crash,” Decker said.
Dan Beck was Allen County Sheriff at the time.
He remembers seeing the second plane hit on television.
“When that second one hit, I said that’s not an error, that’s intentional. That’s a terrorist act,” Beck said.
Beck, Decker and others were on the phone soon to discuss what they could do to keep the refinery and chemical plant operation as well as the tank plant safe.
“One of the first things we did was making sure that we had marked cruisers very visible in those areas. Our goal was to have a cruiser pass all those facilities at least every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day,” Decker said.
There was “chatter” about a potential target in Allen County.
“We did receive information. It was a few days later that there was possibly some information about somebody wanting to target a complex like this. They specifically didn’t say Lima, but based on the information we had, we did pull a group together and the plant managers and law enforcement leaders and hazmat and all those folks and talk about our strategy. Out of that group we were able to eventually determine that it was kind of an unfounded threat,” Decker said.
The group, called the Lima Area Safety and Emergency Response, or LASER task force, still meets and spearheaded some security protocols that remain to this day.
“If you drive by that complex you’ll see the boulders along the fence lines. That came out of LASER because there was a study done about how we could stop a truck full of explosives. It’s just a basic physics question of how much mass do we need to stop what weight and velocity,” Decker said.
Beck says those boulders are a constant reminder to remain vigilant.
“I think in the long term, even though that is a physical security issue, people that drive down Fort Amanda Road and Buckeye Road, when they see those boulders, it reminds them of 9/11 … that security is entirely important. It’s actually a reminder every day, I believe,” Beck said.
The discussions on security led to a cohesive front.
“I think it’s the first time we saw a uniform approach to security at all these plants. So whatever the security status was, everyone else in the compound agreed to do the same thing and if they were doing random checks of vehicles, then we all went to random checks,” Decker said.
Many security improvements were the result of being extra vigilant.
“There are a lot more security cameras in the area. We can see a lot more things going on around and be able to go back and look at stuff if there’s something suspicious that they want to look at later and that we want to share with law enforcement,” Decker said.
With all of the uncertainty over in Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban, Beck and Decker are both concerned.
“I think there’s some people that have learned a lesson from 9/11. We’ve got the good solid people in this county that pay close attention to world issues and terrorist issues, but there’s so many people in our culture right now that did not have a clue what goes on in anything outside their sphere of relationships and that’s unfortunate, it just really is,” Beck said.
“The similarities that would concern me are complacency,” Decker said. “We were vulnerable to an attack because most Americans believed that we would not be attacked on our soil. If 9/11 did anything, it sort of reminded us of Pearl Harbor and the fact that yes there are adversaries out there that will attack us on our homeland.”
Decker’s hope is that given today’s current events, it will heighten folks’ awareness.
He noted, “Immediately following 9/11, if people saw something suspicious they were not hesitating to let law enforcement know about it. That sort of died down over time. If there’s anything positive that could come out of the current conditions, it would be maybe that people stopped being complacent. If they see something that doesn’t look right, they need to let law enforcement know.”
Reach Sam Shriver, reporter, at 567-242-0409.