CLEVELAND - Above a stretch of Interstate 71 in Cleveland, Flight 93 made its turn back toward Washington, D.C. Heroism on the part of those on that plane crashed it--500 mph into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
"I learned about that where we're sitting right now,” said Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania and Secretary of Homeland Security. “I was in Erie, Pennsylvania. I had just turned into the driveway of my home. I had been down to visit my mother who was in the hospital. A state trooper told me that the twin towers had been hit by commercial airliners after obviously having been turned into missiles.”
Ridge had his state and the people in it at top of mind that fateful day in mid-September. So his top priority was to make sure Pennsylvanians were safe. After that, it was to get to Shanksville.
"It took me a couple of hours to get clearance to hop in a state police helicopter to get back to Harrisburg, make sure my emergency operations center was functioning,” Ridge said. “We pulled everybody in ASAP and then I hopped in an old army helicopter and headed over to Shanksville.”
Ridge remembered what he thought he would see, and then eventually what he saw. The two were very different as he descended on the Flight 93 crash site.
"It was unlike anything I had anticipated. I think everybody that was in the helicopter as we came in was shocked. I mean, it was just not what we had anticipated," Ridge said.
Four planes had crashed after being turned into missiles to kill Americans. And like so many, Ridge’s life was changed forever. The course of his career was about to change, as well.
"Tonight, I also announce a distinguished American to lead this effort, to strengthen American security: a military veteran, an effective governor, a true patriot, a trusted friend -- Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge,” said President George W. Bush, in the joint session of Congress on Sept. 21, 2001.
After nearly eight years as Pennsylvania’s governor, Ridge left the job he loved and moved his family to Washington, D.C. to serve the greater good. He was to head the newly created White House Office of Homeland Security. The office grew quickly and soon turned into a full federal department and Ridge became the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.
The Department of Homeland Security was charged with coordinating federal agencies for the security of our nation. Ridge quickly learned that in order to do his job effectively, and effective way to communicate terror information to the public was necessary.
"I remember coming off after the third or fourth press conference and I turned to a few aids of mine and I said this doesn't cut it. We have to tell America the nature of the threat and then we have to tell them what to do about it,” Ridge said.
From that discussion was born the color-coded terrorism alert system, a system, which almost from the onset, was subject to ridicule.
"Every color, and it could have been a number, it could have been anything meant that there was a predetermined set of security measures you had to put in place. Apparently that never got quite across," Ridge said.
Since that system, others have followed with Ridge’s two successors, secretaries of homeland security Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano. But Ridge said one thing has remained the same.
Regardless of who is in the White House, or which party controls congress, the American resolve to handle anything that comes its way is stronger than ever because of 9/11.
"We can deal with this. We've dealt with everything that's been thrown at this country for 200 years and we can take care of ourselves. We don't live in fear, we live in freedom and nobody operating out of caves or in Pakistan or anybody else is going to take that away from us.”
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