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Gov. George Pataki Shares His Story Of 9/11 And The Days After

Former New York Gov. George Pataki delivers his remarks during the New York state Republican Convention, in New York, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.
Richard Drew
Associated Press
Former New York Gov. George Pataki delivers his remarks during the New York state Republican Convention, in New York, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.

As soon as the second plane hit the World Trade Center two decades ago on 9/11, then-Gov. George Pataki said he knew the country was under attack.

In the days that followed, Pataki led the state’s recovery from the attacks — all through an overwhelming sense of loss, and fear of what could come next. Pataki sat down with New York NOW’s Dan Clark to share his story of 9/11, and the lasting impact of the attacks.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DC: You were governor during 9/11, and it was a very hectic day that Tuesday. Tell me what was going through your mind that Tuesday when you learned what was happening in New York City, the Pentagon, during the attacks. How were you feeling?

GP: As soon as I saw the second plane hit the tower, I knew we were under attack. You have to set aside emotions, and feelings, and just spring into action. We had a great emergency management team, they were ready — not for this, I don't think anyone anticipated anything like this. But we were ready.

And I just immediately had to do things like activate the command center, call up the National Guard, close the bridges and tunnels that separated New York City from the rest of the state of New Jersey. Talk to the mayor, talk to the President. Now you just understand in a time of crisis, your role is to lead and to act.

DC: As you and I both know, 9/11 really lasted quite a while in New York City. There was searching for victims, the cleanup process, and then figuring out what was going to happen next.

Tell me how you felt when you had a chance to just take a step back after the day, and think about what was happening, and how you were going to proceed as governor.

GP: Well, Dan, one of the real problems of September 11 and the days after was that we didn’t know what might happen next. So, that was one thing we had to do, starting an Office of Homeland Security, essentially from scratch, and putting in place laws and protocols to protect us.

At the same time, we had to do everything in our power to see if there were, by any miracle, lives that could be saved literally even six, seven days after. We hoped we could still recover people who had been trapped under the rubble.

We had the need to be compassionate towards those who had lost their loved ones. We were all suffering so much, but if you lost your wife, or husband, or child, or parent, your suffering was a magnitude greater.

And then we also had the issue of what was going to happen to New York. And it was something that really consumed my, and a lot of other people’s, efforts for probably two to three years.

DC: Did you ever feel like you just wanted to give up during all of this? It was such a sad time, such a fearful time, that I imagine it must have been very hard to be the state’s top leader.

GP: On that day itself, every half hour or hour, someone would come in and say, ‘did you know so and so was killed? Did you know someone else was missing, or was in the tower?’ And you just had this momentary sense of incredible loss.

But you had to set it aside and understand that the time for emotion would come. But that day, and the days thereafter, was a time for action and not for emotion. But I never doubted we’d get through it. I never doubted we’d come back. You have your high points and your low points. But New York is New York.

I drew inspiration from just how gallantly New Yorkers and Americans literally from every walk of life responded.

DC: How difficult was it to be the leader during that time? People see the governor in New York state as the leader, somebody who provides calm, and I have to imagine that must have been difficult to do at such a time when there was really no calm.

GP: It was a real challenge. But on the other hand, you just saw the strength and the courage of people who didn’t have, necessarily, that responsibility of running the state, dealing and leading the response.

But I just never doubted that we had the right people, the right team, the right approach. And for all the horror of that day, for all the economic chaos that we faced for years, I never doubted that we’d stick together and keep focused on what we needed to do.

And we were going to get through it. And we did. And I’m proud of that.

DC: If you could go back 20 years, and be the governor again, is there anything you would have done differently in response to 9/11? Is there anything that you just wish you would have known?

GP: I wish I would have known the day before. I mean, that’s wishful thinking. But you think back and you just understand the magnitude of the loss and say, "anything we could have done to prevent this in the first place would have been worth it."

I think we had a seamless response. I think the most important decision I made in my 12 years as governor — I got a call from Giuliani that he had moved his team to a new facility because his command center had been wiped out. And I thought for a minute, and I said, "I’ll be right down."

And that afternoon, we were sitting in the same room at the same table, and we did that for weeks and months after.

So we didn’t have that lack of communication that you saw after Katrina or with COVID, where the city and state couldn’t even talk to each other. I wish we could have done more to save lives, but every effort was made and you don’t look back, you look forward, and you learn from that.

DC: What do you see as something that’s grown out of 9/11, that’s really changed New York City, New York state, even the country?

GP: I’m proud of how, after September 11, we took a proactive attitude towards being safe and protecting our freedom from those who would attack us.

I hate to bring this up on this sacred day, but after what’s happening in Afghanistan, it’s just so discouraging. I think those who attacked us are now empowered and encouraged and inspired — not just in Afghanistan, but every terrorist who hates America is celebrating and that is just a horrible thought to have on this sacred day.

To me, the most important positive to come out of that horrible day was the sense of unity we had. And now, 20 years later to see Americans who were friends can’t even talk to each other, because they may have a different philosophy, is really discouraging.

The best thing that could come from remembering that the courage and sacrifices made on that date would be to try to reclaim some of that sense of unity that we’re all in this together.

DC: Twenty years later, I feel like some people really lose the sense of how important this was. What’s your message to them?

GP: We have to understand that those who attacked us 20 years ago, they may be gone, but their successes are still out there. And we have to embrace each other, embrace our freedom, not shirk from celebrating that those great opportunities — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to choose our own leaders, but do it in a way that understands that the future is not about on side or the other. The future is about all of us as Americans.