Command and Leadership of Ground Zero
A 9/11 interview with Bernard Kerik the 40th Police Commissioner of New York City
By Debra Ann Faretra
As we approach the 16th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let’s remember those who were lost, the first responders, the rescue efforts, and the missions of our leaders that stabilized “Ground Zero” and the surrounding areas during the crisis.
On Sept. 11, 2001, New York City came under attack and the America we knew was no longer that day. Our New York City Police Officers and Firefighters faced the most challenging feats of their lives and many perished during their unselfish heroic rescue mission. The city was a war zone and people were scrambling and running for their lives while the NYPD, FDNY and other emergency workers remained on scene performing their heroic roles, literally gasping for air and not knowing if they would make it out alive. They were responsible for evacuating tens of thousands of people to safety, while frantically searching for survivors in between, and were willing to sacrifice their own lives in the face of evil.
Through this mayhem, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and other members of their administration arrived at a scene of sheer horror after tower one was hit. They witnessed the loss of lives before their eyes, and subsequently the second aircraft hitting tower two. Kerik and Giuliani were on scene and in between the mayhem when tower one collapsed. The administration played a crucial role in saving thousands of more lives through their ability to maintain lead, focus, and implement resources. They were greeted by President George W. Bush on Sept. 14th to assess the situation more closely. Recovery and restoration of Manhattan was a prime focus aside from offering the American people a sense of security.
Sixteen years later, Commissioner Kerik continues to offer his leadership skills and expert opinions through many of our country’s most difficult situations.
Bernard Kerik, born in Newark and raised in Paterson, New Jersey is a retired police officer and Army veteran that served as a military police officer, K-9 handler, and Army Tae Kwon Do Team Instructor. He served in leadership and command positions with several law enforcement agencies in the United States and also as a national security advisor to His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan, prior to becoming the 40th Police Commissioner of New York City.
When asked what attributes are required to being an effective leader, he replied, “It’s innate and you’re either born with it or you’re not, and no school can teach you how to be a leader.” What he is essentially describing are Alpha qualities that are innate and acquired through genetics and personality construct. He paved his own way through the streets and didn’t follow any gangs but learned through trial and error at a young age. His effective leadership during 9/11 is attributed to his instincts and street survival skills that he says kicked in on that tragic day. This is consistent to Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” in difficult situations. Each first responder demonstrated their Alpha abilities and courage during this terrorist attack.
I asked Kerik about his commanding presence and mind state during Sept. 9/11 and how his leadership skills were executed while people and the city were crumbling around him.
The goal was to focus on the problem at hand and to ensure the subordinates were inspired, motivated, and projected to do what they were supposed to, through myself and members of my administration to bring stability to all the chaos.
“Policies, planning, and procedures are designed to effectuate intervention. The City of New York had emergency management plans in place for terrorist attacks that guided emergency responders and bosses to their posts,” Kerik said.
“The Emergency Command Center, Mayor’s Office, and Emergency Management were up and running and we practiced and planned for years for terrorist attacks but not necessarily planes into buildings. The plans and responses were already established should terrorism hit NYC. The command executed orders and the first responders did what they were trained and prepared for,” Kerik went on to say.
I asked Kerik to describe the frame of mind he was in when he was called into the war zone and if he was afraid.
“I was pissed! There was no time to be afraid even when the building collapsed,” he said. Everyone looked to him and other leaders to model responses and he says there was a job to do and the people relied on him.
When asked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Kerik described that he didn’t consciously suffer trauma to his knowledge, but a day hasn’t gone by in 15 years where 9/11 isn’t on his mind or part of his life. When I asked Kerik how he was psychologically impacted by 9/11, he said unselfishly that the focus wasn’t on his own mental health but that he was hurt for the families that lost their children and some even lost two. He was deeply affected through the pain of others and not so much his own.
Kerik has been through many traumatic life experiences since his childhood. People that have gone through something similar may see life through a different lens and feel very vulnerable in the world. When asked how he overcame these events and remained resilient, he said, “You have a mission statement and you create goals and objectives. You have performance measures to get you around those goals and objectives to get you where you want to be. That’s what I used.”
I asked if he had any advice for those traumatically impacted by 9/11 or their everyday role as a first responder.
“People will deal with their mental health differently. If you think you need to talk to someone, then talk to them. Don’t be embarrassed, shy, or reserved about it. Take care of yourself now you need to stay healthy.”
Giuliani and Kerik attended over 400 funerals post 9/11 and had to focus on the city and being strong for the people. “There was just no time to get emotionally shattered, we had to keep moving,” Kerik said.
Ground Zero was the first battleground to the war on terror and he had to take a position to combat it.
Although many stayed strong through this painful and trying time, the psychological and physical impacts were felt by all at a later time. Each struggled through this ordeal of loss, trauma, and pain.
Policing in this day and age is a lot different. I asked Kerik what advice he has for the younger generation of law enforcement and those entering the profession today.
“The global war on terror has given police officers very different functions than in the past. It’s important to know about crime in the rest of the world and the characteristics of those threats because they are coming here. Terrorism is implemented in police training and to the recruits.”
Kerik mentioned that he and Giuliani share the sentiments that on the 9/11 and during the aftermath, the first responders’ rescue mission was unparalleled in this country. They carried out the greatest rescue and evacuation efforts in the history of the United States. They were strategized, organized, and courageous in their roles. Unselfishly, they didn’t have time to think of their own health either, and many suffered physical and psychological illnesses as a result.
“The unity and national response by law enforcement was incredible. Cops, firefighters, and EMS had driven across the United States to join in the rescue mission at Ground Zero,” said Kerik.
Many first responders and commanders were reluctant to discuss events of this tragic day due to the painful memories associated. We honor the fallen, their families, and first responders of September 11.
Kerik’s experience walking away from September 11 is, “Don’t take life for granted.”
The general public doesn’t really know Kerik as I do, but he is a humble person; he is a first responder and a soldier who took action and led the way for his troops on the 9/11 battleground.
Myself and the staff at NJ BLUE NOW would like to thank our Police, Fire, EMS, and our retired and active military members for their service. We also thank Commissioner Kerik for his service to our country! God Bless America!
Debra Ann Faretra, M.A. is a Mental Health Public Safety Instructor offering in service training for police and fire. She is also the Principal Mental Health and Wellness Educational Consultant for Forensi Consulting, LLC in Essex County, New Jersey. She is educated in psychology, counseling, and police studies.