At the time of the attacks, UCF Police Officer Joel Witherspoon was an NYPD patrol officer in Queens. Victim Services Director Christine Mouton ’98 ’01MS, then an advocate with the State Attorney’s Office, 18th Judicial Circuit, was deployed to the northeast to assist victims’ families and friend.
“It doesn’t even seem like it’s that long,” Mouton says. “It seems like I just met those people a few weeks ago. I can still remember who they are. I can still see their faces. You just never forget. You never do.”
In the Aftermath, an Officer’s View from the Frontlines
Sept. 11, 2001, started as a normal day for Witherspoon, who is now part of UCFPD’s special operations division. Then Witherspoon and his partner got a call that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. When they received another call a few minutes later about the second tower, they knew something was seriously wrong.
“The first day we didn’t know exactly what was going on,” he says. “We were listening to the radio and we could hear officers screaming over the radio, calling for help and all types of things going on. We knew something serious was going on, but at that time, we didn’t know it was a terrorist attack.”
Witherspoon didn’t report to the World Trade Center that day, but he did arrive in downtown Manhattan the next day to work the security detail around the site’s perimeter. He stayed at that post for the rest of the year.
He remembers an eerie calm over the usually bustling city in the days after the attack.
“It was like watching one of those movies where there’s just total destruction,” Witherspoon says. “There’s nobody around, and all of the buildings were still covered in soot and ash. It was really just a sight to behold.”
Witherspoon didn’t know any fellow police officers who lost their lives on 9/11, but he did know a firefighter who responded and perished. The 20-year NYPD veteran remembers standing outside working security while watching his brothers in blue and fellow first responders going in and trying to rescue those who might still be in the building.
“It’s one thing about being a cop that you learn over the years, you obviously want to be in the middle of what’s going on,” Witherpoon says. “As most people are running away, we’re running into the danger. You want to help. It’s just a feeling that never goes away, you want to go in and help.”
Americans from across the country stepped up too, he says.
“That was a point in time and a period in history where it seemed like everyone came together,” he says. “Everybody was there to help. It really brought home what first responders do. Because from that day forward, a lot of people will come up and thank you for your service.”
Across the River, Advocates Offer Comfort and Support
As Witherspoon protected Ground Zero, Mouton and her team were across the Hudson River consoling those who lost loved ones in the attack.
Mouton, who was working in Melbourne at the time, was in a staff meeting that was interrupted with instructions to turn on the news. Minutes later, her team was deployed to New York as crisis responders.
Because planes weren’t yet back in the air, her team made the 24-hour drive to New Jersey, where they reported to the family assistance center. Though they’d been trained in crisis response, nobody could be prepared for an event of 9/11’s magnitude.
“This was nothing that anybody had ever envisioned as a crisis responder, so the books kind of went out the window, so to speak,” Mouton says.
They set up a companioning model, where victims could report to the center and be assigned to an advocate that would accompany them and explain services. There was an area for social security, a place for DNA samples to be given in the hopes it would aid in identifying loved ones, and a process for death certificates.
Eventually, family members were allowed to collect ashes from the 9/11 site.
“They had a really nice memorial where they brought them over from the other side of the river,” Mouton recalls. “A bagpipe was played and there was a police escort and family members were able to come back down and pick up a box if they chose to do that because there really wasn’t going to be much for them other than that one box.”
One night, Mouton’s group was able to leave the center and visit the site themselves. Her experience was similar to Witherspoon’s.
“You could taste and feel the grit and dust in the air,” she says. “We could hear this thunder rolling down the street and sure enough, here comes this huge flatbed truck. It had these humongous pieces of iron girder on the back and they were just crushed like tissue paper. When you see something that’s supposed to be that strong, it’s just like, there are really no more survivors there.”
Mouton’s team was there for almost two weeks. The Florida Crisis Team that she was part of had other members at the actual site debriefing first responders, patrol officers and others who were helping with body identification.
“There were a lot of intense stories that were shared, and you don’t ever forget those kinds of stories,” she says. “It’s almost in that moment someone has shared something really intimate with you and you don’t ever want to let it go. You just always carry it with you and you don’t ever forget. You never forget.”