9/11 20 years later: Robert H. Von Hasseln, Amsterdam – Status: Ready | Readers remember

Robert von Hasseln, Amsterdam city historian, inside his home office
Robert von Hasseln, Amsterdam city historian, inside his home office

One glance out of my Cohoes apartment window revealed an absolutely beautiful September morning. It was the perfect day for an “out-of-office” experience away from my desk at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga. The only downside: I would have to take a shift at the local polling station for Primary Day.

I had slept in, but now it was time to get going: Load the toaster, punch on the coffee, switch on the TV and into the shower. As I was toweling off, in the background the morning news seemed to have lost its normally spritely tone. I leaned out of the bathroom and saw the screen filled with a jagged, smoking gash on one of the World Trade Center towers, and the talking heads were discussing whether it was an accident. I knew it was not.

There had been a B-25 bomber that flew into the Empire State Building in 1945, but the situations were entirely different. And, as one of our final exercises at the Army Counter-Terrorism course several years before, we were charged to design an attack on the continental U.S. My group’s solution: hijack a transcontinental or oceanic flight (heavy laden with jet fuel) and fly into the nearest symbolic target with possible mass casualties.

I didn’t wait to hear more. I dropped everything and tore into the closet looking to find the right uniform. When I retired from active federal service, I kept six camouflage sets (just In case I was recalled) and converted one to that of the New York Guard (just in case of … I didn’t know what). Find the only green T-shirt left, lace up the boots and scramble out the door. My plan was to stop by the polling station to tell them the news, and then head for State Area Command—NY (STARC-NY) in Latham. Surely I could be of help; I was experienced in disaster management, operations and logistics, as well as trained in counterterrorism.

I burst into the polls giving them the news. Back in the car, I heard that the South Tower had now been also hit. I was speeding south when the thought came to me.

Sometimes extra help isn’t help until it’s been planned for — it’s just in the way.

What if they had locked down the building until they knew more about the nature of the attack? I spun around and went back to my apartment to call the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). When I finally got through, I was told “Wait by the phone.”

There was nothing to do but stare at the pictures broadcast from lower Manhattan or stare at the phone. And repeat.

I never cared much for the Twin Towers: They looked like giant filing cabinets, or the Christmas boxes the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings came in. I disliked having to change elevators in the sky lobbies. The buildings were huge and empty, and yet crowded at the same time. But you can’t be stationed long in Manhattan without taking out-of-town visitors to the observatory or Windows on the World restaurant or doing business at the many governmental agencies there.

When the towers began to drop, so did my heart. I prayed that the thousands of persons I encountered on a typical weekday morning had gotten out, or been diverted away, before the collapse.

Now the clouds of dust and debris were rolling in all directions. Everywhere the cameras could still see I recognized someplace I knew: A coffee shop where I frequently got my “New York regular”; a favorite used bookstore; the store where I bought specialty office supplies; and many others.

Exhausted by the horror and tense waiting, I fell into a fitful sleep. Now came other images, not on the TV. I saw City Hall Park with thousands gathering to flee the island by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Here, where American troops had been paraded by General Washington in 1776 so that each man could hear the Declaration of Independence, and learn they were no longer the Continental Army but the Army of the United States. Mostly though it was the image of the statue of Nathan Hale at the steps of City Hall, his arms and legs bound, staring resolutely at the British before his execution as a patriot spy. Now, covered with remnants of the fallen towers, he unflinchingly faced where the buildings had stood. We’d need a lot of that determination in times to come.

The phone never rang.

More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section 

I wasn’t needed; I was through, done, no longer useful. I took off my uniform and threw it in the corner in futility, and set to picking up from the morning. More news came in: The North East Air Defector Sector (NEADS) had scrambled fighters to protect New York and Washington, D.C. Initial testing at the towers site indicated no chemical, biological or radiological (CBR) residue. And I remembered: I had been heavily involved in arguing that NEADS in Rome, New York, should not be closed in budget cuts. That CBR report could have only come from the 2nd Rapid Assessment and Detection (RAID) Team from Schenectady (prototype of eventually 44 such units across the U.S.), which had just gone operational in August, 2001. I had promoted the concept and helped design the team.

Perhaps part of me had been there after all.

I’ve never been back to the WTC site. Business took me back to Manhattan many times since. I’ve walked right in front of the barriers, now the memorial and museum, repeatedly, but could not get my feet to turn in. I heard stories of heroism and horror: the captain of a fireboat undergoing restoration as a museum who got it moving and pumping to replace broken water mains; the commander of my former battalion who set up a night perimeter and wondered what he was stepping into every time he got out of his command truck. In the morning he saw it was a body. And many more stories.

Back at work in Saratoga, I was tasked to review the design of the proposed New York State Defense of Liberty Medal. I added orange to the ribbon so that the city’s colors were represented along with the state’s, and separated the red band into two parallel strips to stand for the towers. I added a special “WTC” device to be worn on the ribbon by anyone who served at the site in the initial response. That ribbon is now worn by every member of the state’s military forces who served or is now serving in a counterterrorism operation since 9/11.

In 2009, I became the city historian of Amsterdam and began working with Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for an artifact from the WTC for construction of a memorial near where American Airlines Flight 11 had turned over Amsterdam for New York. It took some time to find what I was looking for, and to build the memorial (I didn’t just want a fragment of curtain wall to stick in the ground). Every year since, we hold a ceremony of honor and remembrance for all those killed and injured in New York, Pennsylvania, the Pentagon that day and afterward. Every year we find notes and pictures from their families, from as far away as Texas.

Since that day I’ve watched kids go off to fight who weren’t even born on Sept. 11, 2001. I’ve come to accept that my path in dealing with that day and its legacy must be different from theirs. The faces of acquaintances dim.

Time has softened memories, but not eliminated them.

Through it all I have become more convinced than ever of what William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

-Robert H. von Hasseln is a 24-year veteran of the Army. He was the military and naval historian of the state of New York and director of the New York State Military Museum. He is currently the city historian of Amsterdam.)


More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section 


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Categories: 9/11 20 Years Later, Life and Arts


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