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Attacks on U.S. Change Life at NIH

By Rich McManus

Photos by Rich McManus, Bill Branson, Lew Bass

On the Front Page...

The transition from peacetime's reliable routine to wartime anxiety took place in only minutes as NIH employees came to work on an otherwise spectacular late summer morning Sept. 11 and discovered by 9:45 — via office televisions, radio, the web, phone calls and hallway conversations — that terrorism on an almost unimaginable scale was taking place in New York City and in the heart of Washington, D.C. The workday froze as workers tuned in to the news — the World Trade Center towers in flames, and smoke rising from behind the Old Executive Office building near the White House.


In the OD Office of Communications and Public Liaison in Bldg. 31, there was a silent and unofficial suspension of activities as employees mustered near a TV monitor. No one stayed for very long — it was almost too incomprehensible — before walking back to their cubicles muttering, then returning later for confirmation. There was almost nothing said as workers instinctively covered their mouths with their hands. This couldn't have been happening.

Flag flies at half-mast in tragedy's wake.

At a meeting of the National Cancer Advisory Board in Bldg. 31, NCI director Dr. Richard Klausner, who had just surprised the group with news of his intention to resign, was handed a note — which he relayed to the group — about the World Trade Center crashes. The board did manage a standing ovation for his service before dissolving to digest the more astonishing news.

Downstairs in Bldg. 31, the hallway outside the cafeteria was deserted; most NIH'ers must have been glued to the media. What few people you did encounter were grim-faced and self-enclosed. No one exchanged hallway greetings, everyone hurried. There was only pent-up tension.

In the office of the NIH associate director for communications, all hands surrounded a TV set tuned to the disaster. No one spoke except perfunctorily; talking seemed a violation of something private and solemn. Across the hallway in Wilson Hall, a meeting had devolved into bystanding at a TV monitor. Someone ran up the hall saying the government was soon going to shut down. And it did, within 20 minutes.

A guard at the entrance to Bldg. 31A checks all IDs in the wake of the Sept. 11 airliner hijackings.

Over in 31, a supervisor went to each door like a 21st century Paul Revere: "Everyone out of the building within 10 minutes. Take your ID cards and don't come back until you are informed otherwise." In the parking lot, workers took to their cars quickly but gingerly, as if tiptoeing on eggshells. They were wondering how much more violation the beautiful morning could withstand.

On an emptying campus where only essential employees remained, NIH played host to emergency emails, most sent to vacant desks. In an all-hands emergency notification from CIT at 10:45 a.m., new limitations on entry to campus were first posted, along with the requirement to wear ID. Later emails from both NIH and the department clarified security procedures, but few were here to read them. A call for blood donors went out at 1:23 p.m. Sept. 11, and by 12:56 p.m. the following day, the Clinical Center's department of transfusion medicine was warning donors that its short-term storage capacity had been exceeded. Almost 400 units of blood had been collected.

Plainclothes security officers search under the hood and in the trunk of cars parking under the Clinical Center.

The next morning, after President Bush had assured the world that the federal government would reopen without delay, NIH'ers nearing the campus by car were astonished to encounter traffic backups a mile from NIH in every direction. Restricted entryways and vehicle inspections turned the morning commute into a minor ordeal. Using everything from parked vans, to backhoes, to jersey barriers, NIH security officials blocked all but four entrances to campus. Still, most employees reported to work.

In the hallways, it seemed that every conversation one overheard was about some aspect of the tragedy. A melancholy preoccupation descended, and only several days later, when you began to hear laughter through a cubicle wall, did you realize how you hungered for normalcy, for warmth and ease.

NIH'ers read emails of concern and support from HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein. They learned of the availability of grief counselors. On Thursday, Sept. 13, the President declared that the following day would be a national day of prayer and remembrance. NIH observed the occasion with an ecumenical service at noon in Masur Auditorium, offered by the CC's spiritual ministry department.

A service of prayer and remembrance in Masur Auditorium drew a filled house and hallway.

Overflow crowd from the interfaith prayer service in Masur packed entire Visitor Information Center; people in the Cybercafe (not shown) also watched from their balcony. The half-dozen speakers in the program represented Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.

The prayer service drew a standing-room-only crowd; people were standing six deep at the entrance to participate. Lipsett Amphitheater was supposed to accommodate the overflow from Masur, but the audio feed there failed, so some inspired NIH'ers, including Oscar Sweet, improvised their own prayer service, which was just as moving as the one in Masur. Another overflow site in the Visitor Information Center was jammed; employees in the Cybercafe, too, leaned in to participate.

Even the R&W weighed in via all-hands email with its condolences and support, offering contacts for a Unity Wall in Bethesda, a listing of local prayer services and a link to a Montgomery County roster of attack victims from the area.

Lectures such as the NIH Director's Wednesday Afternoon Lecture series, and the first talk in a series dedicated to NIA social scientist Matilda White Riley were postponed, as was NINR's 15th anniversary symposium scheduled for Sept. 20-21. There were dozens of other cancellations due to both travel restrictions and new security concerns on campus. For example on Sept. 14, NIH officially suspended most after-hours and weekend events, including use of the fitness centers.

NIH Police checked licenses of drivers at Center Dr. and the Pike.

On Sept. 17, ORS activated a special web page consolidating all of the security information relevant to employees and visitors; this complemented a series of all-hands emails updating workers. A message that day warned that delivery trucks driving over grass to avoid barriers would be met by "an aggressive response from NIH Police."

"It is my belief that the NIH responded quickly and appropriately to (the) terrorist attacks," said Richard Shaff, chief of the Emergency Management Branch, Division of Public Safety, ORS. "Within minutes after the realization that the incidents were, indeed, terrorist acts, the NIH Fire Department and the Police Department immediately recalled all off-duty personnel, and the Division of Public Safety began strategic planning for how to deal with this disaster in consultation with the associate director for research services, the NIH director and DHHS officials. The NIH Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), developed to ensure that the mission-critical functions of the NIH remain operational, was activated and, within 45 minutes, the COOP Operations Center was staffed and working. This center was staffed overnight on Tuesday, and still remains operational each day during working hours, with people available on an on-call basis after hours."

Jersey barriers block Wilson Dr. at Rockville Pike campus entry.

Shaff continued, "The NIH Police quickly determined how to appropriately enhance the level of security at NIH facilities in response to the attack and received approval from ORS Director Steve Ficca and Dr. Kirschstein to implement those enhancements, with the support and cooperation of many other NIH entities. The Crime Prevention Branch brought in dozens of contract guards to assist the police in searching vehicles entering the campus and in checking identification badges in buildings."

As the NIH Record went to press, the twice-daily conference calls that had been held among Kirschstein and senior NIH staff, other DHHS agency heads and senior DHHS officials had dwindled to one, but daily briefings still were conducted with ORS program managers to discuss issues of concern and strategic planning initiatives.

Oscar Sweet helped lead impromptu Lipsett event on Sept. 14.

"The vast majority of the NIH population has been cooperative and supportive of these security enhancements, which are certainly necessary at this time," Shaff said. "I think the NIH acted prudently and expeditiously to protect our employees, visitors and patients, and the facilities, in light of these terrorist attacks."

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