Remembering Sept. 11, 2001 - A conversation with Virginia Tech's safety leaders
September 10, 2020
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two of Virginia Tech’s public safety leaders, then serving in their prior careers, were just a few miles apart from each other in Washington, D.C.
Mike Mulhare, assistant vice president for emergency management, and Kevin Foust, associate vice president for safety and security, recently sat down with the Virginia Tech communications team to reflect on their experiences that day.
They shed light on what drove them to act on Sept. 11 and how these principles continue to guide their public service careers – especially as they lead Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 response efforts.
Q: Nineteen years ago on Sept. 11, 2001, you were only a few short miles from each other in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia. What were you doing that morning?
Foust: In 2001, I was in Washington, D.C., serving as the supervisor of the overseas International Terrorism squad at the Washington Field Office [for the Federal Bureau of Investigation]. I was slated to start my next assignment to lead the Osama bin Laden Unit at FBI headquarters later that month. That morning, we were ready to start our daily briefings as usual.
Mulhare: At the time, I was the emergency response administrator for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. I flew into Washington, D.C., first thing that day to attend a national emergency management meeting. I checked into the hotel that morning in Arlington – just a few blocks from the Pentagon.
Q: What happened when you received news of what was unfolding in New York City, and shortly after at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania?
Foust: Like the rest of the world, my FBI team was hovered around the TV in my office, shocked at what we were witnessing. We immediately suspected terrorism as the impetus for these attacks. I put the call out for our Rapid Deployment Team that responds to terrorism incidents worldwide to gather immediately. We initially planned on traveling to New York to begin the investigation. That was before we learned about the plane at the Pentagon. I looked out my window and saw the smoke rising over the Potomac.
Mulhare: I had just settled into my meeting when it was reported that something had happened in New York and that there was an explosion at the Pentagon. At the time I did not realize that my meeting was just blocks away from the Pentagon. I went down to the hotel lobby and within minutes, people started arriving from the Pentagon and began to find their way inside. Many in shock, some with cuts and bruises, and everyone wanted to get in touch with their loved ones.
Q: What did you do next? What propelled you into action?
Mulhare: Emergency management professionals always strive to a fill need wherever we are. In the hotel lobby, I helped provide first aid to those with minor injuries. We quickly discovered there was a major need to help those coming from the Pentagon communicate with their loved ones to let them know they were OK.
A long line was forming at the one available landline. I helped gather a group together to make calls on our cellphones for those standing in line. Because of the intermittent cell service, we would continue to redial until a connection was made. Once a call was completed we repeated the process for the next person in line. At any given time that morning, we had long lines of people waiting to use the landline.
While it was a small operation, I was glad I could help these individuals get in touch with their families and solve that need. I wished I could have done more. It became very surreal later that day when the crowds dissipated, but you could still see the Pentagon on fire.
Foust: My first day as chief of the Osama bin Laden Unit would start right then and there, as I learned from my boss when I was summoned to FBI headquarters that morning. We spent the rest of the day in the Strategic Information Operation Center connecting with the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other agencies, pulling together our charge to begin investigating these terrorist acts. We were driven by the desire to serve our country and bring justice to the victims. We wouldn’t go home for days.
Q: Are there any lessons in particular you gained on Sept. 11 that have stayed with you in your public service careers?
Mulhare: Sept. 11 was a transformative experience for all of us. That problem solving mentality, engrained in all emergency managers and first responders, continues to underscores all of my efforts, and those of my dedicated colleagues in Virginia Tech Emergency Management, as we serve the university community. We are all problem solvers; we strive to facilitate response actions and build collaboration among stakeholders to meet goals and objectives designed to return the situation to normalcy following an emergency.
In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, responding to incidents and planning for what lay ahead reaffirmed my commitment to public service, as did the vantage I held as a parent of two Virginia Tech students on campus on April 16, 2007. I’ve been in this field for over 35 years and it remains a privilege to serve.
Foust: Throughout my career with the FBI and the Virginia Tech Police Department, in responding to large-scale emergencies like Sept. 11 and April 16, I have always believed strongly in leveraging the expertise of others to accomplish something. Trusting in the skillsets of your colleagues, not only helps generate great results and fruitful collaboration, it also helps empower and grow new leaders.
Q: Have you drawn upon these perspectives at all in leading Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 response?
Foust: Mike is among the nation’s top emergency management experts. His team is top-notch. He brings unique insights into what long-range response is needed in an emergency like COVID-19. This “marathon” planning approach has been critical. I continue to look to the unparalleled expertise from Virginia Tech Emergency Management, Environmental Health & Safety, the Police Department, and our regional emergency response and public health partners as we navigate COVID-19.
Mulhare: As I shared before, problem solving and facilitation is a big part of emergency management in any crisis. Kevin and I and our teams believe strongly in both. We will continue to bring leaders from across the university from Environmental Health & Safety, Student Affairs, Research, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, and countless others to devise strategies to minimize the spread of the coronavirus and best support the university community.
We will continue to communicate with the Virginia Department of Health and the Montgomery County COVID-19 Task Force, as well as the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. We’ll also engage our students, employees, parents, and community members in our efforts.
We can’t respond to COVID-19 alone. Our shared expertise and commitment to our community are the force multipliers that bring successful resolutions to complex problems.