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9/11: Menino On Leading Boston Through Chaos

WBUR is remembering Sept. 11 through the stories of men and women from around Massachusetts whose lives were touched that day — those who lost loved ones, those who responded and those whose lives were affected in more unexpected ways.

Thomas Menino has been mayor of Boston for 18 years. On the morning of Sept. 11, 10 years ago, he was at a fundraising event at a florist shop in Brighton.

Click to hear the mayor tell his story, or read it below.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino speaks to WBUR's Bob Oakes about Sept. 11, 2001. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

I get a call from Police Commissioner (Paul) Evans, who was head of the Boston Police at the time, and I can remember him saying, “You better get back to City Hall.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He’d never said that before. He said, “A plane has just hit the World Trade Center.” I said, “What?” He said, “Another one’s going there.” And I said, “Oh” — can’t tell you what I said. Then I said, “I’m getting back there as quickly, meet me there.”

So I immediately left the event, I explained to the folks there was an emergency and I went back to City Hall. And by that time the other tower was hit. And we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Because we got these phone calls from the airport saying they didn’t know how many planes left Logan Airport — two, four, six, they really didn’t know — that went down to New York.

And that was definitely the toughest thing because everybody’s looking to Boston, everybody thought I run the airport, I have no say in the airport, but all the news media is calling me and I felt useless because I couldn’t tell you anything.

And so, you know, about two years before, we were asked by Washington to send some of my staff down to be trained for an emergency. I sent 78 of my top staff down there to be trained. And so I put them all together at the Eagle Room at City Hall and said, “What’s our plan? You’ve all been trained.” And I think we cleared about 1,400 hospital beds in a matter of hours.

You cleared out the hospital beds, fearing …

We didn’t know where they were going — it could be the Federal Reserve Bank — who knows where they were going. Nobody knew, the president of the United States didn’t know. So I wanted to make sure that we were prepared if something happened. We had to go to like John Hancock tower, Prudential tower and those places, clearing out the top floors. My wife, matter of fact, worked in John Hancock tower and she had to leave her office because of the threat of something happening.

Schools — do we let schools out, do we keep schools in? We kept schools in. People urged me to let the school kids go home. We’d have mass confusion out there. You know, so those are decisions you make. And some people didn’t like that decision.

And also we had to try to get as much information as we could and calm the public because the public was really concerned that, you know, this never happened in America before. And also, there are Arabic communities out in West Roxbury, I went out and talked to them to reassure them we’re still on their side, we’re going to work with them, we’re going to give them every protection we could — that’s the most important thing you can do as mayor, you can’t allow the city to be split.

Was there fear out there when you went to talk to them?

There was some fear. They didn’t know what was going to happen to them.

Did you feel vulnerable?

As mayor, I had to keep my upper lip, I had to be strong, I had to show the public that I was in control. That weekend it was so strange in the city, nobody was out and I walked most of the city that day, just so people see that I was walking around. I went to three or four restaurants just to be seen, because people were staying home, they weren’t leaving their homes, they were afraid to leave their homes.

It was very difficult, but that was my job. I had to stand up and try to reassure the public that we were in control, we never lost control of the city, but you have inner feelings, you have feelings for people, you knew a couple of those folks. One of the kids on the plane was a hockey linemate of my son’s.

You know, you get off your public piece and then you go in your back room — two different pieces, two different pieces of you. Because you go in your back room and you just sit there and you pray and you wonder, would we be the next place that was going to be attacked? And you did that for about five, six, seven, eight minutes, then you have to go back out and face the questions of folks and I have to make sure that they know what’s going on.

I’ve always wondered one thing about the city in the 10 years since, and that is how we seem to have avoided much in the way of feeling collectively guilty about the fact that two of the planes that crashed in New York and took so many lives came from our own city here. How have we avoided feeling guilty about that?

Well it wasn’t the city who did it. It was the airlines, we had nothing to do with it, it was the airport. I don’t know how we can be blamed for it. I mean, we should never feel guilty. We’ve got to feel sorry for the families that lost their loved ones, and I think collectively we do in Boston. And like Commissioner Evans said that day, our lives have changed forever.

How did it change your life?

Well, I’m more aware today of this issue of public safety. Like, over the weekend, the FBI says well, small planes might be used to do some attack. So that we have to (have) our Police Department watch certain properties in the city of Boston. You know, we don’t go out and tell the public what’s going on. But we’re aware of these situations and we have to try to do the best we can to keep control.

And also we work together with the seven or eight cities and towns around Boston, we never worked together on security issues before. Every public safety leader should understand they’ve got to work together. Alone they will not survive. But I as the mayor have to do the best I can for the people of our city. And during 9/11 I did it, and I’ll do it again tomorrow if I have to do it.

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