When the World Changed – Part 1

Photograph by Richard Drew
Photograph by Richard Drew

On September 11, 2001, I was plant manager of a specialty chemical plant in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. This plant used railroad car quantities of very hazardous materials, but like most plants in the industry, our safety programs made it a pretty safe place to work, and the record proved it.

That day there was supposed to be a regularly scheduled plant managers’ meeting at the home office, two hours’ drive away. When it was obvious that the planes were part of an attack, I turned around and returned to the plant. We had no idea if this was part of something much larger, and how much of America was targeted, and I needed to be there instead of in a meeting.

The thing I remember most about the drive back to the plant was the lack of police cars. I was able to drive as fast as I needed to, since all the local police were obviously going elsewhere.

That day, I learned the value of knowing the people who worked for me. One of the things I had done when I took the job as plant manager was to read everyone’s personnel files, and I paid particular attention to those with prior military or law enforcement service. So I knew I had several trained former servicemen working that day. One of our plant operators had been an Army Ranger in Desert Storm. We had another operator take his place in operations, and I had him walk the plant perimeter fence, looking for signs of intrusions.

One of my supervisors had been a Navy SEAL in a previous life*, so I asked him if he would man the front gate. Normally, the front gate was open, since there was no way to drive straight through into the plant without someone opening another gate in between. On 9/11 that changed, and that gate has been closed and manned every day since.

He asked me if it was okay for him to move his personal car up by the gate. I knew why he was asking, since I also had gotten to know people well enough to know who kept guns in their cars. Since I did, I didn’t see any problem with others doing so.

I told him to do what he needed to do, and I asked him if he thought he might need an assistant at the gate. “Not if I can get to my car, I won’t.”

Other than the sense of fear, anger, and uncertainty that everyone felt that day, at the plant we had no problems, and we never really had any problems after that. I did hold a quick plant meeting that afternoon before shift change, to remind everyone to keep their minds on their jobs, for safety reasons.

The chemical industry eventually instituted a lot of extra security measures, some of which were needed, and some of which probably were not.

For me, the lesson driven home was to know my people and their backgrounds, and to train everybody in how to protect themselves and the plant. One thing was sure – things would never be the same.

*A lot of people claim to have been a Navy SEAL. One advantage of reading people’s personnel files is it included their form DD214. This guy really had been a SEAL.

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