On the morning of September 11, 2001, then-Lt. Governor Mark Schweiker has built on years of crisis preparation.
Schweiker had trained to deal with emergencies such as train derailments, flooding and nuclear disaster response. As the state’s first emergency responder, Schweiker has been called upon to mobilize a response to assist aircrews responding to terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, DC, and open terrain in western Pennsylvania.
In the days and weeks following the bloodiest second day on American soil, the Bucks County native has found his days filled with new responsibilities – all aimed at helping Pennsylvanians cope with shock and tragedy. of what had happened and the nearly 3,000 lives lost.
“You know that when evil presents itself as it provocatively did that day by these jihadist terrorists, you have nothing in mind other than helping families to recover,” did he declare.
Barely 24 days after the terrorist attacks, Schweiker was sworn in as the 44th governor of Pennsylvania. Then-Gov. Tom Ridge has resigned his post to become the country’s first director of homeland security.
Schweiker served the remaining 15 months of Ridge’s tenure. He took on the task of helping the Pennsylvanians begin to heal the wounds of the bombings.
Schweiker now works as senior vice president of Renmatix, based in the King of Prussia, which makes herbal ingredients for personal care and dietary needs. He is also an executive in residence of the Homeland Security program at Rider University.
He stopped in Harrisburg on Friday to share his thoughts on 9/11 as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of that historic day. Here are some highlights from the conversation he had with PennLive on Friday.
- The burden of September 11 weighs heavily on little Shanksville, Pennsylvania: “You knew pretty quickly we were guardians”
“Return to the Capitol”
Like anyone old enough to remember that fateful day, Schweiker has no problem remembering where he is.
Schweiker was in a car driven by a state soldier on the Pennsylvania toll highway to Philadelphia on state business. They approached the Valley Forge exit when a staff member called to tell them about a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
After receiving a second call a minute or two after the second plane struck the south center tower, Schweiker said, “It was time to return to Capitol Hill.”
Arrangements have been made for him to be driven to a location off the northeastern extension of the highway where he meets with a State Police helicopter. He traveled to Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters for a quick meeting of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Board, which he chaired.
Along the way, he had a phone conversation with Ridge, who was in Erie at the time. Schweiker said they had discussed how the Commonwealth was prepared to help Manhattan and the Pentagon.
He also explained to Ridge that he was speaking with the FBI agent in charge in Pittsburgh about Flight 93, which had been hijacked over northern Ohio and entered Pennsylvania airspace. .
âIt was kind of a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ conversation to answer questions because he was rushing back to get a fuller brief,â said Schweiker.
âThe idea was to understand that our challenge had gone beyond the cry of general assistance from the New York towers and American Airlines that hit the Pentagon,â Schweiker said. “We had our own challenge because you know at 10 am Flight 93 was down in western Pennsylvania.”
As chairman of the Emergency Management Board, his job was to deploy all necessary resources to help manage this crime scene in Somerset County and its aftermath.
Under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he organized the deployment of the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Team, the first team outside of New York State to arrive in Manhattan. It remains a point of pride for him that Pennsylvania is ready to respond quickly to offer the assistance of a search and rescue team.
Days later, Schweiker admits it got him thinking about whether the Commonwealth needed its own search and rescue team while it was deployed elsewhere. This ultimately led to the formation of the Second Pennsylvania Search and Rescue Team.
Schweiker said he had become the rumor-dissipator and crackdown on likely destinations in the state where Flight 93 was headed. He spoke with reporters and others to tell them the best judgment was that passengers of this plane stop a flight to the United States Capitol or the White House.
Additionally, as the face of emergency response, he sought out and deployed the resources necessary to protect the Pennsylvanians. This included sending teams of state and National Guard soldiers to protect critical state assets, such as the ports of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and state nuclear power plants.
On top of all this, he wanted to send a message that the Muslim faith cannot be defined by a group of violent terrorists.
âWe had an obligation to screen and deal with the vulnerabilities felt by Pennsylvanians,â said Schweiker. “One of them was to clarify that these were jihadist terrorists hating Americans, not a religion, and not Islam as a whole attacking the United States.”
Schweiker said there had been private conversations with Ridge within a week or two of the terrorist attacks about speculation that Ridge might be leaving for Washington, DC and what that would mean for the Lieutenant Governor.
Once that became a reality, being well-matched allies and governance partners, Schweiker’s swift transition to succeed Ridge went smoothly. No cabinet member left. The unity that was felt in the aftermath of the attacks extended to its relations with the General Assembly.
He succeeded in gaining the support of lawmakers to remove the cap on the number of state police forces, a feat that had not been done for three decades. He also organized a special session to create the post of Director of Homeland Security.
Shortly after his inauguration, he immediately toured the state for 10 days to speak to a shocked audience.
âIt was important for the Pennsylvanians to see their governor, in this case the new governor, and talk about some of that anxiety and try to instill confidence,â Schweiker said. “And I think it worked.”
By the time it was inaugurated on October 5, 2001, Schweiker had long announced that he would not be competing in the 2002 governor’s race to spend more time with his family. He never changed his mind, even though GOP consultants believed Schweiker might be a better candidate than this year’s GOP candidate Mike Fisher. Democrat Ed Rendell defeated Fisher to win the first of his two terms as governor.
âIt was about staying true to Mike Fisher at the time,â Schweiker said. “I had offered an endorsement and had no intention of straying from it, so it was a matter of principle.”
For Pennsylvanians, he said it turned out to be good business, as his one and only goal was to be a positive force to help heal the citizens of that historic day that led him to become governor.
See justice rendered
Schweiker speaks with the families of the passengers on Flight 93. He said they were waiting for justice.
He published an editorial in May on President Joe Biden’s 100th day, reminding the president that the trial of the 9/11 accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators continued to be delayed. He said he could understand that this had been slowed down by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but stressed that the world is watching and waiting.
Mohammed and others involved in the 9/11 plot appeared in a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a pre-trial hearing earlier this week. It was Mohammed’s first court appearance in over a year.
âIt took a long time and I assure you families are looking forward to everything,â Schweiker said, paraphrasing his op-ed. âThey know more than most, Bin Laden was the financier. The mastermind, the killer was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He admitted his guilt. He spat in the face of this country with remarks such as’ You are weak. You won’t see it until the end and we will beat you. ‘ “
Schweiker said he didn’t want this to happen. This is why he believes so strongly that it is important for the trial to take place so that those accused of causing permanent emotional scars on Americans can face American responsibility.
If convicted, Schweiker said, proper justice can be summed up in one word: execution.
Jan Murphy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.
More on PennLive:
Former Governor Tom Ridge’s aides reflect on 9/11 and what happened behind the scenes
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge Makes First Appearance Since Stroke, Reflects On 9/11 Attacks