9/11 Tampa

Posted in Today on Sunday, January 09, 2011.

9/11 Tampa

October 2001 – One month after 9/11.

“Mayor Greco, we could have a catastrophe coming,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

It was then-Tampa Police Captain Jane Castor, and her voice was filled with dread. The FBI just contacted her, she told Greco. They told her that a ship was on its way to Tampa with al-Qaeda and two nuclear devices–and they were not sure if they were trying to smuggle them into the United States through Tampa or if they planned on detonating them in the city because it is home to Central Command.

Greco said he swallowed hard and tried to maintain his composure as his dinner guests at Tampa’s world famous Bern’s Steakhouse were looking over their dessert menus, discussing what to order while they sipped on their expensive wine. Castor didn’t need to tell Greco that this news was confidential, so he politely excused himself from the table and walked outside so they could talk in private.

Castor informed him that the specific type of nuclear device was unknown, but Tampa’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)–a federal task force comprised of FBI and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies of which she was a part – were handling the situation. A federal helicopter with a nuclear detection device was flying over every ship on its way to Tampa and countless law enforcement officers with the JTTF were waiting at the port, ready to search every ship that docked. The JTTF was told by the federal government that they were not to make the threat public.

“It could have been a false threat,” explained Greco, “and if we told everyone in Tampa about it, the mass hysteria caused by the news could have gotten out of hand. Besides, if the devices were detonated, no one really could have gotten far enough away to be safe. If they were detonated, I think we were all dead.”

There was nothing he could do to help; all he could do was wait.

“After I told him everything, his response was the same as everyone’s,” said Castor, who is currently the Tampa police chief. “He had no response. He had no point of reference for how to react to an incident like that. No one did.”

Greco said he returned to his dinner table and tried to act like nothing was wrong, which was driving him crazy. He said for the rest of the night his mind was so focused on his phone, waiting for it to ring with news, that the world was mute to him. Mouths were moving. Feet were trampling. The piano was playing. Glasses and silverware were clinking. Doors were slamming. But Greco heard none of it. His mind was focused on his cell phone sitting in his lap. He was staring at it, waiting for it to ring again, waiting for Castor to tell him everything was ok. Or, perhaps, he thought, it would all just suddenly end. Perhaps everyone in Tampa would soon be dead.

Hours later, while Greco nervously sat on the edge of his bed, his phone finally rang and he received the good news he’d been praying to hear. Castor told him that they tracked down the ship that was suspected of carrying the devices, boarded it and found nothing. Either the threat was false or the order was cancelled. Either way, Tampa was safe.

Greco said that when he hung up, he began to sob. Some of the sobs were part of a normal emotional release following such a traumatic evening. And some of the sobs were due to the realization that there were some threats to the city about which he could do nothing. His greatest attribute had always been his ability to handle every situation through sheer force of personality. He could sit down with anyone, talk with them and find a way to solve their problem. But he couldn’t talk with the terrorists. They are faceless cowards hiding in the shadows. And even if he could talk with them, he knew they don’t think logically. For the first time in his life, Greco felt helpless, an emotion that would only increase in the coming months, as everyday was consumed with something terrorist-related.

“For a while, every day I was at a meeting discussing something about terrorists,” said Greco. “It was crazy. The day after 9/11, I got a call from Police Chief Benny Holder and he said we had to go over some of the potential dangers the city faced. So we got together and had to discuss what we would do if they blew up the chlorine tanks we had in the port or if they sunk a ship in our channel because that meant other ships couldn’t get through. Or how would we react to an anthrax attack. And oh my God, my phone kept ringing with new scenarios we had to be prepared to handle.

“And then we had to start worrying about our Middle Eastern population. We were getting tips about people wanting to attack our Middle Eastern-owned establishments and businesses like convenience stores, restaurants, temples, doctor’s offices, gas stations and so on. Some people wanted to kill every Middle Eastern resident in Tampa so we had to make sure the police were looking after them.

“People would make appointments to see me and sit in my office and ask me if they should be worried about anthrax. Some of these people were 80 years old or older and they’d never had to worry about anything like this before. So I’d have to calm them and tell them everything was ok, but I had no idea if everything would be ok. It was all new to me too. But I’d tell them not to worry anyway.”

For the first few months after 9/11, Greco said he rarely ever slept.

Greco said it got to the point that every time his phone rang late at night, he worried that it would be the worst type of news–either a terrorist attack occurred or was coming, or a scared citizen turned vigilante and blew up an innocent Middle Easterner’s business.

Throughout his four terms as mayor (1967–1974 and 1995–2003), Greco kept a police radio in his car and home. He would often race to the scene of a crime after hearing it broadcast. He said that doing so helped him understand the problems law enforcement officers had to deal with in Tampa, which enabled him to better provide them with the necessary resources. Following the October 2001 threat, he said he sat up late listening to the police radio in his home, wondering when the bad news of a terrorist attack would be broadcast.

“I think everybody, every law enforcement officer nationwide, had a new sense of awareness after 9/11,” said Castor. “We all had a different perspective on the world. The things you may have driven past prior to 9/11, like something as simple as a car parked in front of a federal building, began to look suspicious. The world is just different now.”

While listening to his police radio a few weeks after the nuclear threat, Greco said he heard about a shooting in downtown Tampa and he rushed to the scene. When he arrived, the first thing he saw was a pool of blood surrounding a sheet-covered body. The police shot the young man as he fled a robbery in his car. An officer pulled up next to the suspect’s car and the man pulled a gun, so the officer shot and killed him in self-defense. Greco said that he had been to dozens of such crime scenes over the years, but he said that this one was different; he didn’t feel as much empathy for the dead man as he normally did.

“Usually, especially when the victim was a young person, I’d think about what a shame it was and wonder how the kid got to the point in his life,” said Greco. “But I didn’t think that way that night at all. I was actually relieved. I wasn’t happy that someone was dead, but I was happy that it wasn’t worse. I was happy it was a robbery because after all the nation had been through since 9/11, anything that wasn’t terrorist-related seemed like a relief. So I went up to Benny Holder and asked him if he felt the same as I did and he said he did. I made a point to ask every cop there and they all said exactly what I was thinking, that they were just happy it wasn’t something worse. And I couldn’t help but to think what a strange world we lived in that we could all be relieved when someone was killed.”

The downtown shooting paled in comparison to the incident that occurred in downtown a few months later.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Saturday, January 5, 2002, Greco received a call informing him that a stolen airplane purposely flew into the side of downtown Tampa’s Bank of America building.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. The worst has happened,’” remembered Greco.

He raced to downtown, thinking it was going to be a repeat of what happened in New York City. He expected to arrive and find the building crumbling to the ground, covering the city with ashes and killing everyone around it. He was expecting a second or even a third plane to follow. And he was expecting to hear Osama bin Laden broadcasting a message over the radio and television, talking about how more attacks in Tampa will follow because the city is home to the U.S. military’s Central Command.

But when he arrived, he was relieved at what he found. The plane was “only” a single-engine Cessna 172. Because the plane was small, the damage was minimal. It was hanging from the 28th story window it flew through, half in the office and half sticking out. It damaged the office it flew into, but it didn’t puncture any interior walls or even touch the adjoining room. It was Saturday, so no one was in the office. The pilot died on impact, but no one else was injured. And police did not believe the crash was terrorist-related.

“We were so thankful,” said Greco. “We went home thinking that while it was a big accident, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

In the ensuing days, the story of the pilot unfolded and Greco again realized how warped he had become since 9/11. Greco was so happy that the plane crash was not a terrorist attack that he never stopped to think that the pilot had a family and friends who would suffer as a result of losing a loved one and he never stopped to think what types of inner demons must have haunted a person to cause them to commit suicide in such a manner.

The pilot’s name was Charlie Bishop and he was just 15 years old. He lived alone with his mother and he took regular flying lessons at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport from which he stole the plane. His classmates considered him a loner and he had few friends. Bishop wrote a letter proclaiming that he purposely crashed the plane into the building as a show of support for Osama bin Laden. Bishop claimed that bin Laden contacted him and asked him to join al-Qaeda, but investigators quickly dismissed this assertion, ruling the crash as a suicide and stating that Bishop wasn’t a terrorist, but a delusional and depressed teenager whose mind slipped too far away from the real world. While searching the home where he lived with his mother, investigators found a prescription for Accutane, an acne medication that according to the Food and Drug Administration had caused 147 people to either commit or attempt suicide between 1982 and May 2000.

Charlie Bishop wasn’t a terrorist. He was just a confused and lonely boy who may have had an adverse reaction to a medication meant to rid him of acne.

“He was my shining star. He was the light of my life,” Bishop’s mother, Julia, was quoted as saying in a January 9, 2002 St. Petersburg Times article after she learned of the negative effects Accutane had on some teenagers. “There is nothing I would not do for that child. Everyone loved him… I don’t know how I go on living without him. He was my boy.”

“When you realize that he was someone’s son and was just a confused boy, it makes you question your own morality,” said Greco. “There we were patting each other on the back and thanking God it wasn’t anything worse, while a mother mourned the loss of her son. We were just happy it wasn’t worse. I’m ashamed that I didn’t think more about the boy and his mother. What a world we live in. It’s gotten so ugly that it has made us all a little ugly no matter how hard we fight to stay good. I think we were all robbed of a bit of our compassion following 9/11. I sometimes wonder if we will ever get our innocence back.”

Featured in Cigar City-Issue 30-2010

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