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Herndon Reacts to 9-11

Five years ago, town officials sprang into action in the face of terror.

"I hate to use the words routine day, but that's really what it was," said Captain Robert Presgrave of the Herndon Police Department of his arrival at Herndon Police headquarters a little after 8 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

Presgrave was scheduled as the watch commander of the Operations Division that day, in charge of managing all of the active members of the Herndon Police Department.

"I remember we had a TV in our training room, and I was sitting in my office and one of the officers came to get me," he said, about the day in the old police facility at 1481 Sterling Road. "When you walked into the room, you could already see the smoke rising from the first building that had been hit."

The initial news reports concluded that it had most likely been a small plane that had lost its way and struck the World Trade Center. Not being overly suspicious, Presgrave returned to his office.

ABOUT 10 MILES away, in Vienna, then-vice mayor of Herndon Carol Bruce was waiting in the office of her cat's veterinarian when the news came over a radio playing in the reception room that the second tower of the World Trade Center in New York had been hit.

"I remember everybody in that waiting room jumped up and tried to start making phone calls, but we couldn't because all of the lines were jammed," Bruce said. On that day, Herndon Mayor Tom Rust was out of town, leaving Bruce as the acting mayor.

But at that moment, Bruce said that she was thinking not as a mayor of a town in suburban Washington, D.C., but as a concerned American.

"I was thinking more about the country and the people who had died and about what their families must have been going through," Bruce said. "At that moment, the fact that I was acting mayor was totally out of my mind."

AT THE HERNDON Police Headquarters, Herndon Police Captain Darryl Smith was working as watch commander of the Support Services Division, managing equipment and dispatch that day. It was a few minutes after the second plane had struck the towers, and Smith was meeting with dispatchers, putting together organizational plans for the day.

That's when he got a phone call from his daughter, who had been working across the street from the Pentagon that morning. She had been walking over to the Pentagon for a meeting, which had been pushed back from earlier that day, when the third plane struck.

"That's the kind of thing that sticks in my mind the most, that phone call that I got from her," Smith said. "When they hit the Pentagon, that's when it got real for me."

At that point Smith and Presgrave knew that the country was under attack and that something needed to be done.

Right after the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, dispatchers got out on the airwaves and informed all of the police officers on duty what was happening regarding the terrorist attacks.

A meeting was called a little before noon among all of the town's department heads to begin shoring up equipment like traffic blockades and electric generators in case they were needed.

This most difficult thing was in not knowing what would come next, Presgrave said.

"If we are responding to a call that we have responded to several times before, you know what to expect," he said. "Here, there was no sense of knowing what could come next, we were just going blindly out there."

ALL ON-DUTY OFFICERS that day were switched from 10-hour shifts to 12, and extra police officers were called in to guard important town buildings.

"We had to think about protecting the town's facilities and what kind of targets that we had that might be attractive to these people," Smith said.

The fact that two of the four planes that were hijacked had originated from neighboring Dulles International Airport and one had been crashed about 20 miles away added to the sense of urgency for protection, he added.

Smith ordered gas masks and AR-15 sub-automatic machine guns distributed to the officers on guard duty and dispatched them to sites like schools and the Herndon Municipal Center. It was the first time that sub-automatic weapons were issued to officers for public use since the department was outfitted with them in the 1980s.

Bruce, who lives across the street from Herndon Middle School, said that she recognized the town's preparations quickly.

"Looking out and seeing a Herndon police officer in the parking lot of the Herndon Middle School with a machine gun," she said, "that was something that I never thought I would see."

IN THE DAYS following the attacks of Sept. 11, the town joined with the rest of the country in a state of quiet shock, Bruce said.

Many people, including several local Muslims were on edge. For a town that neighbors a major metropolitan airport, the absence of the sound of commercial airliners in the sky, replaced with those of fighter jets, was very disconcerting, she added.

It was then that then town manager Ed Moore and Herndon-Dulles Chamber of Commerce president Eileen Curtis realized that something needed to be done to bring the town together, to allay the anxiety and trauma that town residents had been enduring since that morning.

"People were nervous and Muslims were especially nervous," Curtis said. "There was a tension in the air, and while nothing had developed yet, there was a fear that one more [attack] could spark a larger incident in the town."

On the Sunday after Sept. 11, as many as 1,000 people showed up to Herndon's downtown for a show of unity and religious tolerance. Interfaith prayers were held and people listened to music, talked amongst themselves and showed support for each other, Curtis said.

About halfway through the event, Curtis and some of those in attendance noticed a small glint of silver in the sky, peaking just over the roof of the town hall. It was a commercial jetliner — the first one that she could remember seeing in almost a week.

"When we saw that plane, the sight was just so dramatic, the moment was just so strong," Curtis said. "To come from where we were just a few days earlier to all of us standing there together, looking up at that plane — it was a magical moment."

It was then that the crowd was able to relax even more, and people started to feel like a unified community once more, she added.

"After that, memorial services continued on for months afterwards and our little event got nice recognition in the papers, but that moment where we all felt connected was just so powerful," Curtis said. "We had been attacked unjustly and we had all suffered loss, but I guess that's where the character of the communities in this country shows itself."