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The Crossroads of Special Operations

Monday, September 27, 2021

Reflections on the impact of 9/11 from a Secret Service agent who was there – and whose family was forever changed | Frank Larkin

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On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a US Secret Service senior supervisor/special agent assigned to our New York Field Office located in Building #7 of the New York City World Trade Center (WTC) complex.

On that day, I was following my daily routine coming into the office around 6AM to jog along the Hudson River. It was a beautiful, cloudless, crystal blue day with a gentle wind blowing. As I ran back toward the World Trade Center complex, I remember remarking to myself how beautiful the twin towers looked and even thought how lucky we had been that nothing had happened to us considering all the conflicts popping up around the globe.

I guess I was reflecting on the first World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, 1993, that seriously damaged our New York Field Office. At the time, our office was in WTC#6. I had responded to New York City from Washington, DC, following the explosion with equipment and other personnel to assist the office with recovery operations. Several of our agents had been injured in that attack.

I got back to the office after my run and was coming out of the shower when the building shook and the lights flickered. A few seconds later an announcement over the speaker system alerted us that there had been a massive explosion in WTC#1 and we were to immediately evacuate the building.

I quickly got dressed and went to my office to get phones and radios to help coordinate our evacuation/relocation. I remember looking up from my 10th floor window at WTC#1 to see a huge hole in the north side of the building boiling out with fire. I immediately left my building and moved onto the plaza toward the New York City Mayor’s emergency command post that was forming up on the street below WTC#1 to serve as the USSS police and fire liaison. I am a licensed and practicing paramedic with many years of incident command experience.

Simultaneously, other USSS agents were moving toward the lobby of WTC#1 to assist with evacuation and care of the injured. All of our agents are medically trained to the first responder level or higher. As I was moving closer to the command post, something caught my attention and I suddenly stopped, narrowly missing being crushed by a person who had jumped from one of the fire floors high above.

Tragically, this unknown person impacted the ground directly in front of me. That was the first of five times that day, where I should have been dead or seriously injured. It etched an enduring impression in my memory the sight of fellow human beings raining out of the sky as they had courageously made a final, very intimate decision driven by searing fire. They, like us, all came to work that Tuesday morning following our normal routines, instantly immersed in this horrible conflagration without any warning or sense of direction or outcome.

I was with the Mayor and the commissioners of the NYPD and FDNY when the second plane struck WTC#2 from the south side. Debris launched at us as if it was shot out of a cannon. Command personnel had been gathering on the street just north of the WTC#2. We later learned that one of the engines from the plane that struck WTC#2 flew over the top of us and embedded itself into the street two blocks behind where we were standing.

Up until the second plane had hit, we were still trying to confirm that the explosion high up on WTC#1 was caused by a plane as the early reporting was very chaotic. But now with the second hit, we knew that it was a plane and that we were under attack.

There were now two major incident scenes that instantly overwhelmed on-scene resources and these inadvertently influenced the separation of the police and fire commands. Much of our ability to communicate and coordinate by radio went down with the collapse of WTC#1, where many of the city’s emergency communications antennas were located.

I had a team of agents with me and moved to a new location east of the WTC complex, where the NYPD command post was being re-established and resources assembled. Without warning, I remember hearing a loud growling rumble followed by screams to run.  “Get cover,” several agents yelled.

I dove under a fire truck, just as the ground and air around me erupted with a force and pressure that I had never, ever experienced. Instantly, everything went black, and the air was so hot and thick that I had to put my face into the armpit of my jacket to breathe.

I eventually climbed out from underneath the truck to an eerie silence and entered a surreal environment that was unrecognizable due to the heavy cloud of dust, smoke and debris in the air. Small fires had started on the street from the plane’s fuel that began to set cars and trucks on fire. People started emerging from the cloud covered with grey soot, all wearing a death mask that was void of any expression.

I accounted for and re-assembled my team of agents and started to move toward the WTC plaza to assist with finding and evacuating the injured when we heard the unnatural sound of metal bending. At the same time, fighter jets were making low passes over the area. We were on the east side with the wind blowing the smoke and fire over the top of us. We had no idea at this point that WTC#2 had totally collapsed. We couldn’t see anything except the top of the radio tower on WTC#1 through all the smoke.

Moments later, there were shouts that Tower #1 was coming down. “Run for cover!”

I took refuge behind a corner of the post office building and again was hit by a tremendous force of energy and pressure as I crouched for cover. Again, everything blacked out and breathing the air felt like inhaling concrete. As the dust slowly settled, a wall of fire surrounded the WTC complex as more jet fuel ignited everything in sight that could burn.

We could see people on the other side of the flames blocked as they were trying to get out of the complex. My crew and I commandeered an old FDNY fire engine that was already connected to a fire hydrant and quickly stretched out hose lines. From my limited fire training, I figured out how to get water pumping through the hoses and we soon were tamping down the flames so people could get out. It was another point in the day marked by the realization that there were no firemen visible anywhere, there was no screaming, just the sound of things burning and exploding on the street.

NO ONE TO CALL FOR HELP

I lost about three hours that day, where I don’t recall what happened or what I was doing. We came across a firefighter, a building maintenance technician and a civilian, who were all severely injured. There was no one to call for help, so we loaded them into an abandoned ambulance that had all its windows blown out and thankfully had the keys still in the ignition.

It was the first time that day that I put my hands on an injured person. I had wanted to preserve my ability to remain situationally aware and command my team. However, the severity of injuries to these individuals demanded that I jump in and initiate resuscitative efforts for them to have any chance of survival.

An off-duty Port Authority police officer became my driver and a couple of my agents helped me attend to the injured. I remember that we drove south toward Battery Park and the wind was blowing dust and debris through our windowless ambulance as we were working on our patients. Our police officer driver had heard that Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan was a staging area for ferries transporting the injured to the New Jersey side of the river. As we arrived at the ferry terminal, we were met by scores of people in clean uniforms, who had a look of shock on their faces as we emerged dust laden and bloody from the back of this windowless ambulance. Later, I got involved in several other rescues, but it soon became apparent sometime late that afternoon that we were not finding any more people alive.

I eventually left the WTC complex late in the evening after our 49-story office building (WTC#7) had collapsed from the fire that ate away at its base when WTC#1 fell into its lower floors. I learned that I was initially reported as missing and knew that I needed to make it home to see my family. I walked through the door of my home around midnight, wearing oversized sweats given to me after being de-conned.

The look on the faces of my wife, daughter and son told me that they had suffered severe emotional pain throughout the day wondering if I had survived, as they had already learned about the loss of other neighbors around us. My wife told me that my eyes were beet red as I was wrestling with a cough that would ultimately persist for another three months. We all hugged and cried. I sat down to watch the TV replay of what happened, realizing for the first time that day that the two towers had totally collapsed. It was a sobering recognition that my team and I were so close that we could not see what had unfolded around us, but miraculously not close enough to get swallowed up by death that stole almost 3,000 innocent and vulnerable lives that day.

LIFE OR DEATH DETERMINED BY A FEW STEPS

As the days advanced, I became the USSS Ground Zero supervisor and liaison. On Friday, September 14th, I was asked to brief and share with President George W. Bush what it was like to be on the street that day. Together we looked up at the smokey sky where three huge skyscrapers once stood. I told him that life and death that morning was often decided between whether one simply stepped to the right or the left.

I left Ground Zero and New York City on Dec. 7th, 2001, but not before witnessing that day a heavy construction crew pull an I-beam out of the ground that was still steaming hot on the end as they wet it down with water. I had been transferred back to Washington, DC, reassigned to take over White House complex security operations for the USSS.

Two weeks after Sept. 11th, my 14-year-old son Ryan came to me and asked me to take him down to Ground Zero. Ryan had witnessed that day unfold from a ridgeline just west of New York City on the edge of the town where we lived. When I came home on the night of 9/11, Ryan had given me a huge tear-filled bear hug. However, over the next couple of weeks he got quiet and began to withdraw.

Ryan told me that he needed to go down to the WTC complex to understand what happened. He had been there many times in the past for different memory filled events. I initially resisted, as did his mother, who promptly said “no way…bad idea”.

Something told me that he needed to do this, so I took him down to Ground Zero and dressed him up in a police jacket, hard hat and respirator to hide his identity. We had an agreement that if I detected any signs that he wasn’t handling the trip, he was out of there. Ground Zero two weeks after 9/11 was a very ugly place on many fronts as it had transitioned from a rescue to a recovery operation. I escorted Ryan for three hours around the immense debris field, explaining where buildings once stood and what had happened that day to the best of my recollection. When we finished, he had a look of determination in his eyes and said that this trip to Ground Zero helped him understand.

SIX YEARS LATER, A SON JOINS THE NAVY SEALS

Ryan graduated from an Annapolis area high school in 2005 and began diving year-round as a salvage diver in and around the Chesapeake Bay. One day he came home and announced that he had enlisted in the Navy and then added that he had volunteered for SEAL training.

I thought my wife was going to take my head off, as she was holding me responsible for this surprise announcement. I assured her that I wasn’t prompting him but did assert that he needed to cut his own path in life, that this was his decision. I made sure that Ryan knew what he signed up for and what he was getting into, introducing him to several recent combat-hardened frogmen.

When I asked Ryan why he wanted to join up, he replied, “I am going to be part of the solution. What happened to us on 9/11 can’t ever happen to us again.”

As Ryan entered the Navy, I retired from the USSS after 22 years and soon found myself being recruited back into the Department of Defense to work on the counter-IED (improvised explosive device) threat that was taking down and maiming so many of our warriors deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The IED was the main weapons system employed by extremist terror elements looking to paralyze our freedom of movement on the battlefield and to erode national support at home through graphic visual recordings of explosive attacks on our forces.

Ironically, I started with the SEAL Teams 30 years prior, the same age as Ryan. I had come full circle to eventually support Ryan and his SEAL teammates as they confronted the IED threat and the extremist networks that they were up against. As a senior leader for DoD’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and Director of the Counter IED Operations-Intelligence Integration Center (COIC), I traveled many times into the war theaters supporting both conventional and special operations forces.

One day my wife said something that hit me dead center in my heart. She said that while I was overseas, she had dinner one night with her girlfriends who were all complaining that the school bus was never on time to pick up their kids, about their husbands coming home from work late and not being able to get the week at the beach that they wanted.  One of my wife’s girlfriends turned toward her and asked about what was going on in our home. My emergency room nurse wife replied without emotion, “Oh, we’re fine, Ryan is in Iraq and Frank is in Afghanistan.”

Ryan started Navy basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in May of 2006. The next spring, he entered Basic Underwater Demolition-SEAL (BUD/S) training in San Diego, receiving his SEAL Trident in October 2008 as part of Class #268.

Ryan had numerous combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as an 18-D special operations medic and SEAL sniper. He eventually served as the lead petty officer (LPO) for Special Operations Urban Combat (SOUC) training. SOUC was the pre-deployment training phase for SEAL platoons deploying to overseas assignments.

The training realistically mirrored the environment that the deploying platoons would encounter. As the LPO, Ryan continued to be exposed to blast overpressure and physical forces from weapons firing, use of explosives, tactical simulations and helicopter operations.

In the spring of 2015, Ryan began seeking help for severe insomnia that further evolved into increased anxiety, memory loss, headaches, loss of coordination, vision problems and other uncharacteristic conditions that were progressively eroding his physical and mental health. A year later, Ryan was honorably discharged from the Navy after being diagnosed with PTSD and related conditions.

THE TERRIBLE TRAGEDY OF INVISIBLE WOUNDS

Ryan continued to spiral down from what he once was, a highly regarded and revered SEAL operator. He informed us that if anything ever happened to him, he wanted his brain donated for traumatic brain injury/Breacher’s Syndrome research.

Ryan died by suicide on April 23, 2017, from invisible wounds suffered in service to the Teams and this nation. At the time of his death, he was dressed in his SEAL Team-7 t-shirt, wore red-white-blue board shorts and had illuminated a shadow box beside him with all his medals, insignias and other symbolic memorabilia.

Following a postmortem examination of Ryan’s brain, we learned that he suffered from an undiagnosed severe level of microscopic brain injury uniquely related to military blast exposure. Military blast exposure that was suffered in both training for combat and combat operations. Ryan died from invisible wounds that were not invisible to him or our family, just invisible to the system and society largely blind to them.

I have stood firm that Ryan died from combat related injuries in service to this nation, he just didn’t die right away.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks will be an emotional rekindling of memories for the Larkin family in many ways, as it will be for others like us who have supported their loved ones working to be part of the solution.

It is an emotional time now for all of us as we witness the rapid decline of Afghanistan, as we wonder if it (Iraq and Afghanistan) was all worth it. That debate will be front and center on the political leadership that spanned multiple administrations and congresses over the past 20 years of war and global conflict.

As for my son and his teammates, they achieved personal accomplishments and experienced high adventure that goes beyond common definition or comprehension. Unless you were there alongside them and walked in their boots, you will not understand. Not one of them would trade away being a SEAL and the honor to wear the Trident. They did the job that we asked them to do — regardless of the reason or the outcome.

Conventional and special operations warriors, men and women from all parts of our society, made up an all-volunteer force that swore an oath to protect and serve us every day. Their selfless demonstration of personal strength and resiliency needs to be a guide-on for our society as we move forward to confront other inevitable challenges and threats.

We as a nation need to have the same strength, resiliency and commitment to ensure our national security. As for these revered warriors who have served us, we need to be there for them every day.

Many of them return from their service burdened by both the visible and invisible wounds of war. A recent Brown University study reported that our nation lost 7,057 warriors post 9/11 to the Global War on Terror. As an often-neglected footnote, the same study highlighted that over 30,000 warriors and veterans were lost to GWOT-related suicide since that beautiful Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, healthcare workers and other public service professionals or volunteers need the same level of reverence and recognition for their service to our communities and this nation. They have been our “domestic warriors” protecting our society every day with the same selfless commitment and compassion.

We must NEVER FORGET the many sacrifices founded on love that these valiant warriors, military or civilian, made for their teammates, families and nation so that we may continue to live free, healthy and secure.

Ryan loved being a SEAL and he loved the SEAL Teams. We miss his physical presence every day. We are comforted knowing that he and his fallen teammates are still out there in a different form protecting us every day.

 

Respectfully,

Frank Larkin

Public Service Volunteer

US Senate Sergeant at Arms (ret)

USSS Special Agent (ret)

NSW CL#84, ST-2

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