The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
‘We knew what it was’
Then-Norwalk police chief Rilling, now mayor, reflects on 9/11 attacks
As Norwalk’s police chief at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Harry Rilling sent officers to greet residents returning from the New York on the train, dispatched officers to ground zero and later toured the rubble himself.
Twenty years later, now Norwalk’s mayor, Rilling said he remembers that day like it was last week.
Rilling was at the New England Police Chiefs Conference in Old Saybrook, watching the news after the first plane struck the north tower.
“I was riveted to the TV. It was confusing, maybe it was an accident, but furthest thing from my mind at that point was this was an act of terrorism,” Rilling said. “But when I saw the second plane had hit, we knew what it was. I immediately packed my things and headed for home.”
Later that day, Rilling dispatched a group of officers to Norwalk’s two Metro-North train stations, so passengers coming back from New York were greeted with a safe, reassuring presence.
On Sept. 12, some of Norwalk’s police officers went to ground zero, helping the New York Police Department navigate the traffic jams created by the attack and its aftermath, Rilling said.
“We offered any help we could give them,” Rilling said. “Mostly what they needed at that time was assistance with traffic control and establishing a perimeter to keep people away from ground zero.”
The Norwalk officers stayed about 24 hours and then were told they should return to Connecticut, he said. He spent the following days considering preventative moves and other communities or buildings that could pose potential targets, averaging about four hours of sleep each night.
Rilling, like the rest of the city, soon learned of the 14 Norwalk residents who died in the attack on the World Trade Center: Paul Dario Curioli, Ronald Gilligan, Edwin John Graf III, William C. Hunt, Thomas E. Hynes, Adam J. Lewis, Edward Francis “Teddy” Maloney III, Cesar A. Murillo, Robert Walter Noonan, James Matthew Patrick, George E. Spencer III, Derek James Stakevicus, Bradley H. Vadas and John Bentley Works.
The Norwalk residents were among the nearly 3,000 people who died that day in the attacks.
About a week after the towers collapsed, Rilling and two of his captains were among the local police officials the NYPD commissioner invited to see the operation setup surrounding the destroyed buildings.
“It was a very terrible experience to see the pile of rubble,” Rilling said. “I don’t know how else to explain this, but once a person smells death, they never forget that. I had certainly had that experience and when you got to ground zero, it was permeated with that.”
While there, the NYPD officers and chiefs present each had a personal story of Sept. 11 to tell, Rilling said. “They all wanted to tell their story, it was almost like it was cathartic, they had to get it out,” Rilling said. “They showed us the staging area, they showed us what was going on. Every one of them told us where they were at the time and what their response was and what they experienced.”
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Rilling, like other area police officials, added safety measures to their regular patrols.
Norwalk officers checked each school’s parking lot during the night to ensure no suspicious vehicles or bags were left near the buildings prior to the school day. Trucks were no longer allowed to park under highway bridges.
“Terrorism is designed to disrupt and cause confusion and to take down an economy and so they would try to do that one thing that would have the greatest impact,” Rilling said.
Even today, barriers around outdoor events and crowds prevent cars from driving into those gathered — a safety measure added after the 9/11 attacks, he said.
Rilling toured the country about two years after Sept. 11, 2001, teaching courses designed by the Department of Homeland Security on weapons of mass destruction.
On one occasion, he was set to teach in Maine. The Department of Homeland Security had him fly into the airport in Boston — the same place the plane hijackers left from.“That was surreal,” Rilling said. “It’s like we are in the same place they started from. It was really strange.”
In the two decades since the
World Trade Center fell, Rilling retired from the police force, was elected Norwalk’s mayor, navigated the coronavirus pandemic and is seeking a fifth term.
He sits in the same office he once responded to on Sept. 11, 2001, having returned from Old Saybrook to convene with thenMayor Frank Esposito.
It’s also the same office where former Mayor Alex Knopp presided over planning the ceremonies to honor the Norwalkers who died at the World Trade Center.
Knopp, campaigning for mayor at the time of the attack, toured the rubble in January 2002 as mayor elect. The United States Conference of Mayors, of which Knopp participated, held its annual convention in New York that year.
“They took busloads of mayors, including Mayor (Dannel) Malloy of Stamford and myself,” Knopp said. “They took us in a bus to ground zero. I remember some of the wreckage seemed to be smoking from the demolition and repair work that was going on.”
Knopp used an influx in federal homeland security money to fund police overtime, ensuring residents felt safe and checking for any signs of another attack, particularly along the railroad tracks.
“Because of our proximity to New York City, we were always wary,” Knopp said.
Following the attack, the country engaged in a lengthy war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Norwalk lost one of its own, Wilfredo Perez Jr., an army specialist stationed in Iraq. Perez was guarding a children’s hospital when a grenade blast killed him.
Knopp, who knew the Perez family prior to the loss, attended Perez’s funeral in New York.
“That loss of his life was a stunning tragedy for the city that came after 9/11,” Knopp said. “I was very affected emotionally.”
After the attack on the twin towers, many local police departments and governments, Norwalk included, shifted to preventative rather than reactionary measures.
Despite strain caused on the city and its leaders in the aftermath of 9/11, Knopp said Rilling as mayor went through more with the coronavirus pandemic. “I always thought that there was probably nothing that could surpass 9/11 in terms of a national event affecting Norwalk, but certainly the pandemic has far surpassed 9/11 in terms of its tragic impact on the city,” Knopp reflected.