2001 and 2020: Two years of tragedy, uncertainty and change

While it’s nearly impossible to compare 9/11 and COVID-19, there is one strong similarity


Can we please catch a breath?

What a year 2020 has been – from COVID-19 to the protests and riots to some of the worst Western wildfires ever to Hurricane Laura – and there are still several months left in the year!

At first glance, it all pales in comparison to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; however, considering the myriad impacts on our emergency services today, including the significant number of first responder deaths from the virus, it’s only natural that some will make comparisons.

Can we truly make a comparison between the 9/11 era to the current COVID crisis? Ultimately, it’s apples and oranges – impossible to compare. (Photo/Getty Images)
Can we truly make a comparison between the 9/11 era to the current COVID crisis? Ultimately, it’s apples and oranges – impossible to compare. (Photo/Getty Images)

This week, as we recognize the 19th anniversary of 9/11, the parallels of the terrorist attacks to the pandemic may seem farfetched. But recalling 2001’s worldwide anthrax scares as well as the subsequent psychological effects does offer some connections. Let’s consider the similarities and differences between these two years of tragedy.

The horror of 9/11

It has been a horrifyingly short 19 years since we witnessed the aftermath of planes slamming into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We each remember exactly where we were and what we were doing. It was our generation’s “date which will live in infamy.”

The eyewitness videos and the stories of heroism and human sacrifice are unparalleled. I will forever recall the sound of bodies hitting the awnings of buildings, as desperate people jumped 50, 60, 70 floors or more to an instantaneous death, ostensibly better than a long, painful death from the fire around them.

Watching the seat of our military prowess burn, listening in disbelief as another plane headed toward Washington, DC, before slamming into the field in Pennsylvania, following the national air traffic shutdown, then witnessing building after building collapse in New York City are all memories of our call to action at the time.

The FDNY is no stranger to line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) or disaster management, but 343 of their own at one time? Unimaginable.

Immediate impact and changes ahead

Shortly after 9/11, the anthrax crisis left emergency service organizations scrambling to deal with a largely unknown contagion (sounds eerily familiar). Both the hoaxes and good-intentioned white powder calls, along with a few real anthrax situations, quickly overwhelmed many fire departments and response teams.

Out of the ashes of that period grew multiple new grant programs, cries for service disciplines to work together, and a renewed call for formal mutual-aid agreements among organizations and/or regions (again, sounds eerily familiar). Fortunately, out of the after-action reviews of a partially dysfunctional 2001 response, there were significant improvements in communications systems, large-scale purchases, PPE stockpiles and more.

Rooted in the sacrifices of the FDNY, EMS, NYPD, Port Authority and others were the phrases that many who are now coming into our service memorize and can only story-tell over. “Never forget” became a rally cry for the fire service, and “First responders tested like they hadn’t been since World War II” was commonly referenced. Our fire service had been forever changed.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), under the leadership of its new-at-the-time executive director, Ron Siarnicki, sprang into action to assist, and through the management of this disaster and others, developed programs like “Everyone Goes Home” and the nationwide Local Assistance State Teams (LAST). 

Communication and coordination

As you think about the development of these programs, the tasks of communicating accurate information and the physical tools used to manage tasks, remember, this was 2001. Coordination and communication were vastly different on that tragic day. Direct-connect-style cell phones were beginning to fade as this thing called a “smartphone” began to emerge.

Additionally, most social media platforms didn’t exist back then. Today, regardless of whether the information is coming from credible sources or “keyboard experts,” good and bad news has been at our fingertips from day one of the pandemic.

And now, just as people compared 9/11 to World War II, we are hearing phrases like “first responders being tested like they haven’t been since 9/11.”

Global impact: Physical and psychological

I’d say the most significant difference between these two events is the affect COVID-19 has had in countries around the world. While the terror attacks were targeted and essentially localized or regional events, the coronavirus has been relentlessly widespread. And unlike World War II or the wars following 9/11, there are no allies to send assistance; they’re dealing with their own COVID-19 crisis.

There were 343 immediate firefighter deaths, with hundreds more from 9/11-related illnesses in the past 19 years, most from New York City.

Although the number of first responder deaths from the COVID-19 crisis are not comparable in scale, neither is the spread. The spread from 9/11 was much more a psychological affect.

During this COVID crisis, as of September 1, 82 firefighters and EMS personnel have died from COVID-related illnesses across 15 states, with thousands infected in every state, many suffering through recovery. (See PDF of COVID-19 fatalities at the end of this article.) These numbers don’t even begin to speak to the over 600 doctors and nurses who have died from the virus. The spread in this crisis has been different in that many more physical effects are being felt worldwide.

Apples and oranges

Can we truly make a comparison between the 9/11 era to the current COVID crisis? Ultimately, it’s apples and oranges – impossible to compare.

9/11 saw the horrid sense of desperation of 343 firefighters and over 3,000 civilians dying in one fell swoop – one unimaginable tragedy followed by hundreds of 9/11-related illnesses and deaths that continue to plague the fire service.

COVID-19 has caused 190,000 deaths in the United States since February 2020, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the worldwide death toll approaching an additional 700,000 – and the long-term impacts are yet unknown.

As if COVID-19 and the recent civil unrest weren’t enough, we are right in the crosshairs of peak hurricane season, with the traditional flu season looming. Many us are keeping one weary eye on the tropics and the other on the virus, not to mention all the “regular” emergencies we face in our communities.

Frankly, if there is one comparison that can be made between the two years of tragedy, it is this: Many of us feel very similar to how we felt during 9/11 and anthrax period – stretched thin, overwhelmed and angry – and understandably so.

Keep safe, stay smart with masks and distance, and take care.

Editor’s Note: How do you feel about comparisons between 9/11 and COVID-19? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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