9/11 Memorial Speaker: 'Not Forgetting Isn't Enough'
FBI agent Richard Quinn recalls his harrowing experience at ground zero on 9/11 during the Burlington County 200 Club's annual memorial service.
FBI agent Richard P. Quinn is not the type of guy who scares easily—he’s seen his share of trauma—but 9/11 was the first time he felt true abject, inescapable terror.
Quinn was in Manhattan that morning for a meeting at the World Trade Center, which was subsequently cancelled after the attack began. He drove down to the twin towers anyway, emerging from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel into a chaotic scene; his car skidded on debris and ash, as though it were newly fallen snow, from the collapse of the South Tower and crashed into a retaining wall.
A half-hour later, when the North Tower came down, Quinn “ran like a scalded dog” through the streets, alongside hundreds of other terrified New Yorkers, to escape the crumbling building.
“When it started coming down, I can’t describe the low tremble,” he said during the Burlington County 200 Club’s 9/11 memorial service Tuesday morning. “I’ve never run so fast in my life, and as I was running, I remember saying a conscious prayer to God.”
Tuesday’s service at Trinity Episcopal Church marked the first chance Quinn, assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s Philadelphia field office, had given himself to share his personal experience on 9/11.
“It’s not what I’m really accustomed to,” he said, noting his 15 years as a counterterrorism agent, which usually involves briefings and clinical reports on national security—not personal anecdotes.
Alluding to the many emergency responders—police, firefighters and EMTs from across Burlington County—in attendance at the service, Quinn said, “I felt I owed it to the audience (to share my experience), given the sacrifice they make every single day.”
Quinn, a Philadelphia resident, was one of a small group of agents who began investigating the attacks the very same day. Foremost in his mind throughout the investigation—and to this day—were the men and women, civilians and emergency responders alike, who died that day.
He recalled “the jumpers,” desperate office workers at the World Trade Center who leapt from the skyscraper to avoid being burned to death or dying from smoke inhalation.
“I can’t imagine making that decision myself,” he said. “It’s for those people that I work so hard for today. They were innocent civilians … I looked at that as the slaughter of innocents.”
One of the first things Quinn saw after climbing out of his battered car was a group of firefighters, encumbered by heavy equipment, standing by at the scene.
“I remember the fear in their eyes. Make no mistake about it, people were terrified,” he said. “But I also saw something else, and that was grim determination … in spite of the very real possibility—some would say probability—that they wouldn’t come back out. That, to me, is heroic.”
Pete Clifford, a Moorestown firefighter and 200 Club president, opened the ceremony urging the community to never let the memory of those who died that day fade. Quinn took it a step further, adding, “Not forgetting isn’t enough. For me, actively remembering is honoring their legacy on a daily basis.”
Quinn closed by sharing another indelible memory from 9/11, an image he held onto that day and in the days after to uplift his spirit.
After he’d fled the collapse of the North Tower, he found himself near the Hudson River, coated in ash, and watched the massive cloud of debris float across the river. As it drifted across the water, he saw “a brief break in the debris, and what I saw was the Statue of Liberty, framed by, basically, the horror of the day. And I will always remember the golden torch held high. And I’m not a philosopher, I don’t believe in signs, or anything like that. All I can tell you, from that point forward, I drew a comfort from that … And the only thing that I could think of was that I knew that our country, and particularly that city, would be resilient enough to withstand this attack.”