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Anchorage police chief reflects on 9/11 response 20 years later

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 5:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In 2001, Ken McCoy was an Anchorage police detective. On Sept. 11, a Tuesday, he was watching the news while getting ready for work.

“The headlines came across the screen, and I had to do a double take,” McCoy, now the chief of police for Anchorage, told Alaska’s News Source this week as the 20th anniversary of the attacks nears. “The headlines came back and it was that shocking feeling that I think most Americans felt when they first saw what was taking place.”

In a rush of adrenaline, McCoy quickly finished getting ready for work, and drove straight to the station.

“I had the feeling that I need to be in my car, lights and sirens, heading to help, and that was the feeling I had,” he said. “But here we were, all the way in Alaska as that unfolded.”

Despite being more than 3,000 miles away from the World Trade Center in Manhattan, as the threat of attack evolved, the Pentagon was struck and Flight 93 crashed, the uncertainty of the nation’s security crossed the country and was felt in Anchorage. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all planes nationwide, stranding travelers at the airport and hunters in the field. Fighter jets were scrambled to escort an Anchorage-bound Korean flight to Whitehorse after a misinterpreted message led officials to believe it had been hijacked.

Residents wary of an ongoing threat began implementing “If you see something, say something,” long before it became a Homeland Security slogan.

“Some officers were checking on critical infrastructure in the city,” McCoy said. “My role as detective, we were getting lots and lots of leads and tips and people calling in suspicious type behavior or packages they had seen.”

That day was a swirl of activity; tracking down leads and working with federal and military agencies to ensure there was no direct threat to Anchorage.

“It’s not until the day is over and you’re able to just kind of sit and reflect that it truly hits you as to what happened here,” McCoy said. “You start thinking about the lives that are impacted and it can be overwhelming, and to follow up with that, with all of the support and the people who are rallying behind public safety, it just really refills your soul and makes you want to go back out and continue to serve.”

As he and Anchorage police officers continued their service, some changes were made at the local level in response to the attacks. One tangible piece of history McCoy still has is a service tag with his name and badge number — distributed to officers in the months after the attacks, so their remains could be identified in a mass casualty event.

“It really served as a stark reminder to the inherent dangers of this job, and what we have all signed up to do to protect this city, and greater, to protect our country,” he said.

It’s those who didn’t get to continue to serve that hit McCoy the hardest.

“We saw first responders answering the call and running towards danger, and ultimately paying the ultimate sacrifice for that,” he said. “All of us know, we go into that with our eyes open wanting to protect our communities, knowing that that type of danger lies there. But we continue to answer that call and that’s something that I’m incredibly proud to be part of, and that’s one thing that stands out to me, looking back 20 years ago, is those men and women in uniform responded to that call, knowing what danger lie ahead.”

Despite the terror of 9/11 and the heartbreak that came in the aftermath, McCoy says he’s proud of how the country united and rallied around the first responder and military community.

“This incident was tragic, a terrorist attack on our country,” McCoy said. “But the one thing that I saw come out of it was that we were much stronger, much more resilient, and as a whole, our country was ready to confront danger, no matter where it was, whether it was here in the homeland or abroad. We all came together as Americans and we were ready to take on whatever the challenges were.”

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