The unthinkable happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., represented the first acts of war on United States soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier. As first responders rallied to Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, a group of Coast Guardsmen were gathering some 75 miles away, at Fort Dix in New Jersey, ready to do their part. They are the Coast Guard men and women who get the call when the unthinkable happens.
Chief Petty Officer Daniel Dugery was a senior enlisted member of the Atlantic Strike Team and responded to the attacks. The Atlantic Strike team is one-third of the Coast Guard’s National Strike Force – a specially trained unit ready to respond to “any hazard, any time, anywhere.” Armed with pollution and air monitoring equipment, chemical suits, inflatable boats and countless emergency response equipment, the strike teams have plans in place to respond to everything from oil spills and hazardous materials release to major flooding and disaster relief. Performing amidst chaos and confusion is par for the course for these men and women, but this response would be different.
“This was a time of great calamity; everything you could see was death and destruction. And, in the middle of it were the responders; fire, police, EMT, construction workers, Coast Guard and countless, faceless others all working with one purpose, to rescue those in need, to fix what had been broken.”
Dugery led his team of active duty and reserve members to Ground Zero where their training could make a difference when the nation needed it most. Their primary responsibility was ensuring the safety of other first responders entering Ground Zero.
“For the entire team, there was no single position we would fill,” said Dugery. “We had to be jacks of all trades, having to go from providing decontamination support for Coast Guard personnel to supervising air monitoring teams, to, as with one of my teammates, assisting the New York City Fire Department with the recovery of one of their fallen brothers.”
Dugery and his team would remain at Ground Zero for months, but it would only be a few days after the attack that they would be asked to put their lives at risk to help the city resume a sense of normalcy. The World Trade Center was quite literally the hub of the global economy. Trapped within the damaged buildings surrounding the Twin Towers was financial and bank records of the world’s biggest companies and retrieving these records would help the economy bounce back after the shock of 9/11.
After inspecting the buildings to see how safe they were to enter, the Atlantic Strike Team geared up and began to climb, floor by floor, in buildings as high as 40 stories to search for and retrieve files and computer discs critical to getting businesses back on their feet.
Amidst the chaos and the danger in the early days of the response, it is neither the sites nor the sounds that Dugery can instantly recall when talking about 9/11, it is the selfless actions of each member.
“From the second I told the crews to start packing everything under the sun for a response that would last who knew how long and for hazards I could not count on, the only response I received was ‘Aye, chief!’” recounts Dugery.
Dugery no longer wears the uniform he donned the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet, while he may have traded in his chief’s anchors for civilian attire, he still serves his country and the Coast Guard as the subject matter expert for the service’s weapons of mass destruction domestic response program.
His nearly four decades of service as a Coast Guardsmen and civilian – including the response at Ground Zero – has made him an integral player in the years since Sept. 11. He has seen the Coast Guard evolve to meet the threats of the 21st century and witnessed the birth of the Department of Homeland Security. Through it all, his considerable experience has helped make America safe and secure, one emergency at a time.
“Instead of being a stand alone agency, we are now part of a much larger entity but even with becoming part of a far larger department, we still maintained our traditional missions, taking on whatever task the nation has asked of us,” said Dugery. “From natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina to manmade disasters like Deepwater Horizon, the motto ‘Semper Paratus’ has never been said with greater pride.”