In September 2001, Art McGovern of Gainesville was working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta as a special agent lead investigator.
Then, the nation experienced the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in which about 3,000 people were killed. By the end of the month, McGovern was boarding flights as a federal air marshal, hoping to do his part to protect people on board flights at a time when many were afraid to even book a plane ticket.
Before 9/11, air marshals only flew internationally, McGovern said. But the attacks highlighted the need for marshals on domestic flights, and the program was rapidly expanded as the George W. Bush administration issued calls for federal agents to volunteer for the hundreds of positions.
“People were afraid to fly. They weren’t going to get on an aircraft,” McGovern said. “So that was the pressure that was put on the White House by (airlines). They said, how are we going to get people to fly?”
McGovern had signed up to be an air marshal shortly after 9/11, answering the call from the federal government asking agents to step up to prevent similar attacks. And about two weeks after the attacks, McGovern and several colleagues made the trip from their air marshal training in New Jersey to Ground Zero.
“The ground was very, very hot from where we were standing. The fires were still burning underneath the ground,” McGovern said. “You could feel the heat still coming up from the ground. … There was a lot of poisonous gases.”
First responders who worked at Ground Zero have since been affected by long-lasting illnesses likely caused by the exposure to dust, debris and chemicals at the site.
McGovern said he and his colleagues were able to get past some barriers at the site due to their government credentials, but were only allowed to stay about 10 minutes because of the hazards. There were still crews working and dogs looking for victims.
“It was unbelievable, standing there, the six of us, and you’re smelling everything, and you’re feeling it,” he said. “It was very, very emotional.”
He and his colleagues were put on the job quickly.
Every marshal was paired with a partner, and McGovern said that for the first three months, he and his partner were flying for about 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He was used to long hours away from home, though, as a Vietnam War veteran and later a federal agent.
The job could be intense as marshals had to monitor their surroundings at all times, he said. Standards were high — each agent had to score at least a 98% qualification score at the range with their firearm.
“The responsibility was to protect the cockpit at all costs,” McGovern said.
McGovern said as passengers heard word of the air marshal program expansion, it brought them some comfort, even though they didn’t know who the marshals were. The flight’s crew knew who the marshals were, but the marshals did not identify themselves to passengers.
“Passengers would always ask me, ‘Do you think there’s any air marshals on this flight?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know,’” McGovern said.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were a turning point for national security, but McGovern said people should also remember the patriotic spirit many Americans felt in the wake of the tragedy.
“At that point, the people in this country all came together as one. We didn’t have this division of conservatives and liberals and this and that,” he said. “Everybody was together. That was an attack on the United States, so people came together to say we cannot allow this to happen.”