For the last three years, I've known what the 9/11 commission would have known if it had done the research it was supposed to do: Rudy Washington, one of Rudy Giuliani's deputy mayors on Sept. 11, 2001, ran New York for the first few hours after the attack during a period when Giuliani was thought to have been killed inside the first building that went down.
Washington remains the forgotten man of 9/11 because he hasn't wanted to be seen as a grandstanding opportunist about a day when some 2,800 people were killed. But enough time has passed. Here is his story:
On that terrible morning, as Washington and his driver came into downtown Manhattan, they could see black smoke billowing out of one of the twin towers.
Washington immediately called Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic fleet, and asked for air cover for the city. Natter said he had to get in touch with NORAD and would call back.
Things then began to move with grim velocity. Washington was on the ground when the first tower came down and was caught in a plume of dust that blotted out the sky and sun. His first order was to have the air tested.
He made his way to City Hall where he was in communication with Natter, Gov. Pataki and the highest-ranking NYPD officers he could find. Natter told him that the Pentagon also had been hit but that he had gotten an okay from NORAD to send some planes over the city.
Washington began to develop an emergency strategy based on what he had learned at an anti-terrorist training session for the millennium celebration. Richard Clarke, the now-famous U.S. anti-terrorism chief, had served as chairman of the meeting, which was held at the World Trade Center and was attended by representatives of 40 law enforcement and military agencies. In two hours of brainstorming, not one of them had imagined that terrorists would fly passenger planes into skyscrapers.
Washington ordered the closings of bridges, found heavy machinery to get downtown for the cleanup and got the Navy to guard against a seaborne attack. He evacuated City Hall, which shook like crazy when the second tower fell. He gathered people who could give medical help, gave the order to find lights that could be used at Ground Zero and worked out new phone communications, since power was being lost.
Accompanied by city engineers, he went into the streets around the fallen towers, testing the ground to make sure it would hold when the heavy equipment came in.
By the time Giuliani, who had been trapped in a building, got back on the scene, the situation was as well in hand as possible. It proved the quality of Washington's leadership under crisis, and the quality of Giuliani's decision to appoint him deputy mayor.
That high-powered commission may have overlooked him, but Rudy Washington should no longer be the forgotten man of 9/11.
Originally published on May 20, 2004