Local officials reflect on the day that changed America forever
Like so many other Americans, Santa Barbara Interim Police Chief Bernard Melekian can remember exactly where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.
It was just before 6 a.m. that morning when Chief Melekian was awakened by a call from his then-fiancée (who is now his wife) telling him to turn on the TV right away. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
As he stood in front of the TV watching smoke billow from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Chief Melekian saw the second plane crash into the South Tower.
“That’s when I realized we were under attack,” he told the News-Press.
Today marks 20 years since the tragic 9/11 attacks, which took the lives of 2,996 individuals after militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al Queda hijacked four planes to carry out a suicide attack in the United States. Two of the hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, one crashed into the Pentagon and the other was downed in Shanksville, Pen., after passengers stormed the plane’s cockpit to prevent another attack.
Throughout this week, multiple Santa Barbara officials reflected on 9/11 during interviews with the News-Press, recalling moments in the days, weeks and years following the attack that changed American history.
In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, Chief Melekian, who at the time was the police chief for the City of Pasadena, recalled the chaos that ensued in Los Angeles. He said he remembers multiple reports began circulating about inbound aircraft failing to respond, which authorities believed could be a threat to the city. Fortunately, none of these reports ended up being true.
Chief Melekian also remembered checking on an Islamic school in Pasadena in the hours following the 9/11 attack, communicating with staff to ensure the school was not receiving threats of vandalism or harassment. Looking back now, Chief Melekian said the school never experienced any backlash or threats, only messages from community members asking how they could help ensure the school stayed safe.
“I’ve always been proud of Pasadena for that fact,” Chief Melekian said.
While serving in his role in Pasadena, Chief Melekian became one of three police chiefs mobilized for military service in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2003, the police chief was called to active duty and spent most of the year with the U.S. Coast Guard maritime security that patrolled the Pacific Coast. After completing his service, he returned to Pasadena to resume his role as chief.
When thinking back to 9/11 on the 20 year anniversary, Chief Melekian said it’s important to remember those who lost their lives in the attacks and the unity that followed among American citizens.
“One of the things that struck me in the weeks that followed 9/11 was this sense of national unity and commitment to service,” Mr. Melekian said. “And clearly, some of that has dissolved, maybe a lot of it has dissolved. (People) talk about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and military service
and geopolitics, but I think it’s important to remember that the significance of that day was that 412 first responders and 44 passengers on flight 93 made a decision to do the best that they could to help this country and they paid for it with their lives.”
“To me, that is what 9/11 is about, remembering that.”
In the 20 years since 9/11, millions of Americans have grown up in a world that was forever changed by terror. Millions of youth and teens today were not even alive when the attacks occurred, but have grown up in a country that changed drastically in the aftermath of that tragic day.
It’s for this reason that Americans must take time to remember the attacks, Sheriff Bill Brown of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office told the News-Press, so that citizens may never forget the men, women and children who lost their lives in the tragic event and in the war that followed.
“(The attacks) changed American life in general,” Sheriff Brown said. “I think that we certainly don’t travel the same way, and in some ways, there’s been some polarization when it comes to immigration and border protection. The world changed on Sept. 11, and we put a tremendous amount of more resources and energy and focus on counter-terrorism.”
“For us in law enforcement, we put much more of a focus on homeland security, recognizing that we are now an element of keeping the community safe from those threats,” he continued. “And we need to be using the networks and the contact and the experience that we have with our local community to make sure we are the eyes and ears to determine if there is anyone who could be causing a threat.”
Sheriff Brown said he too remembers being awakened by a phone call from a family friend 20 years ago today, which alerted him of the attack on the World Trade Center. He watched on TV as the second plane hit the tower, and said that even today, it is the “most shocking and sad thing” he has ever witnessed.
He noted that the day brings back a lot of emotions for him, particularly as he recalls watching the brave cops, firefighters and first responders who rushed toward the disaster when everyone else was frantically fleeing.
“Seeing the video footage of people escaping down the stairwells and seeing cops and firefighters going the other way to rescue people was very moving and very touching, and we know that those people that we were seeing on those videos perished in that terrible tragedy,” the Sheriff said.
Sheriff Brown also reflected on the efforts of the nation’s armed forces and intelligence agencies to tackle terrorism in the U.S. and abroad. He expressed gratitude for the more than 7,000 servicemembers who were killed in post-9/11 war operations, saying “their work has kept our country safe.”
“We have not seen a major terrorist attack on our homeland since the World Trade Center (attack), and it’s a direct result of what those intelligence operatives and what those military servicemembers have done,” he said.
As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Gulf War, Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, said he could relate to the anger many servicemembers felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and shared the resoluteness to hold those who perpetrated the attack accountable.
Thinking back on that day now, he says he remembers thinking how “unfathomable” it was to watch as the attack was carried out on U.S. soil and recalled the pain he felt over the devastating loss of life.
“I remember just being so in shock and reflecting on the loss of lives of Americans that we were experiencing, and couldn’t help but to think of all the families and all the victims,” Rep. Carbajal told the News-Press.
As the U.S. entered the War on Terror, Rep. Carbajal said he realized the sacrifice many men and women in the armed services would make to ensure an attack like this never happened on American soil again.
“Being a veteran, you can’t help but to understand the sacrifice that our servicemen and women were no doubt going to embark on to hold those accountable that perpetrated this attack on the U.S. and the sacrifices they and their family would be making in light of the loss that we experienced on 9/11,” Rep. Carbajal said. “I think the kinship that I share with veterans, with my brothers and sisters in the military, and the need to defend our country and to hold those who perpetrated such an attack accountable is what crosses my mind (when reflecting).”
During his reflection, Rep. Carbajal remembered the thousands of first responders who performed rescues, recoveries, demolition and debris clean up after the attack and suffered from terminal illness as a result. According to a report from 2018, about 16,000 Ground Zero responders suffered illness as a result of responding to the attacks, and that number has likely grown.
To help these victims and their families, Rep. Carbajal noted that during his tenure in Congress, legislation was passed that authorized the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to run through 2092. The fund will compensate individuals who were injured in the 2001 attacks as a result of rescuing individuals and removing debris in hazardous conditions.
While Rep. Carbajal said there is always more that can be done to honor first responders, he is proud of the steps Congress has taken thus far.
Looking to the future, Rep. Carbajal said the nation “must remember so we don’t forget.” He noted that 9/11 is a reminder of the “great care we have to take” to protect the lives of American citizens from both foreign and domestic terror. The representative said citizens “don’t need to look farther than the Jan. 6 insurrection to see the type of extremists in our country that we need to be mindful of.”
Chief Melekian, Sheriff Brown and Rep. Carbajal will all be in attendance at the 9/11 memorial event taking place at the Courthouse this morning. The event begins at 9 a.m, and members of the public planning to attend are encouraged to bring folding chairs or blankets due to limited seating.
Ahead of this morning’s event, Sheriff Brown said he hopes the ceremony will be a reminder of how united the country was in the aftermath of the attacks during this current time when much of the nation is divided.
“As we hit the 20-year mark since 9/11, there are now many Americans —young people, teenagers — who weren’t alive at the time and didn’t have a personal connection to what happened,” he said. “They didn’t see the spirit of the American people coming together… it was the defining moment, really, of our generation in terms of bringing people together, bringing Americans together.”
“I hope that we can see that happen somehow. We’re very polarized right now, we’re very divided, and maybe by reflecting on 9/11 and what happened, maybe we can get back toward the middle and come together again.”