9/11 – The Significance for Customs

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 recalls a day of infamy for many, particularly those who lost loved ones, not to mention the sheer audacity and questionable motives of the respective attacks. It also marked a distinct period of change in the Customs, international travel and trade environments. For one, there is a not a single person involved in any of the above who has not felt the effects of a ‘shake up’. It is therefore relevant to recount this event and reflect on the explicit impact which the attacks in New York would have for Customs officers, worldwide.

WTC 6, an eight storey building –known as Custom House – was home to 760 officers of the US Customs Service. It was situated adjacent to the North Tower. Within 12 minutes of the first plane hitting the North Tower at about 8:46 am, all occupants (WTC 6) were safely evacuated. Stephen Barr of the Washington Post noted in an article titled, “Knowing the Drill Saved Lives at New York’s Customs House” on 18 September 2001 that ‘Federal agencies demonstrated coolheaded leadership during the crisis. Because of practice sessions held several times a year, employees knew what to do and where to go. In a day marked by unbelievable horror and confusion, old-fashioned fire drills helped one band of office workers to escape’.

Beneath the plaza level of US Customs House (WTC 6) was a large underground garage, separated off from the rest of the complex’s underground area and guarded under tight security. This was where the various government services parked their bomb-proofed cars and armoured limousines, counterfeit taxi cabs and telephone company trucks used for undercover surveillance and covert operations, specialized vans and other vehicles.

New York Customs House (WTC6) - AfterThe evacuation of WTC 6 was indeed timely, because at 9:04am a massive explosion shook the building, bellowing a huge plume of smoke 550 feet into the air. When the North Tower fell, the US Customs House (WTC 6) was crushed and totally incinerated. Much of the underground levels beneath it were also destroyed.

The Commissioner designate, Robert C. Bonner, commented “The sudden disruption to such a large and important area of Customs’ operations threatened to compromise the immediate security of ports of entry in the New York area and the integrity of ongoing Customs investigations and trade and enforcement activities. We faced an immediate need to relocate all 800 employees and to allow them to resume their work quickly so they could focus on border security. These men and women responded heroically to the challenge, setting up a temporary operations center within hours at nearby JFK airport. And, within three weeks of the attacks, they succeeded in relocating our New York Customs Office into new office space in Manhattan”. Click here to view the full testimony of Robert Bonner to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.

Customs evidence amongst the rubbleIn the months to follow, significant developments resulted in the institution of the Department of Homeland Security – the merger of the US Customs and Immigration Services – a gargantuan displacement of some 140 000 federal officials. (For SARS Customs officials – ours is but a picnic!). The full implications of 9/11 were to be felt by the international community in 2002 with the implementation of several ‘security/anti-terrorism’ measures that have undoubtedly changed the focus, intent of all customs administrations worldwide. Click here to visit the 9/11 image gallery.


  1. Michael,

    In retrospect I don’t recall if we ever took the time to talk about what we were doing at the moment this tragedy was occurring. As usual with your pensive approach to others, I gather you did not want to stir any suppressed emotions or memories before they could be willing offered. The work at hand proved a busy mind the best remedy, and work we did. Thanks for taking the time to remember the USCS. Knowing you keep these memories of us helps balance the scales.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.