Mike Doak Recalls horrifying days at Ground Zero, asks community to remember…move on

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WTC dust flies., tower stands
Four days after the attack on the Twin Towers, crews worked round the clock to search for victims. The South Tower, still partially standing, is shown in the background.
WTC Doak crew in rubble
Members of Mike Doak’s crew sort through the rubble four days after the attacks.

By Leigh Ann Rutledge

Accent Editor

WTC tower with flag
The AT&T Communications Building sustained damage as a result of a beam from one of the Twin Towers piercing the other side of the building. An American flag showed the country’s resilience.

(FPS Archive file Sept. 8, 2011)

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, Pastor Mike Doak wants us to “re”member those who lost and gave their lives for the United States of America.

Pastor Doak of Church of Christ Christian Disciples of Carrollton is the featured speaker at the 912 Project Ceremony set for Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. in Carrollton High School gym. The 912 Project was established to remind citizens how the US was united as a nation the day after the 9/11 attacks when race, political choice and religion weren’t the focus.

Pastor Doak has a viewpoint on the attacks and how the country responded that is different but also similar to the majority of citizens. He was one of the few people to be onsite at the Pentagon and Ground Zero the day of the attacks. Reflecting back on that surreal time, he remembers the little things, that out of a tremendous tragedy, the spirit of the US shows and life goes on.

“I remember it was such a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, just beautiful,” he said.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

Mike Doak, special agent in charge of the Technical Surveillance and Forensic Science Division of the US Treasury Department, and his unit were in Norfolk, VA, participating in a joint training exercise with the Naval Amphibious Group, which began at 7 a.m. “As odd as it seems now, the cooperative training was aimed at assessing asymmetrical (not government sponsored) terrorist organizations and evaluating their electronic capabilities,” said Doak. “These training sessions are held periodically. Sort of a ‘war games with electronic devices.’ Each part of the group has a part to play. We were trying to see how quickly we could lock onto their signals and either decrypt or disarm them.”

At 8:50 a.m. a steady cascade of participant pagers began to go off. “The early reports we received said a light commercial aircraft strayed off course and struck the north tower of the World Trade Center,” explained Doak. “Within minutes, the assessment was upgraded, interceptors launched and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered all private and commercial aircraft to land immediately.”   Doak noted it is his opinion when the FAA grounded all aircrafts, they probably saved more lives.

At 9:20 a.m., the Secretary of Treasury advised Doak’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) to respond to the Pentagon and initiate the continuity of operations plans (COOP) restoring communication on a local, state and federal level.

Doak arrived at the Pentagon at 11:45 a.m. His group deployed “CP-Majestic,” which was their rolling communications fleet. By 3:30 p.m., secure communications and a rescue/recovery plan were in place at the Pentagon and Doak and his ERT were sent to Ground Zero at the World Trade Center in New York City.

The AT&T Telecommunications Building is located across the street from the Twin Towers. The entire communication system for Manhattan and its Burroughs is located in the AT&T building. When the towers were hit, a large beam from one of the towers was propelled into the side of the AT&T building. AT&T officials knew how to get their system up and running if there was water damage, but had no idea how to protect and restore it after fire damage. Officials decided to shut the entire system down, thus knocking out all modes of communication, resulting in no landline or cellular service inbound or outbound from Manhattan for two weeks. Plus the damage to the Twin Towers severely degraded the Secret Service’s ability to manage secure White House communications. Tower 7 in the World Trade Center Complex housed Secret Service offices. Doak and his team were needed to set up a communication system for all levels of government, which became known as the “switchboard for Ground Zero.”

The Lincoln Tunnel is a 1.5-mile long tunnel under the Hudson River, connecting Weehawken, NJ, and the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Three tubes carry six lanes of traffic, close to 120,000 vehicles per day, making it one of the busiest vehicular tunnels in the world.

The ERT group traveling in CP Majestic, entered the Lincoln Tunnel at 11:30 p.m. “It was eerily surreal. We were the only vehicle in the tunnel and that never happens,” said Doak. “The only sound was our siren.” A member of Doak’s team is a Vietnam veteran and was among the soldiers treated badly upon his return from the war. “When we exited the Lincoln Tunnel, we were greeted by your average-Joe New Yorkers standing there offering bottles of water, waving flags and cheering us on. My friend was astonished. Seeing the response of the people, he was powerfully overcome. It was a healing for him, he had come full circle.” This was one of many of the “little pockets of wonder sprinkled within” tragedy.

Once on-scene, the team established a repeater site at the FBI Joint Command Post Facility and worked non-stop for the next 72 hours establishing encrypted satellite, cellular and landline communication links. Being the “Switchboard of Ground Zero,” they had the only fax machines and burnt up three of them processing messages from 39 federal agencies. Doak and his team were responsible for getting communications up and running to have a secure landing zone for President George W. Bush when he visited Ground Zero. For the next 12 weeks, they helped with rescue and recovery efforts, gathered and processed forensic evidence and recovered files and evidence lost in the collapse of Building 6 (US Customs House Resident Agencies) and 7, the Secret Service offices.

Doak noted the site was a “cloud of dust” that gave it an “air of unbelievability.” All debris from the area was transported to a forensic facility at Stanton Island where it was sifted and searched for remains and pertinent information needed by families of those killed in the attacks. Members of Doak’s team assisted in this process.

His team also helped gather files and evidence from the Treasury office in Tower 6. The explosion at the Twin Towers caused a reaction that practically sucked the insides out of the building, stairwells were gone, along with drywall and ceiling tiles. Doak was one of the men who went inside the unstable building. “We knew which offices were on what floor and where to look for items,” he said. “We were gathering information on one of the floors, and the walls are gone, but there sits the secretary’s Rolodex on the corner of her desk, unscathed. And the window blinds were billowing in the breeze. The windows were gone but the blinds were intact.” Doak calls the Rolodex and window blinds more of those “pockets of wonder” or so-called normalcy in the scope of the situation.

He feels these “little pockets of wonder” were signs that life goes on. “I went to find coffee for my crew about 6 a.m. Sept. 12 and was walking along and saw a wheel assembly from an airplane lying on the ground near a building. I looked at it in a kind of disbelief,” Doak explained. “Then I looked directly across from the wheel assembly and saw a bagel cart covered with soot and ash with the rotisserie still rotating and bagels on it.” (The rotisseries in bagel carts run off a car battery.)

Doak admits he and his team, along with a lot of responders are somewhat desensitized to the situation at the time because they are there to do their job. “We were used to living out of a suitcase, not knowing what is coming next,” he said. “It all goes to back to those little things. We received passenger lists from the planes, manifestos, so much information. Then a fax came in telling a worker his wife had given birth and they were both fine.”

“RE”MEMBER

Pastor Doak, a native of northern Ohio, attended Hiram College, receiving degrees in Organic Chemistry, Philosophy and Sociology and worked for local law enforcement in Portage County. He began attending Duke Seminary and saw an ad noting Naval Intelligence was looking for people with advanced degrees. He applied, was hired and in 1984 switched to working for the US Treasury. During his career, he lived in various places, Washington D.C., Jacksonville, Atlanta, Columbus. He always planned on finishing schooling in the ministry. While living in the Columbus area, he completed his studies at Delaware Methodist Theology School.   “Being a Pastor is my second career. I have had two full, interesting and rewarding careers,” he said. “It just took a long time to get back to finish the second one.”

After years of living around the country, Pastor Doak and his family were looking for a church, preferably in Ohio (the family is from Ravenna) where he could pastor full-time. At the same time, he learned Carrollton Church of Christ Christian Disciples was looking for a full-time minister and applied and began his first full-time position at the Church in September 2003.

How does someone who has witnessed Ground Zero, Waco, helped with drug busts, wiretapping, money laundering situations move to Carrollton? “It was a bit like stepping off a merry-go-round,” Pastor Doak explained. “You have that moment of woozy and then you get your balance.”

When Pastor Doak speaks at the 912 Ceremony, he wants to stress that we “re”member those who were lost during the 9/11 attacks. “By ‘re’membering, we want to bring them back as members of society. Not just recall the past but bring the past and the people into this moment,” Pastor Doak stated. “If we could have a conversation with them, they would want to continue living, to ‘re’member them into the fabric of the lives we live today.”

Looking back Pastor Doak admitted he had never been around anything like that scenario and knows he never will be again. Part of our courage is the ability to absorb loses and frustrations and find new ways as Americans to move to higher ground he believes. “We need to focus on not forgetting but push past the revenge side,” he said. “The victims, not only those at Ground Zero, but everyone on the planes, would not want us to take our eyes off living life.”

It’s those little “pockets of wonder” sprinkled throughout that brings things to a manageable scope and scale. “We, as a nation, all have that day in common. We are all members of the same community and country,” Pastor Doak noted. “It’s those little things…a Rolodex, a bagel rotisserie, a fax announcing a birth.”