Q&A: Mike Hurley, former Port Authority fire safety director, reflects on a post-9/11 America.
Mike Hurley believes stories are a living history.
Hurley spent most of his career at the World Trade Center in New York. He was there, as the fire safety director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, when terrorist attacks took almost 3,000 lives and changed the skyline forever.
He was also there when the 9/11 Tribute Museum was built. He was the director of operations.
Eventually the commute got old, Hurley said. And he now works on the security team at a high school where he bad been a teacher.
On this year’s 9/11 anniversary Hurley shared his story at the 9/11 memorial service hosted by the Dover Air Force Base Fire Emergency Services.
He has been a member of the Air Force chief of staff’s Civic Leader Program since 2016. The team of civilian leaders, from CEOs to education leaders to owners of sports teams, help advocate for the Air Force across the world.
In each role, Hurley has found opportunities to share stories - whether they’re his own or those of the airmen he has met.
What was it like working at the 9/11 Tribute Museum as someone who was there when the attacks happened?
A lot of volunteers and people who worked there had a very direct connection to the events of that day. So, they could relay things to the visitors that were very personal. It wasn’t just something you read when you look at a display or you read in a book. You’re hearing from them exactly what happened. It was a very interesting experience.
What was it like for you to be in the museum and watching people learn or remember the tragedies?
The further you get away from the date of an event, it’s nothing that people do intentionally, but the interest and the level of curiosity declines, which is natural. The further from that date you go into history, people weren’t born. Next year will be the first year that people graduating high school will not have been alive in September of 2001. This is a whole new era. Now these kids are just reading about it. They can’t even say, ‘Well, I was alive during that time.’
It was very interesting in the museum because you get to keep that memory going. I’m not saying that people don’t know or they forget, but they didn’t live it. They don’t have a personal connection to it.
People from around the world would come, and they’ve read about it, they’ve heard about it, they might have seen it on the news, but they’ve never spoken to someone who was actually there. That, to them, is a big deal. So, you get to give them some really personal insight to how the events of that day occurred.
What would you want the young people, like the students in your high school, to know about 9/11 since they may not have a personal connection to it?
By and large most [students] don’t have any kind of connection to it. So, when you talk to them, some are very interested because they have never met anybody...it’s new to them. They want to know exactly what happened: Where were you? What did you see? What did you do?
It’s as if someone my age could talk to somebody who participated in D-Day. I could read about it or I could watch a movie, but to sit down and talk to somebody who was there...they can tell you what they remember from that day. It’s just a whole different perspective.
Why is it important that we keep coming together as a community to remember 9/11 year after year?
For some people, the phrase ‘never forget’ really does mean something. Especially for those people who were there or affected by it. There’s still roughly about 40% of the victims who have not been identified. There are many families who don’t have their loved one returned to them. They don’t have a grave to go to. Sometimes people say, ‘Well, it’s 18 years, let it go already.’ But, to people who were there or to people who don’t have that grave to go to, this is a very important day.
After 9/11, everyone was together. This was a very united country, especially the New York City metropolitan area. There was no division of any kind. Everybody was together. Everybody had an American flag in front of their house. Everybody was trying to do the same thing.
We slowly have fallen back to where were, away from that a little bit. This day reminds everybody that we’re all together in this, that this is one country, and we should really not be so divided. This is one country. Today reminds me of that.
We came together after 9/11. We helped each other. People let people into their houses [if they] were stuck. People slept on floors, [telling each other:] ‘I don’t know you, but you can’t stay in the street all night, so come into the house.’ And they fed them. That’s kind of the way it should be, right? We should take care of each other.
Can you tell me about your experiences in the Air Force Civic Leader program?
It’s a real honor to be a part of the [Air Force chief of staff’s] civic leader staff. There’s about 25 or 30 people who are on this team. We work for the chief of staff, and we do a lot of things with him or for him. We’re advocates in the civilian world for the Air Force. We’re able to talk to people about Air Force issues that they might not otherwise understand.
We can go out there and be positive advocates for the Air Force. I was down here [at the Dover Air Force Base] in May, and we took a tour of the base. We got to see some of the issues over at the mortuary and how they do things. We travel all over the world.
It’s a real honor to be a part of that team, and to see the behind-the-scenes of how the Air Force works. Not only the Air Force as an organization, but the individuals who make up the Air Force: the airmen themselves. What they do, their families, how they live, what they give up to be a part of the Air Force, what their families endure. We get to see a lot. From the outside, you just see guys and ladies in uniform, and you don’t know how they got here or where their families are or where their kids go to school.
It’s not so much about the Air Force itself, but we try to deal with the individuals who make up the Air Force. What can we do to help? A lot of issues come up with schools, for example. Another issue that came up recently was licensing. Many spouses have licenses [for] everything from legal work to hairdressers, and when people get transferred from state to state those licenses don’t always work. So, we have some people working on that. And many states have started to come along with that.
What did you learn from your conversations?
You know that people are dedicated if they join the military, but it’s the level of dedication that’s out there. People are working 24 hours a day to do whatever their job is, whether they’re maintaining aircraft or if they have to fly. If we walk through a hangar, we might see a couple of guys working and think, ‘that’s nice.’ But, they’re doing that 24 hours a day around the world to keep things going, [which] we don’t see. There’s people in the air force making it work every day, from satellites to keeping us safe on many levels.
Some of these places are not too glorious; [they’re] stuck in a very cold or very hot place, away from family, away from civilization, and they do it. I’ve never heard a complaint yet. They do it without complaint. They’re happy to be here. It’s really something to see because that’s what makes it all work: the people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.