‘You can’t be serious’: The 911 dispatchers who answered the call on 9/11

Eric Brown, lead dispatcher for D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications shared his memories of working on Sept. 11, 2001, with WTOP. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Michele Shields, a police dispatcher at D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications, said the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on The Pentagon “was just unbelievable.” (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Sylvia Nazario, a police dispatcher at D.C.’s Office of Unified Communications, worked more than 12 hours on Sept. 11, 2001. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

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For Eric Brown, Michele Shields and Sylvia Nazario, all of whom work at the Office of Unified Communications in D.C., the workday began at 6 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Brown, a lead dispatcher who was working on the DC Fire and EMS side that day, recalled his supervisor getting a call and announcing that a plane had struck the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Then another call came in, with news that a plane could be headed for the White House.

Shields, a dispatcher for D.C. Police, remembers a co-worker rushing in from a break to say that a plane had hit the Pentagon. Shields recalled thinking: “‘You can’t be serious. Not here in Washington, D.C.’ It was just unbelievable.”

But someone turned on a television, “and we all looked at each other” and suddenly it was real, Shields said. “And we just all went into action.”

But the news didn’t reach everyone at the same time. Nazario, another police dispatcher, was tasked with contacting agencies in the region.

She found herself having to convince first responders at other agencies that the call about the plane crash at the Pentagon was real. “And they hang up the phone!” she said. “I had to call them back and say, ‘This is not a prank.'”

For Shields, the calls were personal.

Her brother worked at the Pentagon. She wouldn’t be able to contact him until late in the day. Twenty years later, she said it’s still emotional when she talks about finally hearing from him.

“He worked in the basement,” she said. “He said that when the plane struck, they didn’t know what it was.” Her brother told her that the door of the room they were in was blown from its hinges. “And everything shook.”

Brown, Shields and Nazario all worked a minimum of 12 hours that day.

Like Shields, Nazario had family she was concerned about. She’s originally from New York City, where her mother and other family lived. “When I got home and I called my mom,” she told her everyone was OK.

Brown said that when he got home, he remained glued to the television, watching the nonstop coverage. “And I just sat down and I thought, ‘Man, I gotta go back tomorrow. I hope everyone’s OK.'”

Nazario, Brown and Shields take great pride in juggling the calls for help, remaining calm and coordinating emergency responses in the District.

But Shields said that after 30 years on the job, she can feel the cumulative weight of those distress calls. Putting feelings aside on the job is routine, but the emotions don’t just disappear.

“They’re in there,” she said, pointing to her head. “You know, I suppress them, I put them back, but they’re starting to come up…. Every now and again, something will trigger it.”

That’s why Shields said that after years of resisting getting help, she’s now receiving counseling — something she recommends. “As you get older you get wiser,” she said with a smile.

More than 200 Arlington first responders paid tribute to fallen first responders by laying roses on charred piece of steel from ground zero in NY. Many of them were at the Pentagon that day.

Up to 700 volunteers worked in shifts assembling 200,000 meals destined for area foodbanks.

Fmr. Battalion Chief Dale Smith placing rose on charred steel from ground zero. WTOP/Gigi Barnett

Up to 700 volunteers worked in shifts assembling 200,000 meals destined for area foodbanks.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Air Force One at Pennsylvania Army Air National Guard Base in Johnstown, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. The Bidens are en route to Washington after visiting the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A sky diver lands on the field with an oversized United States flag prior to the start of an NCAA college football game between Northwestern and Indiana State in Evanston, Ill, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Former President Donald Trump visits the Engine Co. 8 firehouse where he praised first responders’ bravery while criticizing President Joe Biden over the pullout from Afghanistan, Saturday Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Jill Colvin)

A red, white and blue ribbon, to mark Sept. 11, 2001 anniversary, marks the field near the Texas A&M bench before an NCAA college football game against Colorado, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

President Joe Biden speaks to people as he visits the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department in Shanksville, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Biden stopped by after visiting the nearby Flight 93 National Memorial to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Mourners stand at the rim of the north pool with the white World Trade Center Oculus in the background after the conclusion of ceremonies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council of the District of Columbia joined first responders and officers in commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council of the District of Columbia joined first responders and officers in commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

A trumpeter plays “Taps” beside the north pool at the conclusion of ceremonies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

People tie ribbons to the fence at St. Paul’s Chapel near the National September 11 Memorial & Museum during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, hand over heart, at a ceremony remembering the 3,000 lost and the first responders who entered the Pentagon 20 years ago.

Former President George W. Bush, right, wipes his eyes next to former first lady Laura Bush, after he spoke at a memorial for the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Shanksville, Pa., on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees and guests take part in a moment of silence during an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Springfield, Va. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden lay a wreath at the Wall of Names during a visit to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. The Bidens visited to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A shadow of a rose is projected onto a flag held by Germano Rivera by the north pool during ceremonies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

On the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, an Alexandria fire station hosts Sen. Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe for a ceremony remembering that tragic day.

On the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, an Alexandria fire station hosts Sen. Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe for a ceremony remembering that tragic day.

Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff attend a memorial for the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, Saturday Sept. 11, 2021, in Shanksville, Pa., on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and Gordon Felt, brother of Edward Porter Felt and President of Familes for Flight 93, are right.

April Horton, left, Blake Edward Schaffer, 10, and Andrea Stauter, right, sisters and nephew of Petty Officer First Class Edward Earhart, who was killed in the Pentagon on 9/11, pose for a family photo following an observance ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, on the morning of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Nephew Blake Edward Schaffer was named honoring Earhart.

A screen displays a video of former President George W. Bush during an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Springfield, Va.

Bagpipers stand at attention during ceremonies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

A member of FDNY rings a bell during the singing of the National Anthem at the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 11, 2021 in New York City. During the ceremony, six moments of silence were held, marking when each of the World Trade Center towers was struck and fell and the times corresponding to the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93. The nation is marking the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Shanksville, PA and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a remembrance ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC on September 11, 2021. – America marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11 Saturday with solemn ceremonies given added poignancy by the recent chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and return to power of the Taliban. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Bruce Springsteen performs during the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 11, 2021 in New York City. During the ceremony six moments of silence were held, marking when each of the World Trade Center towers was struck and fell and the times corresponding to the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93. The nation is marking the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Shanksville, PA and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(L-R) Former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, President Joe Bien, First Lady Jill Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg’s partner Diana Taylor, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) stand for the national anthem during the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 11, 2021 in New York City. During the ceremony six moments of silence were held, marking when each of the World Trade Center towers was struck and fell and the times corresponding to the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93. The nation is marking the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Shanksville, PA and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (C) attends the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 11, 2021 in New York City. During the ceremony six moments of silence were held, marking when each of the World Trade Center towers was struck and fell and the times corresponding to the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93. The nation is marking the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Shanksville, PA and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Delegates from the United States Embassy including Acting Ambassador, Philip T Reeker (L), Charge d’Affaires, attend the changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, on September 11, 2021. – In a royal tribute to the dead, who included 67 Britons, the US anthem was played on Saturday by fur-hatted Welsh Guards at the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Windsor Castle. (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE PARSONS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A beam of light is visible over the Lincoln Memorial, the day before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as part of the Towers of Light Tribute, Friday Sept. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Pentagon
An American flag is unfurled at the Pentagon in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at sunrise on the morning of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The American flag is draped over the site of impact at the Pentagon. In the foreground, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, opened in 2008 adjacent to the site, commemorates the lives lost at the Pentagon and onboard American Airlines Flight 77. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

An American flag hangs from the side of the Pentagon to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, on September 11, 2021, in Washington,DC. – America marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11 Saturday with solemn ceremonies given added poignancy by the recent chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and return to power of the Taliban. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

An American flag is unfurled at the Pentagon in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at sunrise on the morning of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The American flag is draped over the site of impact at the Pentagon. In the foreground, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, opened in 2008 adjacent to the site, commemorates the lives lost at the Pentagon and onboard American Airlines Flight 77. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A rose is seen at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial that commemorates the lives lost at the Pentagon and onboard American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at sunrise on the morning of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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Pentagon
Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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