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The game changer: Terror attacks changed how Border Patrol protects U.S.

WARROAD, Minn. -- More than 15 years ago, Robert Tuttle was one of two men who manned the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Warroad, Minn. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was getting ready to travel on assignment to Grand Forks when radio reports began to pour...

MUG PHOTO OF Aaron Heitke, chief patrol agent of the Grand Forks Border Patrol Sector.
MUG PHOTO OF Aaron Heitke, chief patrol agent of the Grand Forks Border Patrol Sector.

WARROAD, Minn. - More than 15 years ago, Robert Tuttle was one of two men who manned the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Warroad, Minn.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was getting ready to travel on assignment to Grand Forks when radio reports began to pour from his radio about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. As the day went on, it became evident to Tuttle, who now is the patrol agent in charge at the Warroad Station, that the days of two-man Border Patrol stations were over.

"I knew it was going to define our agency, how we do business moving forward," he said, calling 9/11 a game changer for the Border Patrol.

The country came face to face with its largest attack since Pearl Harbor, with about 3,000 people losing their lives that day after four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

"It was pure evil in its simplest form," he said.

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Lonnie Schweitzer, a retired Border Patrol assistant chief for the Grand Forks Sector, said the events of 9/11 were unlike anything the agency had seen before.

"This is the first time something that large, that magnitude, had happened," he said. "We have always been vigilant, but this is like, OK, we are dealing with a different group of people here."

A lot has changed in the 15 years since the attacks. The acts of terror resulted in the 2003 formation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that now oversees Border Patrol agents. The agencies have increased security measures and have invested in advanced technology to protect the borders. The Border Patrol went from 3,200 agents in 1978, when Schweitzer joined the agency, to just shy of 22,000 today, he said. In 2001, there were about 9,800 agents.

The Border Patrol's mission today is similar, though its first priority has shifted from protecting the border from illegal immigration to protecting the country from terrorism.

"It's certainly why we go to work every day," Tuttle said. "We can't afford for it to happen again."

'You just don't hit a tower on a day like that'

Tuttle recalls the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He had just finished a short patrol shift in his area and was returning home to gather his things for the assignment to Grand Forks when he heard the news that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

The initial reports called the crash an accident.

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"I thought, 'My God, someone has miscalculated, and a plane has flown into this building," Tuttle said.

Schweitzer recalled coming out of a staff meeting when the communications room alerted agents something was going on in New York. Agents turned to TVs to watch media reports of the crash.

He said agents at his office were suspicious from the start of reports of a plane "accidentally" hitting the tower.

"It was a bright, clear, sun-shining day. You just don't hit a tower on a day like that," he said. "I remember coming in and looking at that, and I said, 'Boy, this just isn't right.' And that's about the time the second plane hit."

Grand Forks Sector Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke was assigned to Arizona at the time. He was on a recruiting event in Las Vegas when he was told to turn on the TV, just in time to see the second plane hit.

He remembers the road across Hoover Dam closing and the eerily silent streets of Las Vegas.

"It was completely quiet," he said. "It was just odd because Vegas is a very bustling area. ... Everybody was in their rooms watching television."

A long day

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While the tragedy was on Heitke's mind, his focus shifted to allocating resources. The Border Patrol went immediately to high guard, sending agents across the country to wherever they were needed.

After hearing the second plane had hit the South Tower, Tuttle drove back to his station to check for any correspondence he may have received on the crashes, knowing something much bigger than an accident was unfolding.

Like other people following the events that day, a feeling of sickness came over Tuttle. He wondered what the attacks would mean for him, the country and, of course, his agency, which was responsible for protecting the nation's borders.

"When the clear picture came in as to what happened, it was the start of a very busy time for a very small sector," he said.

Ports of entry weren't closed that day, but there was a heightened sense of security, Schweitzer said.

Vehicles waited in line at the ports as agents conducted more thorough screenings and searches, making sure nothing that would threaten the country could get through. Stations that once were empty were all manned, something that had never happened before, Tuttle said.

There was a sense of confusion as the Border Patrol pushed as many resources to where they were needed. Email was working fine, Tuttle said, but the internet seemed to be having problems with connections.

The agents listened to the radio for updates as they received multiple calls with orders for the station, including a cancellation of Tuttle's detail to drive to Grand Forks.

As the day went on, it became clear the agents were in for a long day. Tuttle said supervisors told him and others it was unclear when they would be finished, but they should expect to work longer shifts. They were told if they needed, they could run home, grab belongings and make arrangements.

"That day ended with a lot of phone calls," he said. "Ultimately, that day ended up being an 18-hour day of work."

Though it was unclear how Border Patrol operations would change, there was no question that agents were dedicated to protecting the border, Tuttle said.

"There was no complaining," he said. "There was a sense of we got to get this thing done until we get a handle on really what we are facing."

Imminent change

In the weeks following, a temporary mandatory six-day workweek was implemented for Border Patrol agents, with the option of working a seventh day.

Agents for the most part were willing to work seven days a week, despite not having all of the answers to countless questions, Tuttle said.

"There were 12-hour shifts," he said. "We put a lot of miles on."

Security also shifted, Schweitzer said. Before the attacks, agents were being sent from the northern border south to help at the Mexican border. After 9/11, the government realized the Canadian border was at risk, so agents were transferred from other locations to the north.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Grand Forks Sector, which covers the largest land area, oversees 861 miles of Canadian border - the most any sector must protect in the country. Before 9/11, 340 Border Patrol agents protected the northern border, with 32 stationed in the Grand Forks Sector. Now 2,051 agents cover the Canadian border, and 174 agents are stationed in the Grand Forks Sector, which covers eight states, including North Dakota and Minnesota.

The structure of operations even changed. The Department of Homeland Security was the result of the U.S. plan to fight terrorism. Once an agency under the Department of Justice, the Border Patrol was turned into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection branch, becoming part of Homeland Security's jurisdiction in March 2003.

Borders have become more secure with the use of barriers and technology, said Agent Ryan Gilberg, a spokesman for the Grand Forks Sector. Sensors and cameras are put up along suspected illegal immigration trails to detect those who are crossing the border illegally, an upgrade to simply finding and following footprints. Infrastructure that previously didn't exist has been set up along the border - from barred walls to barricades - to deter people from crossing the border. Agents even will spend days camped out in forward operating camps in remote areas to patrol.

It's hard to say whether the use of advanced technology would have happened without 9/11, Gilberg said, but there is no doubt the events pushed the government to tighten security at the borders.

Outreach to U.S. citizens has increased, Heitke said, adding there is more of a presence in communities. The Border Patrol works more closely with local law enforcement and does what it can to keep the public informed, sometimes asking them to help protect the border.

The relationship between federal, state and local agencies that protect the country have improved after communication among them became key, Heitke said.

It was all part of a move to make sure no threats could get past Border Patrol agents, Schweitzer said. Though there was some communication between agencies, it felt like they had failed when those planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he said.

That made the agencies step up cooperation and efforts to make sure an attack like 9/11 never happened again.

"You spend a career protecting the United States, and you want to look at it as, 'OK, we failed,' and not just the Border Patrol or anybody else, but we had an issue and we failed at that," he said. "There is a lot more integregration because you can't afford to sit in your own sandbox and wave at each other. You better be playing and sharing everything that you have, which is good. That was a big improvement."

Robert Tuttle, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge of the Warroad (Minn.) Station, looks over the "Flag of Honor," an illustration that names all of the victims killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Grand Forks Office. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)
Robert Tuttle, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge of the Warroad (Minn.) Station, looks over the "Flag of Honor," an illustration that names all of the victims killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Grand Forks Office. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)

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