Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Sean Patterson spent months in New York’s recovery efforts, removing debris from the pile of rubble that had been the twin towers and maintaining security at the site.
Two decades later, the memories are still acute.
“In an instant, I can take myself back to that day and the days after,” said Patterson, then a New York City Police Department officer. “If I really concentrate, I can smell and see sights from that day.”
As the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to commemorate the 2,977 people killed, Patterson, now assistant chief of the University of Tennessee Police Department, said the effects of the attacks reverberate today.
“It’s still very real, and we’re losing people every day to post-9/11 illnesses,” said Patterson, who has lost several friends as a result. Like others, he continues to experience health issues related to toxic contaminants from ground zero dust and debris.
“The best way people can honor those who lost their lives and those who responded is by truly honoring that promise to never forget and to never minimize that day,” he said.
Most UT undergraduates were either toddlers or not yet alive during the events of 9/11 and have learned much of what they know about that tragic day from history classes.
“We have a duty to keep educating people so they can’t ever forget the sacrifices made,” Patterson said. “They need to know that 412 emergency workers from multiple agencies dropped everything they were doing and ran into a building and lost their lives instantaneously.
“First responders still do that every day all over the country, no matter what. They answer the call. That’s their job.”
Patterson is doing his part to keep the memory of 9/11 alive. This week, for example, he will speak at his children’s school.
He is thankful for the tangible ways East Tennesseans are striving to do the same through events like the recent Remembering the Badges blood drive.
“The vibe, teamwork, and volunteerism here are second to none. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve seen East Tennesseans drop everything they’re doing to help a neighbor. That is reminiscent of what I saw 20 years ago during 9/11,” said Patterson, who joined UTPD in April 2020 after 22 years of service with the NYPD.
This week, Patterson’s thoughts are filled with the gravity of this somber anniversary.
“I can’t believe how much time has elapsed since then,” he said. “I start thinking of friends and people I knew who died that day and many others I’ve lost since then to 9/11 illness. I think about where they would be now and how wonderful their lives could have been.”