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Profile: Chris Combs
Chris Combs was a participant or observer in the following events:
Christopher Combs. [Source: Harvard Kennedy School]The FBI’s Washington, DC, field office (WFO) starts sponsoring training with fire department and law enforcement commanders in the Washington area on how emergency response workers and the FBI should coordinate their activities if there is a terrorist attack in the region. [Griffin, 3/30/2010, pp. 76 ]
FBI Has Developed Relationships with Fire Departments - The WFO has already established relationships with fire chiefs in the Washington area, on the initiative of Special Agent Christopher Combs. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. 10 ; Arlington TV, 10/8/2014] Combs is the assistant weapons of mass destruction (WMD) coordinator on the National Capital Response Squad (NCRS)—an antiterrorism rapid response unit—out of the WFO. [Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 76; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 5/17/2011] When he was assigned to the NCRS in 1998, he realized that if there was a major emergency or a terrorist attack, the agency that would be doing rescues, tackling fires, and going into any wrecked buildings would be the fire department. He told his bosses: “If there was a major bombing today, the fire chief is going to own that scene. He needs a relationship with the FBI.” Combs was consequently allowed to begin a liaison program with the local fire departments. As the WFO’s fire service liaison, he then got to know fire department officials in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia; set up joint training programs; and made sure the FBI understood fire department procedures. He also taught courses at the area’s fire academies on terrorism, WMDs, and the responsibilities of the FBI. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A47 ; Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 8]
FBI Sponsors Training with Fire and Law Enforcement Departments - The WFO now expands its regional outreach activities by starting to sponsor training with the fire and law enforcement command staffs in the Washington area. This training will introduce FBI officials to local first responders. It will allow these officials to share lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995), and present “conceptual operational theories” of how the FBI and first responders could coordinate their actions during a terrorist attack.
Outreach Efforts Improve the Response to the Pentagon Attack - Combs’s outreach efforts with emergency response agencies in the Washington area will reportedly pay dividends when these agencies have to respond to the attack on the Pentagon on September 11. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A47 ; Kettl, 2008, pp. 203-204; Griffin, 3/30/2010, pp. 76-77 ] Emergency responders and the FBI will have “been through numerous exercises together so that at the Pentagon we all knew each other and the capabilities of each agency,” Combs will later say. “We knew the roles and responsibilities, so we already knew who was in charge and what phase we were in,” he will add. [Public Management, 9/2011]
The FBI’s Washington Field Office. [Source: FBI]The FBI’s Washington, DC, field office (WFO) holds a field training exercise in which various agencies practice their response to a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The exercise is led by Special Agent Christopher Combs on behalf of the FBI. [9/11 Commission, 8/5/2003 ; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 5/17/2011] Combs is the assistant WMD coordinator on the National Capital Response Squad—an antiterrorism rapid response unit—out of the WFO.
Exercise Is Based around a Chemical Weapons Attack - The exercise is based around the scenario of a terrorist attack, according to Combs. [Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 76; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 5/17/2011] Assistant Chief James Schwartz of the Arlington County Fire Department will later describe it as a “major chemical exercise,” presumably meaning it involves a hypothetical attack with a chemical weapon. It is held at an unspecified location in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia and is attended by “all the area fire departments, police departments, and the FBI,” Combs will say. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 5/17/2011; Arlington TV, 7/18/2011; Arlington TV, 10/8/2014] It is held on the Sunday before 9/11—September 9—according to Combs. [Kettl, 2008, pp. 203; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 5/17/2011] Other accounts, however, will state that it is held on September 8, the Saturday before 9/11. [9/11 Commission, 8/5/2003 ; Arlington TV, 7/18/2011; Arlington TV, 10/8/2014]
Exercise Improves the Response to the Pentagon Attack - Many people who participate in the exercise will be involved in the emergency response to the attack on the Pentagon on September 11. [Kettl, 2008, pp. 203] Combs, for example, will arrive at the Pentagon just minutes after the attack there and initially serve as the on-scene FBI commander at the crash site. [9/11 Commission, 8/5/2003 ; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 76] The exercise reportedly has a beneficial effect on the ability of its participants to respond to the Pentagon attack. It is “one more of those opportunities for us to not only get to know each other but [also to] figure out how we were going to interoperate with each other,” Schwartz will comment. Consequently, on September 11, there will already be “a great deal of understanding about how we were going to work together on this kind of an incident.” [Arlington TV, 7/18/2011] The FBI’s WFO and the Arlington County Fire Department, which participates in today’s exercise, regularly train together and often respond jointly to real-world incidents. [9/11 Commission, 8/5/2003 ]
At the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Training Academy, firefighters are taking part in what is described as a “counterterrorism class” or “antiterrorism exercises.” This is in preparation for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which are scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, at the end of this month. Numerous individuals who will later respond to the attack on the Pentagon are in attendance. These include some firefighters with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) at Reagan National Airport. [CBS News, 9/17/2001; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 69 and 78] Captain Scott McKay of the Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD) is also reportedly “attending a counterterrorism class with the FBI in the District [of Columbia].” [Washington Post, 9/20/2001] And other ACFD personnel are reportedly “engaged in meetings in the District of Columbia, preparing for the upcoming International Monetary Fund (IMF) conference.” [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A4 ] FBI Special Agent Christopher Combs, who is the regular FBI liaison to the fire services and routinely cross-trains with regional departments, is at the Fire Academy, “training firefighters in counterterrorism tactics.” Combs serves on the FBI’s National Capital Response Squad (NCRS), an antiterrorism rapid response unit. [Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 76] Members of the NCRS will be notified and recalled after the second WTC crash, and Combs will subsequently head to the Pentagon after hearing of the attack there, arriving at 9:49 a.m. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. C45 and 1-1 ]
With reports of another airplane headed toward Washingon, fire and rescue workers were directed to temporarily move away from the Pentagon. [Source: Jon Culberson]At around 10:15 a.m., fire and rescue workers at the Pentagon in response to the attack there are evacuated away from the site, due to a warning of another hijacked aircraft flying towards Washington, DC, currently 20 minutes away. The warning is passed on by Special Agent Chris Combs, the FBI’s representative at the Pentagon crash site. Assistant Fire Chief James Schwartz then orders the fire and rescue personnel to evacuate to a highway overpass several hundred yards from the Pentagon. Combs receives the information about the inbound aircraft from the FBI’s Washington Field Office, which is in direct contact with the FAA. He then confirms it with the control tower at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. According to a report put out by the government of Arlington County, Virginia, updates are announced of the approaching aircraft “until the last warning when [it] went below radar coverage in Pennsylvania, an estimated 4 minutes flying time from the Pentagon.” [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A16 and A30 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 315] Yet if the timing of this account is correct, the approaching plane could not have been Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania considerably earlier (see (10:03 a.m.-10:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Finally, Combs is informed by Jim Rice, his boss at the Washington Field Office, “You’re all clear.” Rice adds, incorrectly, “The plane hit Camp David.” [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 131] At 10:38, firefighters and rescue workers are allowed to return to the Pentagon and resume their activities. [Fire Engineering, 11/2002] There will be two more evacuations of the Pentagon site in the following 24 hours, also due to false alarms over reports of unidentified inbound aircraft (see (2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001 and (10:00 a.m.) September 12, 2001).
The Navy Annex, located next to the Virginia State Police Barracks. [Source: Arlington County After-Action Report]The FBI establishes a command post for its response to the Pentagon attack at the Virginia State Police Barracks, overlooking the Pentagon. [Fire Engineering, 11/2002] Around midday, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Robert Blecksmith arrived at the Pentagon and took over from Special Agent Chris Combs as the FBI’s on scene commander. He had quickly decided that the area around the Arlington County Fire Department’s incident command post by the Pentagon was too crowded and lacked support facilities. He therefore decides it will be safer for the FBI to carry out its operations at the Virginia State Police Barracks, located next to the Navy Annex, a few hundred yards from the Pentagon. Along with Combs, Blecksmith establishes the FBI’s command post there, and starts moving the FBI up to it. The two men will spend most of the afternoon at the barracks, where they work on establishing a Joint Operations Center (JOC) at nearby Fort Myer. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A23 and C50 ; Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 178] The JOC will open early the following morning (see September 12, 2001). [Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 161]
Due to the chaos and gridlock resulting from the morning’s attacks, the FBI is hampered in mobilizing its investigative operation at the Pentagon. Because the Pentagon is a crime scene, it is the FBI’s job to gather and document every piece of evidence there. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 177] Special Agent Chris Combs, the FBI’s representative at the crash site, has been setting up the FBI operation since arriving at 9:49 a.m. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A20 and 1-1 ; Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 178] Since before 10:00 a.m., the bureau’s evidence recovery team has been arriving. But although every available agent has been paged, many are stuck in traffic, and it will take several hours before the entire FBI contingent makes it to the Pentagon. The FBI also has a fleet of sophisticated command vehicles and helicopters, plus other specialized equipment. But even though the crash site is within the “FBI’s backyard,” according to authors Patrick Creed and Rick Newman, by around 12:15 p.m. none of this has arrived yet. The bureau’s rapid-deployment gear, which includes everything needed to gather and document evidence, is stored in a warehouse in Washington, DC. But with traffic in the region at a standstill, it is almost impossible to get this through the streets to the Pentagon. Chris Combs asks his boss at the FBI’s Washington field office if any helicopters are available to get equipment to the Pentagon quickly. But several choppers at the FBI facility in Quantico, just 30 miles south of the Pentagon, are reserved for specific duties during government emergencies and are currently locked down. And according to Creed and Newman, other government helicopters the bureau relies upon for backup are tied up, though what they are being used for is unstated. [US Department of Health and Human Services, 7/2002, pp. A22 ; Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 177-179] Furthermore, NBC News has reported that the FBI’s top teams have been away from Washington for the last two days for a major training exercise in California (see 10:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). This means about 50 personnel, plus helicopters and equipment, are currently out of place and unavailable. [NBC 4, 9/11/2001]
Flight 77’s damaged cockpit voice recorder. [Source: FBI]At around 3:40 a.m., investigators at the Pentagon recover the two “black boxes” from Flight 77. [Washington Times, 9/14/2001] These boxes are the plane’s flight data recorder and its cockpit voice recorder. [BBC, 9/15/2001] Some news reports claim they are found by two Fairfax County firefighters, Carlton Burkhammer and Brian Moravitz, as they comb through debris near the impact site. [Washington Post, 9/19/2001; Newsweek, 9/28/2001] But according to Arlington County spokesman Dick Bridges, members of the FBI’s evidence response team find them. [PBS, 9/14/2001; Washington Post, 9/14/2001] Authors Patrick Creed and Rick Newman will later clarify that Burkhammer and Moravitz find an object initially believed to be one of the black boxes, but closer inspection reveals it to be just “a charred chunk of machinery.” Subsequently, FBI photographer Jennifer Hill finds the cockpit voice recorder in a stack of rubble while assisting searchers. Thirty minutes later, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) expert locates the flight data recorder in the same area. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 396-397 and 400-402] But Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer who helps coordinate the emergency response at the Pentagon, later claims he had “found the black box,” which, he says, he had “stepped on… by accident.” [GW Magazine, 3/2002; Popular Mechanics, 3/2005] Washington FBI agent Christopher Combs says, “Somebody almost threw [the black boxes] away because they didn’t know what they looked like.” [Disaster News Network, 10/30/2002]
Conflicting Accounts of Where Boxes Are Found - According to Dick Bridges, the two recorders are discovered “right where the plane came into the building.” [Associated Press, 9/14/2001] But the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pentagon Building Performance Report, released in 2003, will claim that the flight data recorder was found “nearly 300 ft into the structure.” [Mlakar et al., 1/2003, pp. 40 ] In Creed and Newman’s account, the recorders are found in the Pentagon’s middle C Ring, near the “punch-out” hole made by the impacting aircraft. [Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 400-402]
Boxes Taken Away for Analysis - The boxes are taken to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington, where data is extracted from the flight data recorder, but they are reclaimed by the FBI later on in the morning. [Washington Times, 9/14/2001; Creed and Newman, 2008, pp. 402] A flight data recorder tracks an airplane’s flight movements for the last 25 hours, while the cockpit voice recorder contains radio transmissions and sounds from the cockpit for the last 30 minutes of its flight. Both are mounted in the tail of an aircraft and are encased in very strong materials like titanium. According to American Airlines and United Airlines, the black boxes aboard Flight 77 and the other hijacked planes were modern solid-state versions, which are more resistant to damage than older magnetic tape recorders. [Associated Press, 9/15/2001; BBC, 9/15/2001] FBI Director Robert Mueller later says that Flight 77’s data recorder has provided altitude, speed, and other information about the flight, but the voice recorder contained “nothing useful.” [CBS News, 2/25/2002] The 9/11 Commission will describe the cockpit voice recorder as being “badly burned and not recoverable.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 456] According to CBS News, preliminary information shows that the cockpit voice tape “appears to be blank or erased.” [CBS News, 9/16/2001] The two black boxes from Flight 93 are also recovered around this time (see September 13-14, 2001).
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