First published in the Sept. 9 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
As was his routine on that day each year, Se-Yao Hsu was at a local restaurant as Sept. 11, 2001, dawned in San Marino. In 1996, the Chinese Club of San Marino had instituted a day on which it acknowledged the city’s police officers and firefighters, choosing Sept. 11 as a reminder of the emergency telephone number 911.
Little did Hsu, like many, know at the time that he would never again view those three seemingly innocent digits in the same light.
The 1999 president of the Chinese Club, Hsu in 2001 was the principal of the organization’s Chinese School.
“As usual, I went to pick up the breakfast for the police officers and firefighters at around 7 a.m.,” Hsu recalled last week. “While I was waiting for the food, I saw on a television that the twin towers [of New York City’s World Trade Center] had been attacked by planes. At first, I thought it might be a television program or movie. Later, I realized that it was a real thing.”
All too real, as it would turn out.
In the hours, days, weeks, months and years that followed, the Sept. 11 attacks, a series of airline hijackings committed by 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida against targets in the United States, would enter the world’s terminology. The simple prefix 9/11 is sufficient to summon recollections of the events of that day that led to approximately 3,000 deaths and sparked a retaliatory war. In a painful twist of irony, San Marino residents stared at their televisions in horror as more than 400 first responders lost their lives in New York on a day that began here with an innocent assembly to honor those who routinely put themselves in harm’s way.
“I rushed back to the emergency operations center with the food,” Hsu recalled. “Everyone learned that the twin towers had been attacked and some other incidents had occurred as well. It was terrible and is something I will obviously never forget.”
Hsu was greeted by City Council members Emile Bayle, Betty Brown, Vince Filutze, Bob Twist and Dr. Matthew Lin, all in a solemn mood.
“The 911 program started with a moment of silence in memory of those who passed away in the devastating tragedy,” Hsu said.
John Penido was the city’s fire chief in 2001, approximately the midpoint of his 15-year tenure with the San Marino Fire Department.
“I was getting ready for work on Sept. 11, 2001, when I walked past the television and saw images of a burning skyscraper,” Penido recalled. “Within a minute or two, before I fully understood what I was seeing, something big struck the upper floors of another skyscraper. It wasn’t long before we all understood that the chain of events taking place on the East Coast had national implications.”
Though the event was marked mostly by stories of heroic acts performed by first responders, police and fire agencies critiqued their own performances and didn’t necessarily like what they saw.
“The question was: What should public safety agencies do in response to the events of 9/11?” Penido said. “Fire chiefs across the county discussed our readiness and areas for improvement. We also collaborated with our law enforcement counterparts. One longstanding shortcoming was the lack of radio interoperability, the ability to communicate between different agencies.
“There were six different fire communications systems operating on three dissimilar radio bands,” he continued. “All firefighters operate on one radio band when fighting large wildfires, but that system is inadequate for daily use in a major metropolitan area. And there was no way to communicate with law enforcement units, the same problem that has long plagued the New York Police Department and Fire Department of New York.”
Within weeks after the tragedy, then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, also a San Marino resident, convened a meeting of local, state and federal representatives of fire and law enforcement agencies to discuss how to make the several radio systems interoperable.
“The right people must have been in the room, because within six months, they had cobbled together a series of links that could patch all the radio bands together when needed for a major event,” Penido said. “Though it has been improved many times over the past two decades, that radio interoperability system is still being used. There have also been significant investments in the daily-use radio systems, so that dozens of city and county agencies can easily communicate. It happened because we were moved by the moment and motivated to prepare for what inevitably comes next.”
Penido retired in 2010 after 34 years in the fire service overall, but he later spent 11 years in emergency management.
Hsu retired from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2019 and still lives in San Marino. The Chinese Club has continued its annual acknowledgement of 9/11, though since 2001 it has meant significantly more to those who attend.