Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart remembers working in NYC following 9/11 attacks
LAS CRUCES - Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart was living in Ventura, California when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. She had retired from a 20-year career in law enforcement just three years earlier, and had purchased an eco-tour company.
“We took people out into the Los Padres National Forest in Jeeps,” she said. “9/11 ended it — because tourism in the U.S. just stopped, overnight.”
Stewart said that, following 9/11, many recently retired law enforcement officers starting getting calls. The calls weren’t only about returning specifically to law enforcement; some were about contract work for various projects.
“One day the phone rang, and they needed help collecting mental health data in New York City after 9/11,” she explained. Within three weeks of the attacks, she was on a flight to New York.
“I was flying at night, and the flight crews were clearly very nervous,” Stewart said. “The terminals were largely empty. They were very tense, and concerned about everyone on the flight.”
For the next month, Stewart collected mental health data about residents in the wake of the attacks. She describes a level of tension in the city that could be felt “everywhere you went.” She said that tension reached a crescendo on Nov. 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the neighborhood of Belle Harbor, on the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens shortly after takeoff. All 260 people aboard the plane — 251 passengers and 9 crew members —were killed, along with five people on the ground.
“It turned out to be a mechanical failure, but people were terrified,” she said.
The participants in the study were pre-selected, Stewart said. The program was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in order to determine how to allocate mental health funding among the states.
“I was told incredible stories about where people were when the attacks happened — some were just blocks away,” she said. “Almost all of them walked home. They walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. My interviews with them should have taken about an hour and a half. They would start crying, and some of them would last about three hours.”
Many talked about friends who had died in the attacks, or friends who were still missing.
“I’ve never been in war,” Stewart said, “But the term that comes to mind is shell-shocked. If you would have told me at the time that these people were going to be resilient and rebuild their city, I would have told you, ‘That is not going to happen.’ And yet, they did. They did.”
Stewart said the 20 years since have opened a whole lot of new doors for her — and would eventually lead her to Las Cruces. She was elected sheriff of Doña Ana County in 2018.
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