Four federal fisheries enforcement agents in Alaska who normally protect fish and marine mammals spent two months last year protecting airline passengers, buttressing the air marshal program.
Air marshals, armed anti-hijacking agents known only to the flight crews, have been around since 1985, but their role increased considerably after the Sept. 11 attacks. Their exact numbers are classified, but The Associated Press has reported since Sept. 11 the force grew from 32 into thousands.
Shortly after the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration called on other federal agencies to supply law enforcement officers as air marshals until more could be hired and trained for permanent jobs.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Alaska offered four of its then eight law enforcement investigators, called special agents, who volunteered for the task, said Special Agent in Charge Jeff Passer.
On Tuesday in Juneau the agency awarded plaques of appreciation to Assistant Special Agent in Charge Kevin Heck of Anchorage, and special agents Mike Adams of Anchorage, Drew Mathews of Ketchikan and Mike Killary of Kodiak.
The plaque included a photograph of rescue workers at Ground Zero.
"All over the country citizens stepped forward to offer assistance," Passer said. "Some dug at Ground Zero, some provided medical assistance, some gave moral comfort and support. Others stepped forward to defend, to investigate and to prevent another attack."
From late September to late November, 2001, the four NOAA agents worked 12- to 14-hour days five days a week, mostly in flight. Sometimes one six-hour flight immediately followed another.
"I never looked at it as a sacrifice," Killary said. "I don't think any of us did. Through the years of training you make it right and fix it and get people back to normal."
In interviews Tuesday, the agents said they couldn't talk about their training or their duties because of the assumption that terrorists monitor security at airports. But they spoke of their desire to serve after Sept. 11 and the effects of the two-month separation on their families.
"Being in law enforcement, typically the people who respond to emergencies and things that come up, I think after the attacks all of us felt that way," said Heck. "This was definitely the outlet for that. It gave us something to focus on that was very important and worth leaving our families to do that."
Besides fears of more hijackings, there was concern about the spread of deadly anthrax at the time the Alaskans served as air marshals.
"My wife was not happy that I was going away to that environment," said Adams, "but she understood why I was going and was supportive of my going."
The agents couldn't tell their spouses or children where they were flying, adding to the uncertainty families lived with.
"It was harder on our wives," Killary said, "because they could watch the TV and see planes being landed because of precautions and they didn't know what flights we were on."
Although the agents were traveling incognito, they sometimes heard comments from passengers that they felt safer knowing air marshals might be on board.
"It was actually a game passengers had, to try to identify the air marshal," Killary said.