OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 forever changed the United States and the FBI.
At one point, according to the FBI, more than half of all agents were working on the investigation. That includes a woman who later became the Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the Kansas City bureau.
Shelley Doherty said every anniversary is hard.
“I just remember walking through the dust. I just remember shoes,” she said. “Probably people running out of their shoes, if they ran from the buildings.”
Twenty years later, the memories of ground zero are still fresh for Doherty. After 9/11 she was one of the thousands investigating.
“We all got assigned to start just running leads in and doing various duties. Eventually I ended up doing a lot of work at the Family Assistance Center for the 9/11 families," said Doherty.
Doherty retired from the FBI last year, and while she doesn't represent the bureau, she shared personal story with KSHB 41 News.
Doherty said for the heart-wrenching but crucial assignment, she relied on advice from her sister, who had just endured a loss, to help these families searching for any answers.
“The amount of detail the families wanted, like real detail of what they went through, how their loved ones have felt, what was fire like, why would people jump,” she remembered being asked. “But she just kept saying to me, 'the more you know, the better you are.' For her, knowledge was healing.”
Later, Doherty said she transferred to the counter terrorism division in the New York office.
“And the next thing I knew, I was part of the 9/11 investigation,” she said.
It was the largest investigation and the crash sites were the largest crime scenes in the history of the bureau, according to the FBI.
“I was the evidence case agent for all of the tens of thousands of pieces of evidence that came out of 9/11,” she said. “It was anywhere from the hijackers’ remains, and what remains we found, to things they left behind in hotel rooms to banking records, phone records.”
All those pieces were key in unveiling important parts of the story.
“We had to rebuild how they did it. Where did it start? Where did it come from” Who’s idea was it?” Doherty said.
Since 9/11, the FBI has said preventing terrorism has become the bureau’s top priority.
“Everything I did on 9/11, I’m so proud of and I feel so privileged to be part of it,” she said. “But I feel like my biggest success was being part of the Crusader Investigation and stopping what those men had planned.”
The three men she's referring to were convicted and sentenced to prison for planning to bomb a Garden City, Kansas, apartment complex in 2016. Somali refugees lived in the complex which included a mosque.
“Hundreds of people would have died on that day had we not stopped that plot,” she said.
But Doherty said future plots and the possibility of attacks still worry her.
“Could there be an attack? Yeah. I mean, are we vulnerable? Probably more vulnerable now than we have been in 20 years, but there’s still a lot of people working really hard to keep that form happening,” Doherty said.
To those too young to remember what happened 20 years ago, Doherty has a message.
“Thank God they don’t know what a major terrorist attack is like in the last twenty years in this country,” she said. “I want them to remember that this country was attached. That people went into that building to save others. People jumped from fire. It was a horrific, horrific day that brought out the best in this country. It brought out the best in people.”