Column: During dark hour, Jean Cochran led with courage

Jean Cochran

Former supervisor Jean Cochran showed great character and leadership in a time of terrible crisis for Southold Town. I was fortunate to be with her, and I want to share this story:

September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. The Southold Town Board work session began at 9 a.m. in the meeting room in Town Hall. As the lead reporter for The Suffolk Times, I settled in with my pen and notepad, ready to sit through hours of small-town business-as-usual.

As we got underway, a member of Jean’s office staff came in and whispered to her. Jean told us that the north tower of the World Trade Center had been hit by a small plane. We carried on. Minutes later, the staffer returned, clearly agitated. It was not a small plane; it was a big plane, and at 9:03 a.m., the south tower had also been hit. Jean banged her hands on the table and said, “We’re not going to get any of this stuff done today.”

We all crowded into the media room and watched as the towers smoked and chaos erupted in Manhattan.

Jean watched silently, and then went to her office. I followed her. She closed the door and sat down, a small woman behind a big desk covered with folders, a family photo, an American flag and a telephone lit up with calls on all lines. I jotted notes as she scrambled to coordinate police, firefighters, Eastern Long Island Hospital and others.

The door opened and the staffer, now in tears, told us the south tower had collapsed. It was 10 a.m. We could hear agitated voices and crying from the media room. The phones had suddenly stopped ringing.

Jean looked shocked. When the staffer closed the door, she covered her face, and then laid her head down, her white curls resting on her arms. She was always so strong and decisive, but in that moment, she seemed as hurt and confused as the rest of the nation.

The reporter in me wanted to take a photo at that moment, but I did not. This, I thought, is not how we show our leaders when we are under attack.

Jean’s courage was amazing. She raised her head and said, “Well, we’d better get on with it.”

Sensitive calls started coming in from other levels of government. The federally owned Plum Island Animal Disease Center is located just offshore, and there were clearly protocols for imminent terrorist attacks. She looked at me rather pointedly, but she didn’t need to tell me this conversation was not for print. (To be clear, no actual details were discussed in my presence.) I took a photo of her on the phone, busy at work.

I left just before 10:28 a.m., when the north tower fell, to get back to my own desk. Later, people began arriving from the city, some literally covered in ash, and we at the paper had work to do, gathering stories and disseminating information.

In the days to follow, Jean worked tirelessly along with everyone else. But in that one sad moment, I believe she also felt her own deep love for our town and our nation. That maternal side was one of her nicest qualities, and combined with her natural smarts and strength, made her one of the best supervisors Southold Town will ever have.

File photo: Former Southold Town Supervisor Jean Cochran answering a sensitive phone call in her office on Sept. 11, 2001. (Credit: Gwendolen Groocock)

Gwendolen GroocockGwendolen Groocock is a freelance journalist and former Suffolk Times staff writer.