Most of us have some special accomplishments of which we’re proud, and so does Nan Schumaker. Her accomplishments are just a little more spectacular than most people’s. She lists three events that make her list of personal bests:
- Graduating from the FBI Academy.
- Leading the search that contributed to the convictions of those responsible for the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania.
- Being part of the Lady Vols’ first national championship basketball team.
FBI agent Schumaker (Knoxville ’88) also was part of the 9/11 investigation and actually arrived at the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed. That was one of the scariest moments of her career, she says.
“I was assigned to the New York Field Office, and I was on my way to work when the planes hit,” she recalls. “I ended up in a caravan of NYPD responders and made it all the way to the base of the towers on the West Side Highway. They were still upright and burning.
“That was the most scared I’ve ever been. We were afraid that more planes were planned to hit New York.”
Thankfully there weren’t any more attacks in the city, but sifting through the rubble of the Twin Towers occupied the next few months of Schumaker’s life. She worked at Ground Zero until April 2002 recovering evidence as a member of the New York Evidence Response Team.
Schumaker and her team members were dedicated to recovering the remains of Special Agent Leonard Hatton, who perished in the attack. Despite their efforts, Hatton’s remains were never found.
“Although not a native New Yorker, I took the World Trade Center attack personally,” Schumaker says. “The citizens of New York were very supportive, and that helped all of us get through a difficult period.”
Her life had just started to return to normal when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens, New York. “I responded with the ERT to the crash site that day. Emotionally and physically, I was exhausted. I could not have gotten through those days without the support of my fellow evidence response team members.”
Today the 15-year FBI veteran lives in Annapolis, Maryland, and investigates public corruption in Baltimore. She majored in finance at UT Knoxville and was manager of the Lady Vols basketball team from 1984 to 1988. She worked in banking until 1992, when she completed her 4 months of training at the FBI Academy.
Also while she was assigned to the New York Evidence Response Team, Schumaker was sent to Africa to investigate the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The explosions killed more than 200 people and injured several thousand. She arrived several weeks after the incidents and worked gathering evidence for about 5 weeks. She led the team that processed the suspected bomb factory for the Tanzanian embassy bomb.
“The team found crucial pieces of evidence,” she says. “As the search-team leader, I testified about the items recovered in a later criminal trial. To date, I still consider that search my most gratifying mission due to the difficulty of the search and the positive outcome.” Four men believed to be followers of Osama Bin Laden were convicted in 2001 for their roles in the bombings, and Bin Laden subsequently was placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list.
Schumaker also worked the investigations of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 and Egypt Air Flight 990 that crashed off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1999. “If you include the World Trade Center, I’ve worked on four major plane crashes,” she says. “Each one is personally difficult because the victims all had their own lives, and I was having to sift through their personal effects for either identifying documents or evidence.”
The Nashville native says she was always fascinated with the Mafia and decided on an FBI career after reading Donnie Brasco, a book about an agent who went undercover in the Mafia. She later met the agent, and he autographed her copy of the book.
Although training for the FBI and being part of a championship basketball team are totally different pursuits, the highly competitive nature of both resonated with Schumaker: “Graduating from the FBI Academy and being on a championship team are two things I am most proud of.”
While many of us might shake in our shoes at the thought of working as an FBI agent, Shumaker is matter-of-fact: “Anytime an agent serves an arrest warrant, there’s the potential for danger,” she says. “I’ve been lucky that none of my arrests or searches has ever endangered my life or my fellow agents’.” But there has been some emotional fallout.
“Each traumatic event, whether a terrorist bombing or a plane crash, does take an emotional toll on me,” she says. “But I look at it as just another sacrifice I make as an FBI agent. Many law enforcement officers and firefighters sacrificed their lives trying to save total strangers in the World Trade Center. My personal or emotional sacrifice doesn’t compare.”
Overall, being an FBI agent is “both rewarding and frustrating,” she says. “There are bureaucratic issues in many phases of my work. Some cases are able to conclude faster than others. But taking a case to a logical conclusion and working with an assistant United States attorney to obtain a conviction is highly rewarding.
“From day one I entered the FBI to make a difference,” she says. “I hope in some small way I’ve done that.”