ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Some of those waging the nation's war on terrorism paused Friday to pay their respects to one of their own, John P. O'Neill, the former hard-charging FBI counter-terrorism chief who died in the World Trade Center Sept. 11 at the hands of the kind of terrorists he spent years investigating.
In a service at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church, assistant FBI director Barry Mawn told more than 1,000 mourners that O'Neill was perhaps the best weapon the bureau ever had to fight terrorism.
Like others, Mawn noted that O'Neill had spent the last four years almost single-mindedly pursuing Osama bin Laden, the Saudi militant believed to be behind the attacks that killed O'Neill.
For that reason, Mawn said, the now-global investigation into the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is also an intensely personal one for the FBI, and for other counter-terrorism authorities around the world who considered O'Neill a valued colleague and a friend.
"To think that these terrorists are the ones who ended John's life is not something that any of us can let stand," said Mawn, head of the FBI's New York office, where O'Neill had most recently worked. "We are going to bring the people responsible for these awful events to justice, and we are going to do it in the name of John O'Neill."
As head of counter-terrorism for the New York field office, O'Neill led a specialized squad of agents around the world in pursuit of Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
The long-term investigation took O'Neill and his team to Yemen after the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole last year, to Africa after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998 and to the World Trade Center after the first terrorist attack in 1993.
Their work also led to the indictment of Bin Laden and some of his top aides for their suspected role in the embassy bombings. A $5-million bounty was placed on Bin Laden's head.
In recent years, O'Neill had warned often about the increasing threat to the United States from terrorists intent on hitting the nation where it hurt most.
"A lot of these groups now have the capability and the support infrastructure in the U.S. to attack us here, if they choose to," O'Neill said in a widely circulated 1997 speech.
O'Neill's warning was realized on the morning of Sept. 11, when the first of two hijacked Boeing airliners crashed into his office building. He had retired just two weeks earlier at age 49, and was one hour into the second day of his new job as chief of security at the World Trade Center.
O'Neill made his way down from his office on the 34th floor of the north tower, called his son and a friend at FBI headquarters to say he was safe, and then rushed back inside to help evacuate others.
O'Neill was never heard from again. His body was recovered from the rubble a week ago, and brought to his hometown of Ventnor City, N.J. He was buried Friday in Holy Cross Cemetery.
On Friday, hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement officers packed the church where O'Neill had been an altar boy. Among them were former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, several ranking FBI officials and dozens of agents, retirees and former colleagues.
James K. Kallstrom, the former head of the New York bureau and a longtime friend, described O'Neill in a eulogy as a leader and "resident scholar" in the FBI's fight against terrorism.
"John was the best the FBI had. When it came to fighting terrorism, John was the FBI," Kallstrom said. "And John knew all too well what the general public knows today: We are at war with evil."
After the service, a police honor guard led the pallbearers under the FBI flag and onto a street filled with onlookers. Behind them, bagpipers played "God Bless America."
It was a fitting tribute to O'Neill, whose mother, Patricia O'Neill, recalled Friday, "never wanted to do anything else but be in law enforcement. It was all he talked about."
While still a teen, O'Neill would fall asleep listening to a police scanner and watching Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on TV in "The FBI," she said.
Within days of graduating from Holy Spirit High School in Atlantic City, O'Neill signed on with the FBI as a fingerprinting clerk.
He rose quickly, becoming an agent and holding various field and management positions in Washington, Chicago, Baltimore and New York. He earned college and graduate degrees while working full time on counterintelligence, organized crime, public corruption, racketeering and fraud cases.
O'Neill grew to love one particular kind of case the most, colleagues said: counter-terrorism. By 1993, he was playing a lead role in the investigation into the first World Trade Center attack, which killed six and injured thousands.