09 September 2006

9/11

Monday is September 11th, or the fifth anniversary of what a whole nation remembers as "9/11." Rather than try to pack a whole bunch of stories into one day, I will take this weekend to post some of the things I've come across. I will start out with my own story. Feel free to post your stories in the comments section.

On September 11, 2001, I was living in Oak Harbor, on Whidbey Island, a few hours north of Seattle, Washington. I had moved there in the spring and was in training at the EA-6B Prowler fleet replacement squadron, VAQ-129. I was also taking flying lessons at the time, and had progressed about 1/3 of the way through the private pilot license syllabus.

I don't recall the exact time, but it was very early, 6-something (Pacific time), when the phone rang. I remember it was early because it woke me up. It was my Dad. He told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. That was the extent of the news at the time. I thanked him for letting me know and hung up.

As I wiped the sleep from my eyes and walked toward the living room, the first thoughts that went through my mind were that it was probably a foggy or cloudy day, and some poor Cesna pilot got lost and flew into the World Trade Center. As I turned on the TV sometime after 6 o'clock, however, it became immediately clear that something very different was occurring. It seemed to be that both towers were on fire (the first plane hit the north tower at 8:46ET and the second plane hit the south tower at 9:02ET). In my mind, I want to say that I saw the second plane hit on TV, but in reality it seems that this is not possible, as I don't believe the second plane hitting the south tower was broadcast live.

I also remember thinking that, despite hitting the towers with such force, there were relatively few floors in flames, and I never really suspected the structural integrity of the building was at risk. My only thoughts were: get those people out as fast as possible!

I immediately woke up my roommate Tom and his then-girlfriend (now wife) to let them know what was going on. I think we probably all stared at the TV for who-knows-how-long without saying so much as a word. What I do remember vividly was watching both towers collapse (the south tower at 9:59ET and the north tower at 10:28ET). More silence. I tried to calculate in my mind how many people must have been killed, just like that.

Tom and I were both in classes at the time and eventually had to go into work. I don't recall what time we actually went in, but I do remember that it was not difficult to get onto the base. What helps me remember this is how difficult it was to get onto the base in the following days--literally hours to go a half a mile. On September 12th, every vehicle was being inspected at the gates. I seem to recall it taking over two and a half hours to get onto base on the 12th.

Going back to September 11th. We were in class. The flight schedule was immediately cancelled, which seemed obvious. What was less understandable was the fact that our academic classes were continuing. I had several squadron mates who were frantically calling "home" to families in the NYC area trying to find out something. Every break between classes was a rush to the TV or the telephones. Our pleas to cancel class were basically ignored.

We did not know at the time, but one of my classmates did lose a family member. My friend Dave Ganci lost his uncle, Peter J. Ganci, who was a New York Fire Department Chief.

Sometime during the day we also learned of the attack on the Pentagon. The entire day was surreal and many of its details are burned into my memory.

That night, President Bush spoke to the nation:
The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing, have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed; our country is strong.
A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.
America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.
Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America -- with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.
As I alluded to before, the next few days were complete hell trying to get into work. Schedules were changed and shifted, and somehow we kept on with class. I don't recall when we started flying again ("we" meaning the squadron; I was not at that phase yet); but all VFR air traffic was suspended for at least a month, so my flying lessons came to a halt (and unfortunately never started up again, something I regret to this day).

Many months later, we flew missions over Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Then it was over Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And now, of course, on the ground in Iraq. I did not lose a family member although my friends did. Yet my life was inextricably altered by the events of that day.

Please feel free to share your stories.
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