I just posted this comment on The Survival Podcast. I thought you would like to read it, too.
I’m a bit behind in listening to the podcast so I’m a little late in posting this reply. Here is what I was doing at the time the planes hit the World Trade Center. While it’s just the minor efforts of an office worker (more direct action came later), it was significant for me.
I was an Army enlisted guy working at a joint operations unit at an air base in Georgia. I had just finished my morning run, showered, and had put on my usual work uniform (at the time, it was the class B uniform). I was walking through the little cubicle farm when I saw two Air Force officers hanging and chatting around the television we had in the center of our area. They didn’t seem tense at the time, just interested in what was happening.
Out of curiosity, I strolled over to them and listened in on their conversation while glancing occasionally at the TV. The officers were talking as if it had been an accident so there wasn’t much concern. Only minutes later, we saw the second plane hit. We all were startled by this, obviously. We all realized the impact of this without a word passing between us. In fact, I had not said a word at this point.
Still silent, I sighed and walked away from the television as the officers remained fixed to its screen. I walked over to the entrance to our emergency operations center (EOC). All of the computer work stations s had been disassembled for maintenance the day before and the components were still piled on the floor (the computers were still intact, but they were not connected to the other peripheries). I knew we were going to need those computers very soon. The EOC was going to be activated.
Pardon me. I had to step away from the computer for a moment. I had lit a cigar (yes, at eight thirty in the morning) as a way to try settling myself down in order to write this narrative. It only partially helped. Memories of the day and events afterward (the faces of friends I lost later among other things) came flooding back and I broke out into major sweats and nausea. I had to put out the cigar, step away, and sit in front of a fan for a while. Eventually, I had to pray to the porcelain god. I’ll continue now.
Still clutching my gym bag, I went back to the shower room and changed back into my sweaty gym clothes. They would be more appropriate for the work I was about to do. I then returned to the EOC, turned on one of its televisions (it was already on a news channel; I think it was CNN. People were jumping from the windows of the Trade Center at the time), and began reassembling workstations.
The Pentagon was struck as I worked. A thought flashed in my mind but did not yet have enough substance to really stick. I had friends working there and couldn’t really think straight at the time. I wondered if they were okay.
I had finished about half of the stations when I had to stop and stare fixedly at the TV. The first tower had started to collapse. I remember standing in the middle of the room, frozen stiff, as I watched it fall. “This is a Clancy novel,” I thought to myself, remembering the events from ‘Debt of Honor’ which I had read years ago. “Can this really be happening?” Only minutes later, reports of the fourth plane crashing in Pennsylvania came onscreen. I recovered from my paralysis, hung my head, and continued working.
I was almost through with one workstation and had two stations remaining when my boss, an Army lieutenant colonel, and his non-commissioned officer in charge, an Army master sergeant, came into the EOC. We all watched quietly as the second tower fell. After we caught our breaths, the colonel said there was some classified message traffic which needed to be picked up and asked if I would drive to Atlanta to receive it (my security clearance was high enough to do so at the time). I recall glancing at my unfinished task and saying I would do it. The sergeant said he would finish reassembling the computers for me. I nodded and left the EOC.
I grabbed my bag from my desk and changed one more time. I picked up the key to our government car and stepped outside. The entire base had changed in only two hours. The base had been quite lax during the two years I had worked there. You could almost say it was a civilian complex. There had been civilian security at the gates – more of a formality, really – and everything had been laid back. As I exited the building into the morning sunlight, I saw Air Force security police (SP) patrolling the base’s roads in HMWWVs with light machine guns mounted on them. The main gate was now manned by the SPs, as well. In a moment of dark humor, I thought, “The Air Force has remembered that it is part of the military again.”
I got into the car and drove away. Of course, I had the radio tuned to a news station as I traveled. I had been going for about ten minutes when the station gave an update on the day’s event and then, contrary to its usual format, began to play a song. This song, which I had heard before, but in which I had never placed a great deal of significance, was ‘One Voice’ by Billy Gilman, a child country singer. I think he was about twelve at the time. Listening to the boy’s voice I as I drove, I finally felt the crushing weight of the day so far. My eyes welled up and tears began to flow. I don’t even remember the rest of the drive to my destination.
The remainder of the day was a blur. I cannot recall much more than picking up the message traffic and eventually making my way back to the EOC. I don’t think I even stopped for lunch. Being Atlanta, the return trip took a significant amount of time. The workday would actually end minutes after I delivered the messages to my boss. I returned to my residence (at the time, a rented bedroom a few miles away) in a daze. After firing off a quick email to my friend at the Pentagon (he turned out to be fine but I did learn his father had spent hours digging through rubble looking for his wife…who also turned out to be unharmed), I spent the rest of the evening staring at my television without really comprehending what I saw and heard until much later.
The next day as I entered the front gate on the way back to work, I remember being met by half a dozen SPs and seeing a machine gun nest about twenty meters from the gate. The camouflage netting obscured what I knew was behind it. I was sure there was an alert SP behind an M-60 or M-249 with his sights centered on my face. Obviously, all of my movements were slow and deliberate so as not to give him a reason to pull the trigger.
That was my day. Two weeks later, I was transferred to mechanized infantry battalion and eventually to my original unit, an armor battalion. We mobilized in 2004 and went to Iraq for a year. I then volunteered for another immediate deployment with a long-range surveillance company. Memories from those trips overseas will remain with me forever. I did nothing truly significant myself, but I know several great men who did…some of whom never returned. It was a privilege to serve with them and, on August 15th of every year (the day four of them died), I lift a glass in their honor.
To the TSP community, I hope there is some meaning which you can take form this tale which will be of some small benefit to you. Thank you, Jack, for this opportunity to tell this simple story.