Sunday, September 11, 2011

One September Tuesday

    You’re going to be inundated with a plethora of “I was there” stories concerning the tragic events of September 11, 2001.  They’ll, no doubt, be a painful recounting of the angst of a nation thrust irretrievably into the cauldron of a permanently unsettled world.
    And who said I’d never use that thesaurus I got from my Creative Writing course at community college?
    Now that I got that out of my system.......

     It's my generation's "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" moment.  
    Just before one o’clock in the afternoon on September 11th (a sad commentary: we don’t even need to identify the year anymore),  my maintenance supervisor stuck his head into my room to wake me.
    “Sir, someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.”
    Not soon after, I watched, horrified, as a second plane struck the South tower.  And then, as both of the monstrously huge structures tumbled to the ground as if kicked by a petulant child.
    My unit and I were participating in a multi-nation exercise at the Naval Air Station in Keflavik, Iceland (this explains why it was the afternoon).  A round-the-clock operation, the Keflavik Tactical Exchange gave us a unique chance to evaluate each other’s capabilities should we ever needed to flex our respective militaries.  Little did we know that we were preparing for a type of war which belonged to the past.
    Because the 21st Century came roaring into each of our lives on that late summer day.
    Naturally, the exercise was immediately cancelled.  Foreign aircrews (funny that I call them “foreign’” since we were actually foreigners, too) beat hasty returns to their home bases.  We were told that American airspace was closed for an indefinite time.
    Station security forces went into their highest readiness posture.  Watch teams at the main gate beefed up, rings of barbed wire cordoned off perceived sensitive areas, and armed patrols roamed the perimeter.
    My watch teams and I, on the other hand, remained at our billeting.  Only in Iceland for the exercise, we were considered non-essential personnel who’d only get in the way.
    And so we spent the next few days.
    I received a worried phone call from my wife during this time.  She fretted over my safety.  I assured her that I was fine, but omitted the fact that I was more concerned for her and the kids.
    You see, my family lives only a couple hours from New York and only a few from Washington.
    The ensuing few days was a frantic search for whatever updates we could glean from the news and how in the world we’d get ourselves and thousands of pounds of equipment back home.
    Most importantly, we desperately wanted to know how we could get into the fight.  Whatever the fight was.
    Four days later, U.S. airspace was opened to military traffic.  As I glanced through the window of the Navy patrol plane which took us home, I was struck at how empty the sky was-with the exception of the one plane which approached us as we crossed into the United States.  It came no closer than a few miles before it disappeared.
    I think it was a fighter aircraft.
    What’s more, the radio circuits, normally full of the cacophony of countless air traffic controllers, were eerily silent.  The only ones “on the air” were the handful which guided us home.  All else were hushed into silence.
    Our route of flight took us just south of Manhattan, well out of sight of land.  At that distance, even at the altitude at which we were flying, it was impossible to see any of the city skyline.
    But, we did see a huge pall of gray-brown smoke lingering in the air like the death shroud that it was.
    As we touched ground at the air station we called home, there was nobody to greet us.  There was really not much of anything by way of an acknowledgment that we were back.  Somehow, it seemed fitting.
    After all, we all had something much more important to do.
    Go home to our families.

In memory of:
Commander Bill Donovan, USN
AW2 (NAC/AW) Joseph Pycior, USN
and the thousands whose only crime was going to work that day. 


  1. I hope this is going to be in your book.

    You know, for a long time I got tired of all the "I remember 9/11..." talk that would go on each year, but it is quite sobering to hear your experience. Especially with your last paragraph.

  2. I never thought about including this. But, I'm thinking your right.

  3. Wow. Amazing post. 9/11 was a tragedy that must never be repeated, ever.

  4. Thanks for this post, Al. It's a powerful glimpse from your military perspective. "Whose only crime was going to work that day." So sobering.

  5. A different perspective on the event. I can imagine you being very afraid for your family, and feeling helpless to do anything.

  6. What a different perspective on the day. I also live in PA in the middle of NY, DC, and 40 minutes from Schwenksville, PA. It felt entirely too close to home, though I am sure everyone felt that way. What hit home for me about your post was the airspace being so still. Being close to Valley Forge Military and in a flight path we were used to a lot of air traffic over my college then suddenly nothing. I remember vividly the panic that my residents (I was an RA) experienced when military jets started flying over us when we knew planes were grounded. I guess we were all on edge for quite a while. I'm rambling...sorry. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  7. Excellent and touching post, put a very personal touch to your words which made them hit a real chord deep within.

    Thanks for sharing,

  8. That must have been an eerie feeling.

  9. Thank you for sharing that with us it was really interesting........

  10. Thanks for sharing that. The impact was really changing. I have never heard it from "airspace" perspective.

  11. Everyone has a story, but there is really just one message:

    Never forget.