Eleven years. Typing that out makes it seem much longer than it feels. I’ve written several accounts over the years regarding “where I was, what was I doing” on 11 September 2001; however, most of those accounts have been removed for one reason or another. So…
Where were you and what were you doing on 9/11/01?
I was sitting in class at the Coast Guard’s C-130 Navigator course in Elizabeth City, NC preparing for my first test of the four-week instructional period. I remember having a chart on my desk going over some last-minute cramming on way point designations and search planning plots.
We were just finishing filling out our answer sheets when someone stuck their head in the door telling us a plane hit one of the WTC towers. It was more of a nonchalant “by the way” telling us so and not a “by the way… OMG there are terrorists taking over the nation!” tone. A fellow classmate, appropriately suited for the moment, quickly blurts out “what kind of idiot hits a building in New York?” Again, perfectly suited given the situation and environment of being in an aviation navigation course.
Not thinking anything about it we finished our tests and went on break. As we were walking out to the designated smoking area (I was still chewing at the time) we passed by the teacher’s lounge which had quickly overfilled with people trying to watch the television. My moment of pause to gawk at the TV too resulted in my witnessing the second plane hitting the second World Trade Center tower. Only this time it was obviously not a little plane- but a passenger jet.
I was kind of taken back for a moment. ‘How does someone accidentally run into a high-rise on the skyline of NY?’ It’s obvious now of course, but at that moment it wasn’t.
My classmates and I continued to the smoke deck; but the mood had changed from the relief of finishing a test to wondering if what we just watched was done on purpose? Our ten minute break easily turned into a 45 minute one as all of the schools instructors were called to a meeting. By the time they returned we’d already figured out what was happening. The instructors only validated it.
“The United States is under attack. We’re not sure how bad it is yet but we do know that two planes hit the WTC towers and one has hit the Pentagon; more attacks could be coming.” Said our lead instructor.
It wasn’t a moment that any of us thought we’d witness in our career. This is the United States after all. Sure we’ve had our issues with pseudo-terrorism before (e.g. Oklahoma City bombing) but nothing like what was being discussed here.
Later in the morning we’d learn that all commercial flights throughout the U.S. were being grounded until further notice and the base was temporarily on lockdown. The immediate thought in my head at the time was something along the lines of ‘um… we’re in Elizabeth City… what could happen here?’ However, by lunch time my imagination began to go wild- along with everyone else- and I was wondering if something really could happen in this sleepy town?
When lunch rolled around I had an opportunity to finally call my wife who was in Kodiak, AK at the time as that was where we were stationed. She was just waking up (recall it’s a four-hour time difference) and had yet to turn on the news. I explained what I knew and wasn’t sure how or when I’d be home. In reality I still had three and a half weeks of school left anyway but nobody was sure when planes would fly again. I don’t think our TV changed from any news channels for the next several months.
When we got back from lunch the base has begun planning for a major shift in base protection. They were asking who was recently qualified in small-arms who had previous combat training. Odd as it may seem this is/was the Coast Guard… and an aviation centric base so not too many people would have fit the bill. For better, or worse, the call-to-arms never amounted to much. The security contractors, however, were increased and time to get onto base went from about 20 seconds to about 2 minutes.
The days following the attack were weird as nobody knew if there would be more attacks or not- everyone was on edge.
It goes without saying- though I’ll say it anyway- this nation has changed over the last eleven years; without a doubt. Whether you think for the better, or worse, is dependent on your point of view. For me it doesn’t really matter. I’m here to defend this nation; for better, or worse.
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