Ten years ago this morning, my wife awoke me to say that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in NYC. I had just got home from work an hour before and didn’t know why she was waking me up to tell me about some Cessna flying into a building. I grunted an acknowledgement and went back to sleep. A few moments later, she awoke me again to say that another plane had flown into the other tower. The tone of her voice, combined with the fact that the second tower had been hit made it abundantly clear that this was no accident.
I jumped out of bed and went downstairs to see an image of both towers billowing smoke from their top floors. What the hell had hit these buildings? A few seconds later, NBC replayed video of the second plane hitting the tower. It looked like a 757. Right off the bat, we knew it was Al Qaeda. They had attacked the WTC in the ’90s and continued with highly-coordinated and effective attacks in the following years, so it seemed safe to say that this was their handiwork.
While the images on TV were bad, the events they depicted were still remote until the local news broke in with a preliminary report of an explosion at the Pentagon, which was only 20 miles away from us. That’s when we really become worried. How many airplanes had the terrorists commandeered? We continued watching the news in New York, with the two towers still smoking. I remember thinking one of them looked like it was leaning a bit. I think my Dad called to see how we were doing while the towers were still standing, but sometime after that I saw the first tower fall. I was shocked. I thought, if anything, a portion of the building would break loose and fall down, but not the whole thing. At the time, we didn’t know how many people were in the towers, so I thought I’d just witnessed the death of tens of thousands. It was horrifying.
Another report came in that a third plane had hit the Pentagon, but there were no pictures yet. Then the second tower fell. I friend of mine from work came over and we decided that we should get back in uniform and go back to work, because every politician would be looking to bug out from D.C. and the quickest way out was on one of our planes. My wife went to pick-up our son from school as my friend and I left for Andrews Air Force Base.
One of the images that sticks with me from that day is driving up Route 5 and seeing the southbound lanes choked with traffic as a dark column of smoke from the Pentagon climbed into the sky. The northbound lanes were clear for the first time since we moved there. The news on the radio said there were still an unknown number of commercial planes unaccounted for as we pulled into the parking lot outside our hangar. I took a few furtive glances at the sky — the hangar housing the presidential 747s was the most distinct and visible building on the base and it was only a few hundred yards from were I was standing. At that moment, it wasn’t inconceivable that someone would be interested in taking a shot at it and I wasn’t too crazy about my proximity to it.
We went into the shop, where the guys were doing what everyone else in the nation was doing at that moment: watching TV. Our supervisor told us that all air traffic was grounded, even Special Air Missions, so there wasn’t much for us to do at the moment. The scumbag politicians looking to bug out would have to sit tight with the rest of us.
I went out to have a smoke. The base was quiet. There are few things more eerie or beautiful than a dead-quiet flight line. Normally there’s at least some piece of diesel-operated equipment thrumming away or the distant squawk of a radio, but there was nothing, not even the wind. It was like the base had died. One of the guys who worked dayshift pointed at the line of F-16s at the other side of the runway and wondered why they were all still sitting there. Why hadn’t any of them launched?
“Guard,” another said. “They wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.”
The rest of us nodded, finished our smokes and went back inside. One of the guys in the breakroom said that the fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania and the remaining commercial aircraft had been accounted for, so the worst was over for now. One of our supervisors came over to tell us that all air traffic was grounded for the rest of the day, so we should head back home.
We got back home and I hung out with my family for the rest of the day, trying to make sense of everything that happened. I was too wired to go back to sleep, so I stayed awake until I went back to work that afternoon.
It was surreal to be heading to work, knowing that we were in a war of some kind, yet everything still felt the same as it had before. Usually, if Saddam or somebody so much as sneezed in the middle-east, we’d deploy immediately. Even though I was currently in a non-deployable unit, I felt like I should at least feel the machinations of pre-deployment. But everything so far was weirdly normal.
I got into work a little before the President finally arrived home at the end of his magical mystery tour. A presidential arrival at the base was always pregnant with drama, but this time his arrival was heralded by F-16s orbiting above the aerodrome and Pavehawks circling the airfield. The retinue awaiting his arrival not only included the usual [things I can’t talk about] but also visible weaponry and an increased uniformed presence.
As we sat around the gazebo (our smoking area) that night, not doing much of anything, we talked about what the response would be. Some thought we’d lob a few cruise missiles and be done with it. Others thought we’d be invading someone before the year was out. The night was rife with rumor and misinformation. A couple of guys who had friends working the ‘line down at Langley said that one of the F-15s there had shot down the plane in Pennsylvania, which made sense. We all turned to hear a couple of F-16s from the Guard unit taking to the air, and counted the “rings” from their blue-orange afterburners as they thundered into the night sky.