Remembering 9/11- When the Towers Fell

“Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”

–    President Obama in a 2011 radio address

I went to Iraq with the 42nd Infantry Division. The brave soldiers of this unit were among the first responders to 9/11. Many of them were in Twin Towers when the planes hit. This is their story and what happened that awful day.

Hijacked

On September 10, 2001, four teams of 19 terrorists gathered near Boston, in Virginia and New Jersey. Their plan is to hijack four airplanes headed to the West Coast. The goal is to take the fuel-filled planes to use as missiles to crash them into important targets of American imperialism.

The morning of September 11, 2001, is a beautiful, late summer day with clear blue skies. Over the American east coast, four airplanes get hijacked.

At 8:46:30 AM Flight 11 hits floors 93-99 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. At 9:03:02 AM Flight 175 crashes into the 77-85 floors of the South Tower a few minutes later.

At this point most Americans realize the acts are deliberate acts. At 9:37:46 AM Flight 77 strikes the west facade of the Pentagon. It’s clear the attacks aren’t confined to New York City.

The World Trade Centers

Smoke and flame billowing out of the building.  In the back of the towers rescue trucks, firefighters are pulling on air packets. They’re removing tools from compartments. Those brave firefighters are getting ready to do battle with the smoke and flames, getting ready to rescue people.

Stairwells were filled with smoke. People started making their way to the emergency exit stairs. Walking down was like trying to walk out of Yankee Stadium on a game day. People were everywhere. People were entering the stairwell from below. You had to stop and wait while people made their way down. There was nowhere to go.

After the first tower had been hit there was a snowstorm of debris. There was fire, machine parts, office equipment, and paper raining down. Small chunks of the building were falling into the street. Soon firefighters were coming up the stairs. They were carrying an unbelievable amount of equipment up the stairs. The next sound was a subsonic drone of an airplane.

In the stairwell, a man had a pager with a news retrieval service on it. Folks knew the south tower, and the Pentagon had been hit. Everyone knew it was a terrorist attack. The street was filled with many people. All of them were looking up at the smoke and fire coming from the two towers.

The Towers Fall

People from 20 blocks away felt and heard the South Tower collapse. The rumbling was like the noise of a freight train hurtling down the tracks, but more intense, and much more concentrated. The building coming down was almost an out-of-body experience. It was like watching someone look at the tower collapse in slow motion. It was not believable.

Within seconds the air had become a solid mass of gray dust. You couldn’t see a few inches in front of you. It seemed like a nuclear winter, like the aftershock of an atomic bomb. Breathing through the debris was hard. My mouth, my nose, my eyes, my ears were clogged with the gray dust. People were walking out of the fog. They look like zombies. They were shocked and covered in gray dust.

They were dazed by what they saw. There was a faraway look in their eyes. They were not there. No one was running,  just limping trying to get away. Rescuers were digging people out of the wreckage and fragments of the tower. Injured victims were pulled out of tombs of rubble.

A few minutes later the second building fell.  Smoke and gray dust fell like snow everywhere.

Rescue

All available boats in New York Harbor took survivors over to Exchange Place, New Jersey literally right across the river. There was a triage center set up there. The injured and survivors were taken there by boat for safety.  Tugboats, commuter boats, and ferry boats all volunteered to help. It was like the evacuation of the British Army of Dunkirk during World War II. It was an incredibly dramatic scene.

People were coming off the boats in the hundreds. In the backdrop was New York City in smoke and flames. Even after the towers fell, hundreds of firefighters went back into the wreckage and rubble. There was potential danger everywhere. Stuff was falling from the sky, windows breaking and debris from adjacent buildings all around. Glass and metal was falling, and fires were raging.

People weren’t going away. Medical, rescue and first responders were running towards the rubble of buildings to rescue survivors.  “It was a humbling, heart-stopping moment of my life. All I could think was, ‘I don’t think I could do that,’” remembers one survivor.

No Water

There was no water downtown. There was no way for firefighters to fight the raging fires. All the buildings surrounding the towers were on fire. Pieces of those neighboring buildings the size of trucks were falling as the flames raged.

Fireboats started arriving. Then the “Harvey” came. The fireboat “Harvey,” was an old ship sold by New York City for scrap for $50,000. The “Harvey” can pump more water than any New York City fire boat. Firefighters laid lines back along North Cove to where the remains of where the World Trade Center was. The “Harvey” became a hero.

Heroes

Firefighters made their way to Ground Zero. They climbed over three stories of rubble. They went to work. Firemen and first responders tried to find survivors. The first week there was hope they would find people alive.

Three firefighters were photographed attaching an American flag to a bent flagpole by photographer Thomas Franklin. It was quick and unceremonial. The picture was compared to Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the Iwo Jima flag raising. Both photographs are incredible pictures of faith, hope, and courage of Americans at their finest in the darkest hours.

A source of unity and proud at an important time.  9/11 and moments like it make you realize what it is important.  It’s people. Especially the ones you love.  9/11 was not about terrorism, or two towers coming down, but the loss of great, innocent people.

The Result

In less than three hours, nearly 3,000 Americans are killed.

Within hours, the inspiration and cause of the hijackings are known to the world. Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts awakened a sleeping giant. It set the stage for the American experience in Afghanistan.

By labeling the new war, “The Global War on Terror” the White House wanted to create an ideal to rally the nation in a time of tragedy and crisis.

The Global War on Terror is a unique case study.

It’s a war without borders, a war that has continued for the past sixteen years without an end. A seemingly endless conflict.

America is at war with an ideology of hatred against the ideals of Western Democracies, not a country or easily identifiable enemy. Think of men with beards in caves on mountaintops sitting around fires plotting to kill Americans. These are non-state actors, not countries.

Three weeks after 9/11 the US entered Afghanistan to finish Al Qaeda.

The Impact

The terrorists reached across oceans thought to insulate the United States. 9/11 made terrorism awareness a part of our daily life. We live a “new normal” of security threat levels and taking our shoes off at the airport for security checks.

9/11 is a quiet testimony to the courage of the brave American people and a reminder to a nation at war.

Works Cited:

Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower; Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11.New York : Random House, 2006.