I can only remember where I was on 9/11 and the effects its aftermath had on me. Other than that, I can only imagine the effects it had on others. This is my 9/11 story with a bit of that of some other folks mingled into it as well. As I share my story, maybe you can share yours today, so no one ever forgets.
My cousin John and I were both firearms instructors with U.S. Customs Office of Investigations on that day. I was a special agent but had been assigned assigned to full time range duties back then. That morning, we were at Glock Armorer Training in CT. We sat in the classroom when an pair of instructors came in and said they had an announcement to make. They told us a plane had crashed into one of the towers, rolled in a television to show us the news about the first plane hitting the north tower and then rolled it back out and class continued. We students all thought it had been a terrible accident. A short time later, they brought the TV back and had distant and dismal looks on their paled faces; then they showed us the news of the second attack on the WTC. We knew then it was no accident.
John & I cut the rest of the class and departed to head back to NYC, I drove us back at over 100 mph, the roads were void of traffic. The CT State troopers evidently had closed down the highway and it was devoid of vehicles except for a multitude of emergency vehicles that were parked on the shoulder of I95 which were waiting to be dispatched. When we were crossing over the Throgs Neck Bridge, we saw the pillars of black smoke where the Towers had stood and I uttered something to the effect: ‘they really are gone’ and John said, something like: ‘what did you expect”. I guess I still had had hope up until then but it was all lost in that moment as the reality sank in.
I called our Sector Communications and we were soon told to report to our JFK Airport office. Once there, we saw everyone was in shock to one extent or another. After a short while of getting organized, we soon began the tedious task of trying to account for every last person who worked in the Custom House at the WTC even though phone service was nonexistent to abysmal. As best I recall, I was the one able to get through to the last missing person from our NY office later that night – he happened to be the Primary Firearms Instructor of our firearms training division and a good friend of mine Rich M.. It was a joyous moment, on a very sad day, when I reached him at home. If I remember right, he had walked home to College Point Queens from Manhattan – a distance of about 14 miles and he was no spring chicken even back then but he had old school determination.
That day, long before the last phone call was made, a couple of other agents I worked with had made it back to JFK Airport to report in. Both were essentially shell shocked. One told me he heard a loud plopping noise in what had been the courtyard between the buildings of the WTC complex where he had been looking for survivors to help. He turned and saw a dead body on the ground and then something from above caught his peripheral vision. He looked up and saw a dreadful sight. It was a man or woman falling toward the ground frantically flapping his or her arms as if to try to fly. He soon heard that same noise repeated as that person also hit the ground. It is a haunting memory just for me to recall him telling me it, one I hope he has somehow come to grips with it since he is the one who witnessed it.
There was another agent, who showed up at the airport, who had heard the news while going to work that morning. He had parked his government vehicle then flagged down and hopped onto a fire engine responding to the scene. Anything to help is what he was thinking. After he arrived on scene, as one of the towers was collapsing, he and others made a mad dash to safety. At the last possible moment, before being engulfed by the debris, I think it was - as best I remember this 20 years later - a fireman who grabbed him and pushed him into the recess of a building's doorway and they were spared certain bodily injury if not death but probably not spared the mental anguish and scars both must have received. He was covered with ash, with his eyes open super wide, as he told me his story. At the airport office, we tried our best to comfort these of our brothers who had been there when the towers fell.
Two days after the attack, George M., a friend and fellow agent asked me if I was going to help out at the site, and explained he had been there already. I had not known the NYPD would let us through let alone to help. He convinced me though to go there and do whatever I could do. Then, on the third day post 9/11, at the end of my shift at work, I told my supervisor I wanted to go to assist at the site and my supervisor Mark L. authorized me taking my G-ride. Driving to the WTC, on the virtually deserted Belt Parkway through Brooklyn toward Manhattan, was eerie. Once there at the site, I helped with digging through the rubble and with a bucket brigade moving away 5 gallon buckets of debris that had been dug away. We were looking for survivors or bodies. Later, I assisted with unloading a truck of emergency supplies. Even later, I helped in recovering evidence from the Custom House vault which had been breached by part of a building collapse.
As I was leaving around midnight, pretty exhausted, I ran into the Customs duty agent Mike O’B… arriving on the scene. He had been alerted because a report had been received that the Customs vault had been breached and evidence was obviously missing because there were bare patches on the shelves where the missing items had been covered by dirt, dust & debris (like everything else) after the attack. I stuck with Mike and we helped retrieve evidence all through the night (along with other agents who showed up later) and part of the next day. It was terrifying to walk over a smoldering hill of rubble, my shoes actually smoking the rubber soles melting a bit, then walk across twisted I-beams and over more rubble to get down into what had become the pit where the vault was now located. I needed help to do it. A bridge worker who was with us helped me traverse the I-beam by holding my belt at my lower back, I was and remain forever grateful for that bit of assistance. We all did it though and to tell the truth, it was not the scariest thing I ever did, that thing came weeks later.
The next week or so, after an Assistant Special Agent In Charge forbade Customs Agents of the NYC office to do any work on the site unless specifically assigned to those duties (thus no more volunteering for the digs) I jumped at the chance to volunteer for something very different that I thought would make a difference. Only one other Customs Agent in the NYC office also volunteered but she allegedly was talked out of it eventually by her supervisor. So, shortly after 9/11, a few weeks later, I wound up getting on my first commercial flight as a volunteer Federal Air Marshal (FAM) in October 2001. That was after first showing them I was a competent shot (that was the first hurdle to cross after volunteering, they wanted no wild shots on a commercial airliner). That was followed by some very brief FAM training about legal issues and about: how to defend an aircraft by protecting the flight cabin, getting secret messages from flight attendants about their suspicions, how to communicate with our lone partner on the plane, how to shoot on a plane, about whom to shoot (essentially anyone trying to get into or even who was approaching the cabin who would not stop on command), cover stories to keep our identities secret (it was the longest undercover job I ever did; yet, many passengers soon easily figured out whom we were - the same two guys in the same two seats on 4 shuttle flights each day over and over again for months back and forth from NYC to DC; sometimes the whole cabin of passengers erupted into applause when one passenger would approach us and thank us as they deplaned), about how to pick up a bomb and move it to the right part of the aircraft, how to form a bomb buffer near the least vulnerable part of the plane using passengers' carry-on luggage and the flight's food carts and so on. It was, no pun intended, a crash course.
All in all we had been trained to protect the aircraft but mostly just the flight cabin so it could not be breached and thus to protect the cabin crew so they remained in control. If they had even thought we might be failing at that, they had options including to depressurize the plane or to do maneuvers to assure no one would be standing or both. Thus, in the event of terrorists trying to take over our flight, we all were to do whatever we could do so the plane could not be used as a missile by the terrorists.
To tell the truth, I just about started blubbering like a baby and peeing in my pants the first time the doors closed and the plane started to move on the taxi-way during my first flight as a FAM. That was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life even to date ten years later. In fact, I almost never made it onto the second flight the next day. I was that scared and let a friend from work know it. That fellow special agent, Pete K., soon sent me the words of Thomas Paine to boost my courage and shed my fears; while they may have boosted my courage a bit - I was still more scared than ever before. Those words were…:
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
... only words but they helped - a lot along with Pete’s own words of encouragement to me. Yet, that overwhelming fear and certainty that I was on death's doorstep lasted for about 2 weeks before I calmed down. Somehow though, I did get on those flights - two long ones a day, a round trip from NYC to Miami for two or three weeks at first. Then in the ensuing weeks, many short shuttle flights back and forth from NYC to DC. There were also trips to places like New Orleans to fly to Tampa and back - the Super Bowl was being held in New Orleans that year, then onto the Olympics held in Salt Lake City where we flew shuttles back and forth from Pocatello, ID to there. Then back to shuttle flights from NYC’s LaGuardia Airport to DC.
For much of that time, as I said especially in the first two weeks, I was absolutely certain I had volunteered to die and often wondered why I had done it. It seemed as if there would be no other possible outcome, we were all pretty certain that they would try again. Of course, there really was no wonder why we had volunteered. I, like just about everyone else in the country, was angry. I was madder than hell about the innocent people on those flights, about those in the World Trade Center, those on the ground, those in the Pentagon and the first responders who had all lost their lives on that unforgettable day.
So, I was there with my partner on our flights, and with all the others who were on other flights, to protect those flight crews and aircraft and any potential targets on the ground. Scared as we were, we kept doing it. Some people say if you are scared of something like that you must be a coward but I can tell you this, anyone who was not as scared as I and the others to get on those planes right after the previously unimaginable events of 9/11 was just outright crazy. We were all gung ho but we also were all - the FAMs, the pilots, the flight attendants, the passengers - just scared shitless and still doing our jobs (most of the passengers flying then were doing it for work) and trying to keep America normal after the worst disaster in our nation’s history. As for us, the so called ‘augmentee’ air marshals (apparently meant to be a demeaning title but that is another story) every last one of us had volunteered. Why did each of us volunteer? Who knows but we all had our reasons and I guess most of all those reasons had to do with being angry and with being Americans wanting to protect America. I do not know about the others but I never even got a thank you from the Federal Air Marshal service. Did not do it for a thank you but one certainly would have been nice.
Anyway, as time went on, I was happy the great majority of the passengers and flight attendants never quite figured out what & whom we were protecting (some though did figure it out) because when it came down to it, they were all of secondary consideration as were my partners to me or me to them. We primarily were protecting the flight crew - the passengers, flight attendants and even our own partners and ourselves all being secondary. We had it drummed into us, that at all costs, the flight crew and the flight decks of the aircraft were our main concern because if they were overtaken the planes again could be used as they had been on 9/11 – as missiles directed at the innocent.
I really don't know what exactly it was that gave me the fortitude to keep doing it, except maybe for being so angered at the attacks, so worried about others especially my family and that my fellow Customs Agent, Pete K., had sent me those words from Thomas Paine's The Federalist Papers. I do know that I figured the least I could do was to try my best to help to prevent another such attack from taking place. Then, after 5 1/2 months the detail was over, not even a scratch on me from even a minor altercation and of course I am happy to say not one other flight crew member, passenger or plane was lost to another terrorist attack within that time.
That was not the end though of things being done by folks who had volunteered after 9/11. While I was flying as a FAM, many others from my office had volunteered to do something that in the end may have taken a lot more bravery than many others had exhibited. True they did not need to be brave when they volunteered but were certainly courageous, as it turned out, to persevere in the task they had chosen to do.
Those agents and other officials were the ones who went through the debris of the fallen WTC towers, at a NYC landfill, painstakingly searching for the remains of the victims of 9/11. They did it for many months if not for over a year (maybe even for a couple more years) after my detail was completed. It became a more grisly job as each day went by because what remains they encountered had been decomposing over time. Yet, they stuck with that dirty, dismal, distressing and often extremely heartrending job and they were able, many times, to give this family or that family (be it an actual biological family or friends or coworkers) closure because they had discovered, and then forensic experts had identified, even the tiniest bits of what once had been a living person.
Maybe in life that person had been happy or sad, smiling often or frowning a lot, very successful or a dismal failure, a family person or a loner, a hard worker or a loafer, a U.S. Citizen or a Legal Resident Alien (or even an illegal one) but nonetheless a person who deserved to be accounted for and likely a person who was sorely missed and whose families, loved ones and friends deserved closure. Those on that detail (the searchers & the forensic experts and everyone else at the landfill) truly are the forgotten heroes after 9/11. If you ever meet one of them, and find out that is what they did, thank them for it – give them a hug - tell them they were heroes. I doubt they ever will receive the praise and thanks they truly deserve nor that any of them will ever fully recover from the traumatic stresses of that job; yet, you can help them though by letting them know how much they and their work were appreciated.
Of course, there were many others who persisted carrying out dismal duties of one sort or another post 9/11 - such as demolition workers at the site and those searching for remains therein. Then there were those who developed intelligence, those who unrelentingly kept up the hunt for Osama bin Laden and of course our military personnel who spent 20 years in Afghanistan - many suffering severe injuries and many losing their lives defending us. At the very least, we owe each and every one of them lots of praise and thanks.
Most of all, let us never forget the innocent people who perished on 9/11.