I realized this morning that my previous posts on 9-11 have been lost, and I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. I’ve discussed the more urgent issues of the day at Blackfive, and hope you will read them. Here, let me share some memories of The Day, and afterwards, with you.
My morning began as it usually did, arriving early at work to peruse the news and net to see if anyone was saying anything (good in particular) about commercial space activities and the NASA program for which I worked. When the first report flashed up about a plane hitting the World Trade Center, my first thought was that it was a small plane, perhaps clipping it or at worst something on the order of the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building so many years ago.
Minutes passed, and it became clear that such was not the case. As reports from the Pentagon and elsewhere rolled in, I made the calls duty (and old oaths) required and dug in to pull up any hard intel that I could get to. For all that fear of what was happening, and fear for friends I knew to be headed to the WTC and at work at the Pentagon, gripped me, old training kicked in and I was able to set it aside as I dug and got information to my boss and others. I remember shocking a person who heard me report to my boss, with relief in my voice, that the President was ‘knee-capped.’ I no longer see the expression on the man’s face that clearly, but do remember having to explain to him and others that no, no one had taken a bat or gun to the President’s knee, but that he was indeed in the air and that Air Force One was also now functioning in its role as National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP, pronounced knee-cap).
We evacuated Redstone Arsenal that day, and I went hope still not knowing the fate of friends and acquaintances. One thing I did know was that even with the grounding of all civilian air traffic, a fleet of planes was being readied on the ground. Military and civilian Nightingales, air ambulances capable of handling large numbers of casualties, were being prepped for flight even as we streamed out the gate so the base could be locked down. Trauma and burn centers around the country called in staff to prepare to treat the wounded. Within a day we knew there would be none. Few today know about that, nor do I suspect many care.
A few weeks later, I was in New York on business for NASA, having given the cabin crew of my flight up an impromptu lesson in self-defense/hand-to-hand before we boarded. I know that quite a few of us quietly and unofficially provided security on those flights. While we were careful in what we said and how we shared it, there were a number of us who decided to do so and we worked to carefully place ourselves where we could get between the cockpit and trouble, and would do whatever we could or was needed to protect same. At least some cabin crews figured out what was going on, and I had one give me a broad wink as she leaned down to give me the unopened can of soda I requested. No, I can’t throw worth a darn, but at close range and in a confined space, I just had to hit hard… And, yes, we did it because we had no faith in official assurances. You have no idea how often weapons of various sorts were found in those days by flight crews doing unofficial and official sweeps after ground crews serviced planes. Might give you a hint where the real security problem was though.
I also have to laugh at all those who rail and gnash their teeth about evil corporations and capitalism. Why? Because in the days after 9-11, I watched those evil companies large and small stand up in a way still not known or appreciated. I represented a number of them, all partnered with Commercial Space Centers, who made a remarkable and largely unprecedented offer: anything we have is yours. If it will help aid the search for survivors, enable security, or treat the injured, it is yours and we will work things out later.
Because of that offer, I found myself in the embarrassing position of being driven around NYC by a police lieutenant. He was an interesting fellow, headed towards retirement, and who almost died twice on The Day. You see, like so many, he went towards the drums. When the first tower fell, he was almost killed in the fall, and the same was true when the second tower came down. I spent a bit of time that visit out on the water with NYPD, and I remember being taken out to see the Statue of Liberty “…while it’s still here…” even as we investigated a report of a body in the water (log as it turned out). I met many on that and other trips, firefighters, medics, cops — all had gone to the sound of the drums.
That first trip still brings a scent to my nose, and a feeling of being gritty, when I think of The Day. When the towers came down, they sent out a cloud of dust that covered the lower part of Manhattan. Grey, fine, and it got everywhere. To me, it smelled strongly of baked lime (mineral, not fruit) and with it was a hint of burnt sweet pork. Between the burning jet fuel and the fires and compression heating created by the fall, most things organic and even some inorganic were cremated to dust. The heat was so intense in the pit that you could literally watch the boots on those laboring within melt as they worked. In the early days, it was not unusual for more than one pair of boots to be needed in a day, and even later a pair would only be usable for a day.
I visited the ferry that became the emergency command post as politicians more focused on domestic issues had placed the emergency command post for the city in the WTC over the strong objections of the professionals. I’ve visited some of the others since, and am glad that the new one was ultimately placed in an area where the professionals had more input. Today, I am still awed at the feat that was getting that ferry online as a command post in a matter of hours. I’m both amused and saddened that the one thing NYC was not prepared for was the massive amount of support from outside the city. You see, their emergency plans never considered that anyone would come to their aid, and one of the largest problems they faced was handling the massive amount of aid and volunteers that flooded the city.
The memory of a NYC policeman telling me about Canadian Mounties showing up and taking over things like traffic control and such (with no warning or notice) still makes me laugh. He, like so many, were amazed by the response, but it was the plaintive note in his voice when he told me how people were walking up to thank the Mounties and how ‘they never told us that’ that got to me. What does it say that people stood up, people did — and it was the one thing they never planned for or expected to happen.
There are more memories, but there is also more I must do this day. I share these so that they not be lost to me or to others. Already portions of The Day and those trips fade. Today, I smell the smells and feel the grit of that first trip when I think of memories of the day. Faces blur or are lost, and details slip away.
Write down your thoughts and your memories while you still can. The mind being what it is, they will slip steadily away unless you do. Remember the time when we did come together, however briefly, and remember why we did.