Monday, September 11, 2006

To answer the question

I was at Ft. McCoy, WI attending the Unit Pay Administrator Course on Septembe 11, 2001. It was the the start of the second week of the two week class. That morning we had an exam over some finance regulation which was to being at 0700 CST. It was scheduled to last until 1100 when we'd review, break for lunch, and have another block of instruction for the next day's exam. The exam started a little after 0700 and I turned in my answer sheet and test booklet to the control officer around 0815. As I walked out of the classroom to the break room one of the instructors, an older civilian with glasses, came up to me and asked if I had any relatives in NYC. He explained that a plane had crashed in the city and he was supposed to find if anyone had any family in the area. I told him I had none (I'd forgotten about a cousin who worked in Manhattan) and I remarked to the professor how it didn't seem possible for a plane to crash into NYC while approaching La Guardia.

How wrong I was.

I got to the break room and listened to CNN Headline news as they talked about the events. There was confusion. No one knew how it happened. Speculation about how the plane might have gotten lost, or if it was crashed like that Egypt Air plane that had crashed off of Massachusetts a couple years before. I got a cup of coffee from the vending machine and a packet of Twizzler Nibs (mmmm Nibs) and sat down to watch.

Flight 175 was what got my attention.

That's when it went from "horrible accident" to "coordinated assault" in the breakroom of the ARRTC on Ft. McCoy. People were filtering out of the classes now. Non-testing classes were on break, and testing classes had people finishing. I had laid claim to a chair and I was not going to relenquish my territory.

The news kept flooding in. The occupancy of the WTC was talked about. Estimates of the damage, confusion about what flights they were. Reports from the Pentagon of another attack, possibly a bomb. No one knew what was going on. Fighters were scrambled, and then they weren't. In the break room everyone is quiet except to catch up newcomers who wandered in, unaware of the extent of the attack. Then one of the most horrifying things I'd ever seen happened. The South Tower of the WTC started to collapse.

Up to that point the thought had never crossed my mind. It wasn't something anyone mentioned. And as it came down I heard several "Oh my Gods," gasped from those watching. Tears were shed by many in this room full of Soldiers. I was numbed by the sight and could only imagine how terrifying it had to have been in those final seconds.

The rest of the morning ticked on. Flight 93 was reported hijacked and crashed. The North Tower came down. The attack was over. I never moved from my seat. My coffee had gone to ambient tempature and my Nibs were barely touched. One of the ARRTC staff came into the break area and ordered everyone back to their classrooms.

One of my classmates wasn't there. She had family in NYC and was desperatly trying to reach them. A nearly impossible task given the number fo calls being made and the destruction of the towers took out quite a few bits of infrastructure, including phone lines. Fortunatly her family would be found safe. A formation was to happen in the large classroom where AGR Soldiers receive their entry training.

The commandant informed us of what had happened and what the response was to be. FAA had grounded all flights and the post was being secured. No one in or out. There was a possibility that students would be put on guard duty. We were to report back to our units ASAP. If anyone had been activated any possible arrangements for transport would be made, but it was unlikely since there was no flight possible. We were to return to our classes and finish the day as "normally" as possible.

I walked from the ARRTC to my barracks room. I wasn't alone. There was a trail of BDUs walking alone and in twos back to their rooms. No one spoke. I sat on my bed and resumed my Headline News watching.

WTC7 had collapsed. The death toll was estimated to nearly 10,000. The images of people holding "Have you seen XXXXX" signs was heartwrenching. I spoke with my commander who didn't have much information. The command had ordered an alert and everyone had to be accounted for. One of my best friends in the unit called me to say he was planning to drive to NYC and volunteer for rescue operations. He wasn't able to make it because of the chaos on the roads.

I spoke with my mom that night. I think it was then I remembered that cousin and asked if she was okay. She was.

I only got about two hours sleep that night. The rest of the time I watched and watched. I felt useless. It's a feeling that hasn't really gone away 5 years later.


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