Last year I got a call out of the blue on New Year's Eve from my best friend in high school. We hadn't spoken in years, but we picked up pretty much where we left off, in the way that only best friends from days gone by, and occasionally those with the grace of saints, can. He responded to my blog about 9-11 with his own perspective, as an officer in the United States Air Force. Further, he is stationed, with his family, in Shreveport, LA, and while he missed a lot of Hurricane Katrina, they have been touched more directly by the storm. I felt his response was very powerful, and I didn't want it to get lost on the comments page.
Eric Oliver said...
I was at work. A news channel was on in one corner of a nearby conference room. A co-worker was the first to tell me to come see what was on TV.
I went in to see the south tower in flames on some news channel, and I remember sitting there thinking, "How the hell did someone hit that tower? It's perfect flying weather; clear and a million! It had to be someone that meant to hit the tower, there's simply no other explanation..." I also remember watching the flames licking upward and the choking smoke boiling out from all sides and commenting, perhaps to no one in particular, "There is no way anyone above that is going to survive..."
I remember the camera shot was from a long way off. So, it was tough to judge depth--very much the way the pitcher looks like he is almost standing on home plate when the centerfield camera is being used.
As I watched that greatly foreshortened view, I remember seeing a plane seemingly flying from the norteast toward southwest in the background. When I saw it, I thought "huh?!? They haven't stopped air traffic in the area?" I assumed it was inbound for landing at Newark, but it just seemed incomprehensible to me that ATC would be allowing aircraft anywhere near that area in the wake of such a disaster.
I guess something else in the room distracted me for just a moment, and I looked away, but I was suddenly brought back to sharp focus by a reporter shouting "Oh my God! There has just been a tremendous explosion! It appears that there has been another enormous explosion in the tower."
They continued on for several minutes, talking about how this must have been one of the fuel tanks exploding--something they apparently had been discussing as a possibility before I tuned in.
I'm not sure when they or I figured out the truth: we had seen the plane heading into the north tower.
I know I figured it out at some point because I remember calling my wife (who was irritated by something that morning when I called, but I don’t remember what), telling her to turn on the TV, and then telling her I probably wouldn’t be home for dinner that night. My job on Sept 11, 2001 was to do communications planning as a member of Air Combat Command’s Crisis Action Team.
My wife's car was at the shop that day to have its shocks replaced, and it was time to pick it up, so I left work. As I drove, I was listening to an NPR reporter who was talking to another reporter at the pentagon. The pentagon reporter was talking when she was interrupted by the first reporter and asked: “We are just now hearing reports of smoke at the pentagon. Are you seeing any smoke?” The pentagon reporter said “No, everything appears to be normal”, and after a brief exchange, went on with her story. Before she finished her story, she was again interrupted. There were additional reports of fire at the pentagon. Did she see or hear anything? Still the same. Nothing she could see was out of the ordinary. So, she continued. She was another couple of minutes into her story when she abruply stopped, paused for a moment and then said “Okay, we are now getting evacuation instructions over the public address system. Apparently, there is a fire somewhere and we are being told to evacuate.”
I remember continuing the drive thinking, “those towers may fall; that would be disastrous”, and I remember feeling more helpless than I ever want to feel again.
I remember showing up at the shop in uniform and all the attention I attracted. I remember one gentleman saying “I wish I wasn’t so old, so I could sign up and put on a uniform too.” A second said “Every generation has their ‘Pearl Harbor’. This is this generation’s; they’ll have no problem recruiting for the foreseeable future.”
As I drove back toward work, the first tower fell. I heard the NPR broadcast. The reporter sounded as if he was about to cry as he described it all too picturesquely. I figured it was only a matter of time until the second one went too. I found a new, even lower, feeling of helplessness.
At some point that day, I remember hearing that there was still at least one plane that was unaccounted for. I was back at work at Langley Air Force Base, VA by that time, and there were rumors the plane was headed for us: Headquarters, Air Combat Command. It made sense to me. The pentagon had already been hit. The towers had been hit. If you wanted to make a big statement, what would be more fitting than to fly a plane into the headquarters of the mightiest combat air force in the world?
We went to THREATCON DELTA. Security Forces and civil engineers were racing everywhere setting up hasty defenses and hardening facilities as best they could. I was worried, but not scared, and I certainly didn’t feel helpless anymore. If they were going to bring the fight to us, we were at least going to make it a bit harder on them.
After the Flight 93 hit the ground, I was sent home to rest. We were going to 12 hr shifts, and I was going to be pulling the mid shift on the Crisis Action Team that night. I ended up pulling the mid shift for many months after. I didn’t pull my last 12 hr mid shift until March of 2003.
That year and a half of my life is mostly a blur, but one happy moment sticks out in my mind. A few hours into my shift on 13 Sep 2001, an ice cream cake appeared. It was my birthday. I had completely forgotten, but my beautiful wife, Patricia, had not. She couldn’t come into the secure area where we were working, so she had passed it to my boss, Monica Kopf, who surprised me with it. It was a very bright spot at a very dark time.
The story should end here, but it doesn’t. Monica Kopf now lives in Biloxi, MS. She was a commander of a technical training squadron at Keesler Air Force Base on August 29th 2005. She took a direct hit from Katrina. When I finally got hold of her to ask how she was doing, she wrote:
Eric – thanks for the email. Go figure, I’ve lost my house, my motos, my squadron (they sent off all the students) and basically my office because of the fema etc guys…. It’s been an emotional week…. Hanging strong tho’ for the most part – I have some quiet moments where I’m a bit thin on the veneer but…
Kev is great – he evacuated (thank God) and he took the dogs of course. He was going to stay but I couldn’t stand the stress I told him – I couldn’t take care of everyone at work AND worry abt him and the dogs simultaneously.
Take care and thank you!!!!
As I pressed her to find out how she was really doing and what she really needed, she finally wrote:
homebuilders/salvage folks, lawyers for bankruptcy, financial guidance, money/donations.... also people who're willing to help tear out yucky stuff...
if you're willing to come work w/ me clearing my house out, i'll take the help.... the whole place needs to be gutted....
I am going to go down there the weekend of the 17th and try to be the bright spot in her very dark time.
I'll stop hijacking your blog now...thank you for letting me bloviate and purge
The last line is typical of my humble friend. Bloviating? I remember being in the midst of burying my Aunt, and at each stage of the funeral, we would get in the car (after the viewing, the service, the burial, etc.) one more major event unfolded. I was calling in to see if they needed me on the ground for reports anywhere near Philadelphia, or even to go to Washington, but our team was already all over it. When the plane went down near Schwenksville, our team was on the scene immediately.
It all seems like small potatoes compared to what Eric and his brothers and sisters in the armed forces were doing on that day, and continue to do today. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say "Thank you" for doing the job that you do. I feel a whole lot safer knowing there are people like you out there protecting us, our families, and our nation.
Thank you brother.