I have experienced three momentous “where were you when…” events in my life. The first occurred on December 7, 1941. I was only five-and-a-half at the time, but the moment when we learned that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. The second came on November 22, 1963. What I was doing when I heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated is burned indelibly into my consciousness. We have just observed the thirteenth anniversary of my latest “where were you…” experience−the Al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington with hijacked airliners.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife, Annette, and I were travelling the roads of South Arkansas, on our way home to Virginia after visiting relatives. Heavy congestion on I-30 because of extensive reconstruction led us to us to use two-lane secondary roads through the dense pine forests. Radio reception was poor, so we were listening to classical music CDs rather than the radio. As we finally turned onto a freeway just south of Little Rock, we decided to search for traffic news. As soon as the radio came on, we learned of the first attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
Just a few minutes later, the news station reported the second crash into the towers live. We were hardly onto the Little Rock bypass when the announcer told of the third crash into the Pentagon. When we learned that the plane had flown into the Pentagon at the heliport, our hearts seemed to stop. Our son, Stephen, was serving on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. Although his office was in another building, we knew that he spent a great deal of time in the section of the Pentagon that had been destroyed.
Annette immediately tried to call Stephen on her cellphone. But by that time, all cell service with the Washington area was frozen. She tried his home phone and then that of our daughter, Karen, who lived in Alexandria, Virginia. Again, no calls went through. After a quick discussion, we decided to press on toward Virginia. We soon approached a rest area, where I knew there were pay phones. Thinking that I might be able to get through on a landline, I stopped and attempted to call both my daughter and daughter-in-law. Nothing went through. The entire Capital area was in a communications blackout.
We continued to drive northward. As we neared Memphis, we finally got a call from our daughter. She reported that her family was okay, but she had no word about her brother. She told us that she had learned from a government contact that more hijacked planes were on the way to Washington and that she and her family were evacuating. She strongly urged us to go back to our relatives’ home in Arkansas and wait for further news. Being a stubborn old Seabee, I resolved to go on to Virginia. No terrorist was going to dictate my actions.
Just after crossing into Tennessee, word came that the Twin Towers had both collapsed. This came as a shock, but after reflection, I was not surprised. I am a civil engineer, and I was trained to evaluate the effects of severe heat on steel beams. Once the first failures occurred, the “pancake” failure of the other floors was inevitable.
As we cruised up I-40 through East Tennessee, we got our first good news of the day. Our daughter-in-law called us on the cellphone to tell us that our son was safe. He was not in the Pentagon at the time of the crash, but he had lost several good Navy friends in the explosion and fire.
The last piece of major news that day was of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93. At first, there were only rumors that the passengers had revolted and caused the crash.
We stopped for the night in a hotel in Cookeville, Tennessee. Only after we checked in and reached our room were we able to see the day’s events on television. Seeing it all for ourselves, the horrible reality of the attacks finally struck home. But by then, the facts surrounding the crash of Flight 93 were becoming clear from cell phone calls made from the aircraft.
Aboard the United flight, the hijackers moved all the passengers together near the back of the cabin. They allowed the captives to keep their cellphones, perhaps even encouraged their use to spread fear and shock. The terrorists made one fatal assumption: that the passengers would be cowed and sheepishly obey their orders. Big mistake! Once the passengers learned what had happened to the other hijacked planes, they got organized and resolved to go down fighting. Upon learning that one passenger was qualified to fly the aircraft, they hatched a plan to storm the cockpit and take control of the plane.
The flight attendants boiled water in their coffee pots. Then, on the command, “Let’s roll,” a group charged up the aisle toward the cockpit. They immobilized the terrorist guarding the cockpit door by throwing scalding water onto him. But once the door was breached, one of the terrorists inside pushed the controls forward and dived into the ground, killing all aboard. But either the White House or the U.S. Capitol was spared destruction, and countless lives on the ground were doubtless saved.
The terrorists had hoped to foster fear and despair among the American public. As far as I was concerned, they failed miserably. My first reactions were anger and a thirst for revenge. But then my pride in the Heroes of Flight 93 became dominant. All Americans learn early on to think for themselves. Faced with a stark choice between certain death and a slim chance to survive, the passengers on Flight 93 chose to go down fighting. They made me proud to be an American.