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Memory’s requiem: 12 years after 9/11

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) --

She held the Airfone receiver close to her mouth and spoke in a clear, concise manner.

“The cockpit’s not answering,” the flight attendant said as her voice wavered slightly. “Somebody’s stabbed in business class, and um, I think there is mace that we can’t breathe. I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.”

For the next four minutes, Betty Ong stayed on the Airfone and tried her best to communicate what was happening inside American Airlines Flight 11.

“Somebody’s calling medical and we can’t get a doc…,” Ong’s voice was replaced by the metallic beep of a disconnected call.

She never got the chance to call back. Twenty-seven minutes later, at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the airplane piloted by Egyptian hijacker, Mohamed Atta, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which stood in the heart of New York City. Hundreds of people, including everyone on board Flight 11, were instantly killed when the fully-fueled Boeing 767 jet erupted into a ball of fire that rained ash and debris on the city below.

Nearly three miles away, across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, a 17-year-old girl was in gym class at the Science Skills Center High School for Science, Technology and the Creative Arts, when she saw a plume of smoke rising from the direction of Manhattan.

“I left class, went outside and saw a dark cloud coming up from Manhattan,” said Master Sgt. Oniqua White-Muldrow, as she vividly recalled events from 12 years ago. “I was scared because no one knew what was going on. Planes were crashing, buildings were getting hit – it was horrifying.”

In a daze, Muldrow left the gymnasium and walked outside, her eyes scanning the area looking for some kind of explanation. Settling her gaze on the massive spires of the bridge, she saw what first began as a trickle of people making their way toward Brooklyn. The trickle quickly turned into a stream, and eventually a river, as men and women fled the city – unable to use the now-disabled public transportation system.

“They were all gray, covered in ash and blood,” she said. “They looked like zombies, walking across the bridge and asking for the nearest hospital.”

Utterly shocked at the scene before her, Muldrow turned and walked toward her English classroom, where the television was already tuned to the horrific event.

Two-thousand-nine-hundred-twenty-nine miles away at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., Airman 1st Class Jonathan Williams was getting ready for work when his suitemate began furiously banging on the door between their rooms.

“Dude, turn on the TV!” Williams’ suitemate, Airman 1st Class Jason Haley shouted, through the door.

“What man?” Williams, now a staff sergeant stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va., asked. “We’ve got to go to work.”

“Just turn on the TV!” Haley shouted again.

Frustrated, Williams remembered clicking his television on and staring in awe as he watched a replay of Flight 11 striking the World Trade Center.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Williams said, recalling his initial reaction.

As the graphic scene replayed over and over, Williams said he kept telling himself that this was some kind of sick prank. Then, as if to shock him back to reality, the sirens throughout McChord began to wail menacingly.

“The whole base was put on lockdown,” Williams said. “It was straight craziness! There were cops manning .50-calibers mounted to Humvees blocking the main entrance.”

Unable to leave due to the lockdown, Williams sat in his room, mesmerized by the television. He shook his head and asked himself how this could have happened.

“We live in America, we have the best of everything,” Williams said. “I thought that there was no way this could have happened. I was wrong. I was really, really wrong.”

As Williams watched the news from his dorm room across the country, Muldrow and the rest of her English class were taken to the roof, by their teacher, for a better look.

“We had a clear view,” Muldrow said. “When I looked at the building I saw these tiny specks falling from the hole.”

Muldrow paused, swallowing hard to force the lump in her throat down.

“I thought it was ash,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief at the still-vivid memory. “I don’t know why I thought it would be falling ash. It was people. They were jumping to their deaths.”

She paused again as her eyes began to water.

“There were so many dots.”

Muldrow turned from the horror and made her way back into the school, just as the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 began its sharp descent from the skies above into lower Manhattan. Inside the cabin, former Air Force fighter pilot Brian Sweeney tried to call his wife, Julie.

“If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I want you to know I absolutely love you,” Brian said to the answering machine at 8:59 a.m.

Four minutes later, Brian, and everyone on board Flight 175, was killed when the plane slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

At McChord AFB, Williams, who had been released from the dorms, watched the television at his office in stunned horror as a second plane crashed into the twin towers.

“The entire office got silent,” Williams said. “It was ominous – everything sunk in at that point. I still get butterflies in the pit of my stomach, like it was yesterday.”

Feeling butterflies of her own, Muldrow sat with her classmates as WCBS 880 Radio described reports of the South Tower strike.

“It’s exploding right now, Tommy,” the announcer said. “We’re seeing another plane... It’s been another one.”

Muldrow began to cry just as a strong hand reached out to her. She turned and saw her older brother, who had left work to come find her.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Muldrow said. “He found me through all the chaos and the sea of students and teachers.”

As Muldrow and her brother left the school and started the 90-minute walk through the city to his job, Keisha Pearson was riding the bus home from her school on Long Island, still trying to process the news she received earlier while at her own school.

“They wouldn’t let us turn on the TV or see what was going on while we were in class,” recalled Pearson, now a second lieutenant in the Air Force. “None of us believed it. We didn’t understand what it meant.”

As the wheels bounced along the road leading from Bellport High School, Pearson’s thoughts drifted back to when she first heard the news from the school faculty. The doors were shut and locked as students hid under their desks.

“It was crazy, a bunch of people began screaming and crying,” Pearson said. “The school thought we were still in immediate danger. It was a total lockdown.”

The bus lurched to a stop, snapping Pearson back into the moment. Both she and her brother stepped off the vehicle and bolted for the relative safety of their home, her thoughts turning to their mother and father, who had not yet come home from work. Fortunately for Pearson, neither of her parents worked at the towers. Another girl in her class had not been so lucky.

“She sat next to me,” Pearson said, as she searched her memory for more details. “The teacher hurried to take her away after they broke the news – both her mom and dad had been killed in the World Trade Center.”

Not long after she walked in the door, Pearson’s mother came home, wrapping both son and daughter in her arms. Together, they huddled on the master bed, waiting for Pearson’s father to come home while watching their world come undone on the television. The first time Pearson saw what had truly happened was when the screen flickered to life and a replayed image of Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower flashed across her 13-year-old eyes.  

“All they had told us at school was that a plane had crashed into the towers,” she said. “They didn’t - they couldn’t describe the destruction it had caused.”

For Pearson, seeing the carnage on television was not the worst part of the day - it was the smell. When the wind shifted, it brought the acrid, caustic fumes wafting from ground zero.

“It smelled like…” Pearson paused. “Burning chemicals – it was really bad. We could smell it all the way in Long Island.”

The odor lingered long after her father came home and huddled together with his wife and children.

“We weren’t sure what would happen next,” Person said. “If we were going to die, we wanted to be with our families at the end.”  

They all sat together, leaning on one another and praying the worst was over. Then, nearly 387 miles away, Hani Hanjour and four other al-Qaida terrorists stormed the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 77. They forced the passengers and crew to the rear of the aircraft before Hanjour assumed control of the flight and began turning the plane toward Washington, D.C.

At 9:37 a.m., after executing a 330-degree turn and descending 2,200 feet, Hanjour pushed the plane’s throttles to maximum power and smashed the Boeing 757 into the western side of the Pentagon. All 59 passengers were killed, along with 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building.

Two blocks away, U.S. Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2 Clifford Bauman was walking from his office at the National Guard Bureau in Crystal City, Va., when he saw an explosion erupt from the Pentagon. Seconds later, Bauman was knocked off his feet by the air concussion that followed. As soon as he was able to pick himself up, Bauman was running toward the Pentagon, looking to see if someone, anyone needed help.

“It was mass confusion there, with everybody trying to get people out of the building,” said Bauman, now a Chief Warrant Officer 4 stationed at Fort Eustis, Va. “I helped a few folks for maybe two hours before I was called back to my building.”

Returning to the National Guard Bureau, Bauman filled his leadership in on what he had seen at the Pentagon. From there, he began working with an Air Force reservist to develop a means of locating possible survivors.

“We had devised an idea of using a piece of equipment to track cell phone frequencies,” Bauman said. “Once we determined that the technology would work, we left out the morning of the 12th and returned to the scene.”

Armed with this device, Bauman teamed up with other personnel and began searching the Pentagon, desperately trying to find survivors amidst the destruction.

“It was hard in the beginning,” he said. “You’re seeing things you’re not used to seeing.”

Finding nothing at the front side of the building, Bauman and his team proceeded to E-corridor, where they had to wade through knee-deep water.

“There was stuff floating everywhere,” he said. “We made our way back around between C and B-corridor and saw where the nose of the aircraft detached and shot through the building.”

Immediately, the team stepped outside, set up their equipment and went to work searching for cell phone signals.

“Once we started pinging I reentered the building, crawling,” he said.

Bauman retrieved cell phone after cell phone as he tirelessly dug through the wreckage and debris for what seemed like an eternity.

“We were there all day and into the night, looking for people,” he said. “Eighteen hours and no survivors – not one.”

At one point during the search, another Army warrant officer entered the scene and made his way to Bauman, who was taking a break. Rounding the corner, the warrant officer saw the sea of carnage Bauman had been wading, crawling and feeling his way through.

“He just lost it,” Bauman said. “I had to take him aside and calm him down because he was now seeing what I had been dealing with. Once he calmed down, we got right back to the mission.”

Looking back at what he did – what he forced himself to do - Bauman said there was only one word to describe everything he experienced.

“Horrific,” he said. “Seeing your fellow Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines lying dead in an area where you would think it was impossible was hard to deal with.”

Even though Bauman had steeled himself to seeing the remains of fallen service members and comrades, he continued to work through the night and the painful reality began to fester inside him like an open wound.

“When I went home I really didn’t talk about it,” he said. “I took my uniform off and threw it in the wash. I took my boots, gloves and hat off and stuck them in a box - they’re still in that box to this day.”

For Bauman, the shutdown was automatic. He would discuss general details, but never mention the bodies. He would never talk about the sights, sounds and smells from the flooded hallways and burned-out corridors that stayed buried deep inside his soul like a cancer.

“I didn’t talk about it,” he said quietly.

While Bauman silently wrestled with his own demons, Pearson and her family sat in horror as every channel broadcast the same footage over and over. The planes slamming into the towers, along with their dramatic collapse onto the streets below; the deliberate crash of United Airlines Flight 93 at a field in Somerset County, Pa. and the emergency responders desperately searching for signs of life at the Pentagon all dominated the airwaves as the voice of the broadcasters echoed through their home.

“Terror had come into our home,” Pearson said. “It was surreal. This was America – nothing like this was supposed to happen here. This was the worst thing to happen to our generation.”

Even in the seclusion of their home, removed from the chaos of Manhattan, Pearson could not escape the chilling reminders all around her. Practically every channel was singularly focused on what had become a devastating and nationwide tragedy.

“Every single person was affected by it,” she said. “It was just this giant, gaping hole in the skyline.”

As the days, weeks and months slowly rolled by, Pearson said the wounds from Sept. 11 would reopen every time she walked along the Long Island shore.

“Walking along the water, I could still see the smoke rising from Manhattan,” Pearson said. “It stayed there; it lasted for two months.”

For Bauman, two months seemed like a drop in the bucket as his own personal war raged inside him.

“It really started coming to the surface about a year later, close to the anniversary,” Bauman said. “The Washington Post had run an article where some of the victims’ family members had written in. One son was writing about his mother who had died at the Pentagon.”

He paused and swallowed a lump in his throat. Bauman had discovered the woman’s body during his search for survivors.  

“That really started my downward spiral.”

Whenever Bauman would close his eyes and try to sleep his mind would take him back to those twisted hallways. As he spent his nights tossing and turning, his days were filled with an inconsolable depression he tried to alleviate at the bottom of a bottle.

“As you start going down that road, things change inside you,” he said. “People started noticing there was something different about me, even though I didn’t see it within myself.”

The more people who tried to reach out and help Bauman, the more stressed he would become.

“My family knew something was wrong with me,” he said. “But I couldn’t explain to them what was wrong with me. I didn’t know how to express that.”

As time dragged on, Bauman withdrew more and more. He internalized his feelings and memories, lying to counselors and hiding the post-traumatic stress disorder he would later be diagnosed with. Weeks turned to months as Bauman said the stress and guilt he felt became poison in his veins.

“I didn’t have an outlet for the stress I was feeling because I wasn’t talking to my psychologist about how I truly felt,” he said. “I just wanted to get the counseling over with because I was fearful for my military career.”

With his days spent worrying over his future in the Army, and his nights spent in torment, Bauman decided he needed to get away for the Christmas season and return home to Kansas City, Mo. Unfortunately, home was where he felt the entire weight of the world crash down upon him.

“To this day I have no idea what triggered it,” Bauman said. “I was alone at my brother’s house when an overwhelming sense of guilt came over me. Everything I had been dealing with just built up all at once and I didn’t want to deal with it anymore.”

Life, Bauman said, had become too much for him to handle. Slowly, almost robotically, he penned a note on a napkin.

“I didn’t want to live with the guilt of not finding anybody alive,” he said. “I told everybody I loved them, then took 20 sleeping pills and laid on the couch.”

Darkness enveloped Bauman as he prepared to close his eyes for the last time.

Meanwhile, only a few hundred yards from where Bauman’s personal tragedy began, Pearson was driving along the highway near the Potomac River when she caught sight of the Pentagon. It was the first time she had ever seen the building, except on television.

“I thought to myself, ‘oh my gosh, that’s where they hit,’” she said. “This tragedy didn’t just bring New York together, it brought everyone together.”

Even though Pearson describes Sept. 11 as a rallying cry for her generation, she doesn’t like to visit ground zero.

“A lot of my friends and I don’t really have a desire to go there, even now that it’s been rebuilt,” Pearson said. “It’s just too terrible a memory.”

For many like Pearson, the memory has remained as fresh and vivid as it was the day of the attacks. For Williams, who experienced the tragedy at a distance, the memory was rekindled by a specific event that occurred during a visit to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

“I got to go to Tyndall and actually see a strut from the World Trade Center,” Williams said. “It was huge, charred and rusted.”

As he stared at the damaged hulk of metal, part of him wanted to reach out and touch it – but something stopped him.

“This was the first time, other than the TV, that I saw any part of what had happened,” Williams said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to touch, didn’t even want to look at it for too long. All this thing meant to me was a real and tangible reminder that people had died.”

It was guilt and remorse that gave Williams pause; just as it had been guilt and remorse that prompted Bauman to harm himself. The darkness that surrounded him began to break away as light streamed into the world again. Slowly and weakly, Bauman opened his eyes and found himself lying in a hospital bed a mile from where he tried to take his own life. As errant thoughts and unanswered questions ran through his mind, Bauman kept returning to one inescapable fact – he had woken up alive.

“After I was awake for a while I started feeling like a big weight had been lifted off me,” he said. “At that point I realized what I was doing wasn’t the right way to do things. I no longer cared about my career; I only cared about fixing what was wrong with me.”

Almost immediately, Bauman felt his world begin to change. He began opening up with his therapist, which led to a proper diagnosis and treatment of his PTSD. As the words of his story flowed out, he began that overwhelming pain and stress melt away.

“My life changed from night to day,” he said. “It’s still a process, though. It never really goes away, but you learn how to control the triggers that lead you down negative paths.”

Now, 12 years after Sept. 11, 2001, Bauman stands as a changed man. He proudly wears his uniform, and celebrates the two promotions he earned since that fateful day at the Pentagon. It also boasts a small, unassuming ribbon that represents the highest non-combat award available – the Soldier’s Medal. Bauman earned this distinction when he saved three men from drowning in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, Oct. 3, 2009. He freely admits that none of it would have been possible had he not made the decision to take control of his life.

“It’s okay to go and get help when you need it,” Bauman said. “There are some things you just can’t handle yourself. I understand what it means to get to that point where you think suicide is the answer. I’ve been there. I understand what it’s like when you don’t want to deal with the family anymore, to deal with the stress of trying to explain what you’re going through. But suicide is not the answer.”

Looking down, Bauman eyed a cloth bag sitting on the floor. Reaching inside, he pulls the boots, hat and gloves he wore when he crawled through the Pentagon. For the first time in more than a decade, Bauman ran his fingers along the smooth leather of the boot and the rough fabric of the gloves.

“It’s hard,” he said, as his hands trembled slightly. “Even after all this time, it’s still hard to hold these.”

Bauman sighed deeply and smiled broadly.

“But, I’m alright,” he said, confidently. “I’m really alright.”

Memory can be a curious thing. It can break a man down to the point where all hope seems lost, only to rebuild him again, stronger than before. It can bridge the gap between space and time in a single moment of painful clarity. It can unite a generation and stir the soul to action. It can even be all the fire, rage and sadness of the world funneled into the horrified eyes of a 17-year-old girl, standing on the roof of her school and watching how the hatred of a few caused the suffering of so many.

Memory can be all those things, and more.

(Editor's note: Some excerpts and first-hand accounts used in this article are courtesy of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, www.911memorial.org. © 2004-2011, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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