Remembering that day in September

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
(Editor’s note: Information from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was used in this story.)

An expanse of dark blue water rushed beneath the Boeing 767 window. A woman’s voice trembled through the static of the Airfone in her hands.

“I see water and buildings,” she said as the airplane flew over the Hudson River toward Manhattan, New York. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

The last words of flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney were cut short as American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m. The 35-year-old mother of two, along with everyone else on board, was killed as the fully fueled jet erupted into a ball of fire that showered the city in a rain of steel and debris.

Nearly 20 miles away, Manuel Fajardo sat hunched over his desk at Bayonne High School, New Jersey, trying to focus on a psychology test, when another student burst into the room, panic-stricken and out of breath.

“He said ‘an airplane struck the tower,’” Fajardo recalled. “I just assumed it may have been a small plane with a novice pilot. I was making – everybody was making -- speculations.”

Confusion and fear gripped the students as someone turned on the TV and flooded the classroom with images of the north tower burning and people on the streets running for their lives.

“I’m just about 15 blocks north of the World Trade Center right now on Seventh Avenue,” said Kelley Edwards, a WCBS 880 radio producer during a report on New York’s emergency response efforts. “Fire trucks are screaming down Seventh Avenue trying to get to this fire. It looks like the fire … is about 10 stories from the top of the building. Flames are shooting out, smoke is pouring out -- this gash goes from one side of the building practically all the way to the other.”

In addition to the intense flames and suffocating smoke, the impact of Flight 11 severed all three of the north tower’s emergency stairwells and trapped nearly 1,400 people who worked above the 91st floor. Helplessly, tenants inside the south tower watched while friends and co-workers in the opposite building burned alive, perished from smoke inhalation. Minutes later, an announcement from the Port Authority, which echoed throughout the south tower, assured tenants that their building was secure and there was no need to evacuate.

“A few minutes later, (United Airlines Flight 175) hit the (south) tower,” Fajardo said. “And that’s when we found out that it was more than likely intentional.”

Fajardo remembered seeing footage of Flight 175 crashing into floors 77 through 85 of the south tower, killing hundreds of people inside the building and everyone on the plane. As he watched the tremendous plume of fire spew forth and shower the street below with molten wreckage, Fajardo said he began to realize the enormity of the situation.

“At first I didn’t really want to speculate,” he said. “I thought it was an accident, and it would be an easy cleanup. When I found out it was bigger, I got a little more concerned – and when the news came out and pointed toward terrorists, I was getting angrier and angrier, and sad knowing that there may be thousands of people dead.”

With all three emergency stairwells of the north tower severed, evacuation was impossible. Inside the south tower, the only remaining exit above the impact zone was almost completely blocked by debris. As hope faded, some of the trapped tenants did the only thing they could think of to escape -- they jumped.

“I literally thought for a moment, because (someone) tried to open the door, and all you could feel was the heat of the fire,” said Florence Jones, who was one of only 18 people to escape from the upper floors of the south tower. “I was like, ‘oh gosh, am I gonna have to jump?’ Because I wasn’t gonna wait for the firemen. Am I gonna have to do what I just saw people doing?”

On the ground, time seemed to stop as people looked up to see roughly 200 tenants plunge to their deaths from the twin towers.

“I saw little specks just falling off the building -- I didn’t think they were people,” Fajardo said. “My first reaction was, ‘it couldn’t be people,’ and then they zoomed in. I saw hands and feet waving as they fell, and knew it was people. I was numb. I couldn’t believe it. I was in total shock.”

With the crash of Flight 175 into the south tower Sept. 11, 2001, at 9:03 a.m., the world stood still as all eyes turned to New York.

“If you peeked out of (my classroom) window, you could see the buildings smoking,” Fajardo said. “But it wasn’t really the sight, because we were seeing it on the news. It was more the smell of it.”

Even though he was nearly 20 miles away, Fajardo said the smells coming from Manhattan permeated the air. It still haunts him, 14 years later.

“The smell is just indescribable,” he said. “You know what’s in there. You know what’s in that building – they’re people. It’s one thing to be able to see it, it’s just another to smell it and know what’s happening.”

Although details surrounding the attacks were vague at that time, the New York Police Department deployed 2,000 officers, while the New York City Fire Department dispatched 235 firefighters, 20 engines and eight ladder companies to combat the growing crisis.

“Then the firefighters started to come up, and they would holler, ‘move to the right, move to the right,’” said Connie Labetti, one of 18 people to escape the south tower. “I think it was probably about the 40th floor when the firefighters started coming up. And I remember thinking, ‘they’re gonna climb all the way up to 80?’ I mean, how are they gonna do that? They just were stone-faced, just looked straight ahead. They really didn’t show much emotion. I couldn’t imagine these firefighters going up there into God knows what.”

While the world watched in disbelief as emergency responders threw themselves into the face of danger, a young Air Force captain -- now a colonel -- deployed to Egypt in support of Operation Bright Star, scrambled for any news he could find.

“Most people that day were out at the air bases. They were bare bases,” said Col. Kevin Cullen, the 501st Combat Support Wing commander, as he remembered the scarcity of communication. “In fact, the only communications we had was one (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) laptop computer. We had no phones. We had no television. And the word first spread by word of mouth.”

As Cullen and his team of Airmen stared in disbelief at the laptop’s small, pixilated image of a plane smashing into the World Trade Center more than 5,807 miles away, American Airlines Flight 77 executed a 330-degree turn and began sharply descending 2,200 feet toward Washington, D.C.

Inside the cockpit, Hani Honjour and four other al-Qaida terrorists who hijacked the plane pushed the throttle to maximum power and drove the Boeing 757 into the western façade of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. All 59 passengers, along with 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building, were killed, with 106 others severely injured as fire erupted throughout the building.

“If you can imagine not being able to watch it on television and not being able to see it,” Cullen said. “It was really, really hard to believe.”

Impossible as it seemed, the reality burned brightly across the Washington, D.C. and New York skyline as people from around the world watched and wondered what would come next. At 9:42 a.m. the Federal Aviation Authority grounded all flights over, or bound for, the U.S. -- including one with Staff Sgt. Daniel Callens on board, who was trying to make it home for his grandfather’s funeral.

“The pilot came over the intercom and said we have an in-flight emergency and we need to land,” said Callens, who is now a retired master sergeant. “Everyone was baffled, especially since he said that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft. So we were all stunned at what was going on.”

It wasn’t until the plane landed and Callens checked into a nearby hotel that he was able to turn on the TV and see the chaos unfolding across America. He sat and stared at the monitor, not wanting to believe his own eyes.

“It was so unreal, I couldn’t believe it,” Callens said. “I was just shocked. You couldn’t even fathom it was real or even happening, but there it was – reporting live.”

Then it happened. After burning for 56 minutes, the south tower began to crack and give way. Ten seconds later, the building collapsed at 9:59 a.m., killing nearly 600 emergency responders and workers inside the building and around the area. Fajardo remembered watching as, what had once been one of the tallest buildings in the world, crumbled to the ground.

“I saw people with their faces covered in ash, running away and screaming,” Fajardo said. “The devastation, the chaos -- it haunts me. You had to be there. I could describe it, you could see it in the news, but really, you had to be there. When you actually smelled the smoke, saw the fires and the flesh, you realize the people who were alive moments earlier are now up in ashes.”

The north tower stairwell was dark as rescue workers cautiously made their way through broken chunks of concrete and twisted metal that jutted out and made the passage look like an open wound.

Suddenly, the radio crackled to life as the New York Police Department’s aviation unit reported that large pieces had begun to fall from the top of the World Trade Center’s south tower.

“We continued walking down the stairs,” said Dianne DeFontes, one of the north tower survivors who described her descent from the 89th floor. “No one felt panicky until you were in the dark somewhere. The stairways were always lit; the panic started little by little. I remember the worst time was, when everybody was really afraid, was when the other building went down.

“We didn’t know exactly,” she said. “But when we were going down the stairways, the lights flickered. (There was) this tremendous roar and the stairway shook. I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I can imagine that’s what it’s like. And that building was down, and we’re holding onto the bannister, and the building is shaking and no one said a word. It was silence until the noise had stopped, and that’s when we were very afraid.”

It took a full 10 seconds for the south tower to collapse, as the world watched. The dust cloud from the wreckage covered lower Manhattan like a thick fog.

“Every year I see those faces – covered in ash,” Fajardo said. “I see the firefighters, I see the little kids, I see the people running away from all the destruction. Every year it all comes back to me on the anniversary.”

Even 14 years later, Fajardo still remembers the feeling of helplessness and despair as he watched a sea of ash-covered faces aimlessly wandering through the smoke and rubble. At the time, he began feeling numb as events continued to unfold. The crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and the collapse of the Pentagon’s outermost offices -- both only minutes after the south tower came down, seemed to pass by in a daze for Fajardo and many others.

“We focused on the mission as much as we could,” Cullen said. “We really built up a number of bases. Eventually the exercise restarted, and then what happened was the exercise kind of transformed into the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Although Cullen was able to focus on the mission, his thoughts never wandered far from the people suffering through the tragedy.

In New York, as rescue workers continued to fight fires, clear debris and search for survivors, people turned their attention toward the north tower -- as its southwest corner began to buckle and lean.

“Well, it was probably a half hour later that I heard the same rumblings coming down,” said NYPD Officer David Brink, who described his attempted evacuation of the north tower. “I said, ‘Aw, geez. Here we go again.’ I said, you know, ‘What’s the chance of me surviving another collapse? I don’t know – not too good.’”

Brink said his initial reaction was to run down the stairwell he was sending evacuees through. However, he knew the impending collapse would happen before he could escape -- so he found a small landing, grabbed the nearby wall and hoped for the best.

“This time it seemed like the collapse lasted forever,” Brink said. “The whole ground was shaking. Nothing was on fire by me, but still, the blinding smoke. But I was at the base of the smoke, I couldn’t run anywhere, the smoke was all around me and the debris and the cloud of dust. It was choking. It was the closest to dying that I’d ever thought about.”

What began at 10:28 a.m., and lasted only a few seconds, seemed like hours to Brink. When it was all over, the once great building lay in ruins, strewn with the bodies of 1,400 people who died when the north tower fell.

“We were all at Andrews (Air Force Base) at the time, just sort of sitting around,” said Lt. Col. Monty Baker, the 423rd Medical Squadron Mental Health flight commander. “I think we had all gathered around a cafeteria, and there were TVs in that area. We were all just sort of shocked, you know. It was kind of surreal. This was actually, truly happening.”

Baker, who had only recently joined the Air Force as a second lieutenant, said a call came down for volunteers to travel to the Pentagon and assist people who had lost loved ones in the attack. Without a second thought, he raised his hand and went where he was needed.

“I thought, ‘maybe I can make a difference,’” Baker said. “It really defined my role and made me realize what I could do to help others.”

The feeling of wanting to help was not unique. Across America, people rallied together and looked for ways to help. In New Jersey, Fajardo said his mind was conflicted between wanting to stay safe and needing to act.

“Everybody was saying, ‘Don’t go out, there might be collisions in the air,’” Fajardo said. “But there was a calling in the newspaper asking for people to donate blood. So, I left my house and went to a shelter. It was all I could do.”

Fajardo said he felt humbled giving blood, but at the same time, a sense of despair followed him as he realized how many people were affected by the attacks.

“It wasn’t enough,” Fajardo said. “I had to do more.”

At what was now being called “ground zero,” teams of rescue workers relentlessly dug through the ruined remnants of the World Trade Center, hoping to find survivors.

“There was no heavy equipment in there yet,” said NYPD Officer Tony Conti. “We just had like a daisy-chain of human beings of cops and firemen. We passed equipment down. We passed shovels down, buckets, any hand tools. If you were on deck next, you would go in there and start digging away. It was dark and still kind of smoky. But you were pretty much working on adrenaline. That’s what made you go -- adrenaline -- and knowing the fact that someone was down there alive. You just wanted grab him and just hold him and pull him out.”

That feeling spurred Conti and others like him, to work through the night and into the morning – searching for survivors. It led Baker to the Pentagon, where he counseled people who lost loved ones in the attack.

“On the one hand, we were surrounded by this death and tragedy,” Baker said. “But, on the other, there was still hope. You felt that we were going to deal with this and move on.”

Baker said the opportunity to help others deal with their grief gave him a sense of pride to serve and help where he was needed, as well as an opportunity to see the best in other people.

“There are just so many really good people out there,” Baker said. “I saw it firsthand when I got there. All these volunteers from all over – different backgrounds and ways of life -- all wanting to help in whatever way they could. It was impressive to see that kind of humanity.”

Those across the ocean did what they could to help. Cullen worked in Egypt to transition an exercise known as Operation Bright Star into the opening stages of America’s war on terror.

“I think really what we just saw was another example of the greatest generation,” Cullen said. “The Airmen and the other service members who wanted to serve because of 9/11, we’ve seen that. That is what makes America so great and America so strong.”

Countless service members deployed in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Callens, who missed his grandfather’s funeral, found himself on a plane bound for Beale AFB, California, Sept. 14.

“Nobody was really saying anything,” he said. “They were just looking around. You could hear a pin drop. I mean, there was just silence.”

Two weeks after returning to Beale, Callens found himself on another flight to Southwest Asia, supporting U-2S operations in the Middle East. The events of Sept. 11 left a lasting impression on him.

“That day just changed America,” Callens said. “It changed our lives forever. It’s as significant as December 7, (1941). So, September 11, I believe, will be another day that will live in infamy.”

Fajardo said he will always remember Sept. 11 as a call to arms, the day he decided to stand up for something.

“I thought about it a few times and knew I had to do something,” Fajardo said. “A month later, I went to see a recruiter, and by January I was swearing into the delayed enlistment program.”

Fajardo, now a technical sergeant in the Air Force, said he wanted to always carry a reminder of why he joined.

“I chose September 10, 2002, as the date I went to basic training,” he said. “I joined because of September 11th. I joined because I love my country, and I would do anything to ensure it stays safe.”

Fourteen years later, Fajardo said that sense of patriotism has not diminished.

“I believe in the values that we live by,” he said. “We’re not perfect. We are not a perfect society. But what we have is truly amazing, and if anyone tries to take that away I will do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening.”