Anyone born prior to 1990 can most likely tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was 8 months pregnant with my son and only one year before, we left the Pentagon to PCS to Southern Command. So of course we were very worried about our many friends still stationed at the Pentagon. My husband’s brother frequently did business in the World Trade Center and was actually on site during the prior bombing in 1993. Another family member is a New York City cop, so when we didn’t hear from either of these two men for a few days, it made for some very trying times. I was particularly emotional and questioned bringing an innocent child into a world that seemed so cruel and random. Scary times for sure.
The following are three stories from that fateful day. All three people are from different walks of the military life, but they illustrate perfectly how one event can be so personally experienced and yet universally shared at the same time. Here are their memories in their own words.
Mike, Active Duty Marine – Washington D.C.
I was at the Pentagon briefly on the morning of September 11, 2001, before I headed to my office at the Washington Navy Yard – where I was a senior officer representing the Marine Corps at the litigation branch for the Department of Navy. The Navy Yard lies along the Potomac River just a few blocks from the Marine Corps’ 8th & I Barracks and is home to some key Navy Command headquarter elements and the Chief of Naval Operations. On 9/11 it would serve as a unique, albeit brief, defensive position for key U.S.Government and Navy senior leadership.
I was headed to the coffee mess, when passing by a colleague’s office I saw him glued to a television. Speechless, (something hard for an attorney) he waived me into his office and simply pointed at the screen. I saw one of the two Twin Towers ablaze, the result of the first plane flying into the tower. We watched as another plane flew into the other tower. Instantaneously, we knew that life was changing for the U.S.
Shortly thereafter, our C.O. called us into his office and briefly summarized what he knew and told us to remain at our office. I sent a text to my wife and told her to watch the news. We were watching when the report came that a plane had flown into the Pentagon. A Navy officer and I ran to the roof top where we could see a plume of smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon. Almost immediately, the District and the Navy Yard seemed to erupt with sirens and lights. Armed Marines and Sailors rushed to the river front and set up defensive positions inside the Navy Yard and on key rooftops. A series of black car convoys with lights flashing, carrying national command decision-makers, raced into the Yard. We were ordered from the rooftops. The Navy Yard was now closed off – no one in, no one out.
I immediately tried to call my wife, but the phone system was overwhelmed. I sent a text, not sure if it would get through. I told her to stay put, that I didn’t know when I would be home. Soon thereafter, while watching the television, I saw the first tower collapse. I turned to my colleague and remember so well what I said, “I just felt 10,000 souls cry out.” I quietly said a prayer.
Much later that day, I drove through the streets of Washington D.C. They were entirely void. Not a soul could be found. I drove slowly across the 14th Street Bridge, and could see smoke continuing to rise from the Pentagon. As I crept in my car along the highway, I looked to my right. The burning, gaping hole in the Pentagon’s side was horrific. I thought of my fellow Marines and colleagues. I thought of their loved ones. I thought of this moment in history. I thought of God.
Michele, Military Spouse – Flying from the East Coast to the West Coast
My husband, a Marine Captain and Cobra pilot, was on his second deployment in over six years on September 11th 2001 and, at that moment, was sitting in the middle of a typhoon in Okinawa, Japan.
My not quite two-year-old son, Chris, and I were just finishing up a visit with family in the Philadelphia area and were flying back to our home in San Diego. Our flight took off at the same time the other flights took off from Boston.
After some time, the crew made an announcement that our aircraft was experiencing some issues and needed to land in Indianapolis to be checked out. They never once mentioned the crashes, the hijackings, or the potential of any terrorists who might be on our flight. The crew never gave any indication of panic or fear. They must have been horrified in that moment, but carried on professionally and gracefully.
Once we arrived in Indiana, the pilot immediately told us we could use our cell phones… still never telling us what was happening. This is how we found out about the crashes. No one could believe it – honestly, at first we thought people were kidding — and information was sketchy at the time.
Every flight in North America was being grounded at that moment so we couldn’t get to a gate for almost two hours. Remember my toddler? Yeah, two hours on the tarmac with an antsy toddler and the world falling to pieces was kind of stressful. I distinctly remember walking him up and down the aisle and having a couple of older ladies coo over him and his mass of curly dark hair. We chatted, I explained why I was traveling alone with a toddler, and at the end of the conversation I took the longest pause I’d ever taken in my life, to keep from cracking, and said, “I think my husband is going to war.”
Meanwhile, my husband had been frantically trying to get through on the phones for hours. All he knew was what was being reported in Okinawa: The crashes were East coast morning flights bound for the West coast with a crash in the fields of Pennsylvania. He thought for sure we were on the flight that crashed in Shanksville. When he finally was able to talk to me it took every ounce of my being to keep it together. The man sitting next to me on the plane had a female friend in Indiana who picked my son and I up from the airport and allowed us to stay over. All the hotels were booked and all the rental cars had been taken. Chris bopped around a soccer ball in her front yard while I spoke to my husband on the other side of the planet, in the middle of a typhoon, after watching the towers crash on CNN. Surreal doesn’t even cover it.
My parents drove through the night to take us back to Pennsylvania. My mother, originally from Quebec, wanted us to go straight to Canada. I had maintained my composure until about a mile into our trip and then cried for nearly three days. Upon arrival, I learned a friend from high school had been killed in Tower II. His wife was 8 months pregnant. For days all I could think was, “When is the other shoe going to drop?” I couldn’t get over the feeling that more horrible things were coming.
A portion of my husband’s squadron ended up in Afghanistan a month later. Afghanistan and Iraq became parts of our daily conversation and my husband has been to each several times and we’ve experienced more loss along the way.
And that toddler is now a lifeguard who drives himself to school, has a deep voice, a probably unhealthy love of Chic-Fil-A, and still has a mass of dark curls. He can also blast a soccer ball at ridiculous speeds. He doesn’t remember that day and was too young to realize his life was drastically altered. We are fortunate and will forever be grateful for that conversation with the random stranger on the plane and the lovely folks in Indiana who took us in.
Katrina, Navy Corpsman – Three months in the military
I was excited to start U.S. Navy boot camp on June 4, 2001. Many of my family members have served in the military.
On September 11, I was just over a month into Navy Hospital Corpsman “A” school. In the middle of class we were informed that one of the twin towers was hit by a plane. The instructor asked if anybody in class had any family or friends who worked in the Trade Center. A few of us raised our hands. I have a second cousin that worked there. We were all unsure about what exactly was happening. The instructors moved those of us who had raised their hands into a separate room and there was a television showing news reports and the image of the first tower being hit. I remember seeing it over and over again.
As the day continued and tragedy increased there was chaos and confusion. The base in Great Lakes, Illinois, was on lock-down. It was a very scary day. To be enlisted in the military, knowing that war was around the corner and that we were being trained to provide medical coverage for just that reason became a very real scenario. 9/11 made it REAL.
I was sent with a Marine unit and deployed several times. But I was lucky enough to not have seen and endured war. Many of my friends did and to this day I wish they never had to go.
9/11 was the day the United States changed drastically.
Author: Carla Olivo, PCSgrades Strategic Communications Coordinator, is a freelance journalist and event planner. She previously served as the Director of Communications for Operation Hug-A-Hero and as the Media Relations Officer for the Delaware Department of Transportation. She has garnered numerous industry awards including the Associated Press award for Spot News Reporting, News Writing, Enterprise Reporting, Documentary Reporting and Society of Professional Journalist awards in News Writing and Spot News Reporting. During her career as a television journalist, Carla covered the search for Manuel Noriega in Panama, Operation Desert Storm, The Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a retired USMC Lt. Colonel, and their two children. You can follow her on Twitter @olivowriter.