My 9/11

Last Sunday I cleaned out my gutters and sprayed my rooftop with an environmentally safe liquid to kill the moss build-up common in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

I didn’t know it at the time but while I was on my roof several members of the U.S. Navy’s elite Seal Team 6 were killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

What follows is a description of what I experienced during the 9/11 terrorist attack. At that time I was a Lieutenant Commander assigned to the Naval Station in Everett, Wash.

A note about the photo: This American flag was flown over the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2002. It was presented to me by the Commanding Officer of Naval Station Everett upon my retirement from the Navy.

*  *  *  *

This was my 9/11.

I got up about the same time as always, shortly before 6 a.m., got shaved, showered and into my khaki uniform. I probably checked to make sure my ribbons and collar devices were on straight. I grabbed a quick bowl of cereal and sat down in front of CNN to catch a few minutes of news before heading to the Naval Station.

I’m not sure, but I don’t think I finished the bowl of cereal.

The newscaster said something about a light plane hitting one of the towers, and then they showed some video. It was no small plane — that much I knew — so I told my wife “I have to go on now,” and headed to work as my youngest daughter sat open-mouthed in front of the TV.

In the 15 to 20 minutes it took me to get to the base, I believe — but am not sure — the second tower was hit. The timeline in my mind is fuzzy, remains fuzzy, for some reason.

As I walked through the door of my office in the Administration Building, the Commanding Officer’s assistant rushed up to me and asked “What do we do?” I told her to grab the classified laptop with the message-writing software from the security vault and to head over to the base Emergency Operations Center (EOC), located in the building occupied by the security and fire departments.

The CO’s assistant also told me one of the towers had fallen. I do remember that fact didn’t make much of an impression on me — Fallen? Tower? How’s that possible?

*  *  *  *

I walked into the command suite and the Commanding Officer was there. He also asked me what we should be doing, and I suggested activating the EOC. He was well ahead of me, having told the security guards on the front gate to radio the activation order as he was entering the base.

There had been a change of command at Naval Station Everett just a few weeks earlier, with the current CO taking over. In a fortunate happenstance, he had overseen an earthquake training exercise in the EOC during his turnover with the prior CO.

Within minutes of passing through the front gate I was at my post in the EOC. As the fourth senior officer at the base, I would be named an EOC watch commander later that day, but for now I was just providing admin support and writing classified situation reports to document the base’s response.

It was noisy and hectic at times, but the word that the second tower had fallen cut through everything.

Much of what happened inside the EOC that week and the next several would only be intelligible to someone who had spent time on active duty. And some things may be classified to this day. A few things that stand out follow.

_ _ _ _

A crowd gathering around to see the photos on the Web of people jumping off the burning towers. Within the flurry of activity in the EOC, that gave everyone a small moment to realize the enormity of what was going on.

_ _ _ _

A junior Sailor asked me how it was possible to take over an airliner with just a boxcutter. I thought about the question for a bit, then described a scenario that was later reported as having in fact happened. We didn’t realize it then, but we were starting to think differently.

In the weeks that followed I remember seeing intelligence assessments that said any U.S. military personnel captured by Al-Qaeda should understand they were going to be killed regardless of what their captors told them, and therefore any and all actions should be undertaken to regain their freedom.

_ _ _ _

When the casualties from the Pentagon were identified, we found the name of a Sailor who had passed through the Naval Station en route to that posting. I had actually signed a transfer evaluation on her. So many passed through like that, but I remembered what she looked like.

Our Commanding Officer also found a connection to one of the Pentagon deaths. While serving at the Navy personnel center, the CO had written the orders sending that officer to the Pentagon.

_ _ _ _

There was real concern that the 9/11 attacks would eventually come to the West Coast. Some ships homeported at the Naval Station were dispatched to stand off Seattle, and I believe Portland and San Francisco, to provide an anti-air warfare capability in the event more airliners were hijacked.

_ _ _ _

A reserve officer wearing a Special Warfare breast insignia suddenly appeared in the EOC on 9/11. He lived locally and decided to put on his uniform and see what he could do to help out.  Grateful for assistance from an “unconventional warrior,” the CO involved this officer in all discussions about base security and seemed to give great weight to his recommendations.

Unfortunately, in the months after 9/11 we found out this officer didn’t have the background or experience he claimed and wasn’t even authorized to wear the Special Warfare pin.

_ _ _ _

Sometime after 9/11 there was a national candle-lighting ceremony. Several of us on watch in the EOC stepped outside and lit candles. What struck me the most was the absolute quiet of Everett. No cars were moving, no horns, no wind, nothing but dead quiet.

_ _ _ _

I may have spent the first night on base, or I may have gotten home sometime around midnight — I can’t remember at this point. I do know we all put in long, long hours for quite some time after 9/11, but in retrospect it is tough to recall what we were doing. “Everything” comes to mind.

Tensions ran high among the Sailors standing watch on base during the heightened threat condition. Some were trained security force personnel, but others were pressed into service, too.

A few days after 9/11, one of lookouts reported some unusual activity on the bluffs across Possession Sound near the town of Mukilteo. As it was outside the wire, we contacted the Everett Police Department and they promptly hauled in some guys who were hang-gliding off the bluffs, over the water and then back on land.

Of course the hang-gliders were let go after a few hours of questioning, but I still had to write a situation report to be sent up to higher authority explaining how an observation spiraled into some X-Games wannabe’s getting locked up.

*  *  *  *

In the week after 9/11 while I was on duty in the EOC, I refused entry to the base for a soda delivery truck. The driver was wearing a work shirt with a different name than what was on his ID card. The driver, and later his dispatcher, couldn’t believe I wouldn’t let the truck in. My response in both cases was the same: have you been watching the news this week?

*  *  *  *

Years earlier, as a young officer onboard a brand-new ship, I had made a port visit to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The local Navy League hosted a reception for us attended by about 200 local dignitaries. We attended in our summer white uniforms; a common joke was that those uniforms made us look like ice cream vendors or old-time milk men.

After the reception several of us headed out to a local bar, and with drinks in hand we took a table on an outdoor terrace overlooking the city. There were other people there, not from the reception, and some of them made fun of uniforms.

The loudest group was made up of some young ladies and gentlemen who had strong New Yawk/New Joisey accents. The senior officer with us told us to ignore the hecklers, saying “We keep them free whether they know it or not.”

While I was standing in the EOC one day after 9/11, it occurred to me one or more of those people may have been in one of the towers, or the surrounding buildings. I hoped not, but also hoped they finally understood who those guys were in the white uniforms on the terrace in Fort Lauderdale.

*  *  * *

That was my 9/11, and some of what happened after.

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One response to “My 9/11

  1. Pingback: Running into the fire | Scott Whitmore

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