America Goes to War

We all, if we are old enough, remember the horror we felt 18 years ago this morning. I happened to be home and watching the morning news, never, not once in my life have I been so shocked, and yes, angered. But we all were, I still remember the picture of a German destroyer coming alongside one of our warships on a NATO exercise,  rails manned, stars and stripes at the foretruck, and a homemade sign on the bridge, “We are with you”, it said.

We talk of this every year, as our parents and grandparents talked of Pearl Harbor, and it was the same kind of thing, out of the blue, mass casualties, and a coming together. Sadly that last didn’t last very long. My remembrance of the day is here, and I’ve spoken of the heroes of the day before as well, here. Both are, I think, worth rereading.

But we are continually learning more, and seeing people in a new light. Garrett M. Graff published in Politico last week an excerpt of his book: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. Even the excerpt moved me to tears and a huge respect for all those mentioned in it. I’m not sure how ‘fair use’ plays out here, but I think we should be all right with his chosen excerpt, and perhaps a couple pictures. I hope so, I want you to read this.

Gary Walters, chief usher, White House: It was a little bit before 9 a.m. when Mrs. Bush came downstairs—I met her at the elevator. As we were walking out, I remember we were talking about Christmas decorations.

Laura Bush, first lady: My Secret Service agent, the head of my detail, Ron Sprinkle, leaned over to me as I got into the car and said, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.”

Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, White House: I thought, Well, that’s a strange accident. I called the president. We talked about how odd it was. Then I went down for my staff meeting.

Matthew Waxman, National Security Council, White House: I had started about six weeks earlier as Condi Rice’s executive assistant. At about 9:00 o’clock, we would have a daily Situation Room meeting for the national security adviser and all the senior directors. It was during that meeting that the second plane hit.

Mary Matalin, aide to Vice President Dick Cheney: I was with the Vice President when the second plane hit, and we knew instantly that this was not an accident.

Condoleezza Rice: It was the moment that changed everything.

Matthew Waxman: We went into full crisis response mode.

Mary Matalin: We went right into work mode. While we were in his office making calls to New York, making calls to the president, making calls wherever they needed to be made, the Secret Service barged into his office.

Dick Cheney, vice president: Radar caught sight of an airliner heading toward the White House at 500 miles an hour.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney: We learn that a plane is five miles out and has dropped below 500 feet and can’t be found; it’s missing. You look at your watch and think, Hmmm, five miles out, 500 miles an hour. Tick, tick, tick.

Dick Cheney: My Secret Service agent said, “Sir, we have to leave now.” He grabbed me and propelled me out of my office, down the hall and into the underground shelter in the White House.

Mary Matalin: My jaw dropped and the jaws of my colleagues dropped because we had never seen anything like that.

Condoleezza Rice: The Secret Service came in and they said, “You have got to go to the bunker.” I remember being driven along, almost propelled along. We had no idea where it was safe and where it wasn’t. We didn’t think the bunker of the White House was safe at that point.

Dick Cheney: They practice this—you move, whether you want to be moved or not, you’re going.

Gary Walters: The Secret Service officers started yelling, “Get out, get out, everybody get out of the White House grounds.” I remember early on, the chaos. People running, screaming. Fear was in my mind.

Christine Limerick, housekeeper, White House: The look on the faces of the Secret Service agents who were told that they had to stay—I will never forget that because we had at least the opportunity to flee.

Ian Rifield, special agent, U.S. Secret Service: We were fairly confident that plane was going to hit us. The supervisor in the [Secret Service’s] Joint Operations Center basically said, “Anybody who survives the impact, we’ll go to an alternate center, and we’ll continue.” It wasn’t a joke.

Dick Cheney: A few moments later, I found myself in a fortified White House command post somewhere down below.

Commander Anthony Barnes, deputy director, Presidential Contingency Programs, White House: Vice President Cheney arrived in the bunker, along with his wife. The PEOC is not a single chamber; there are three or four rooms. The operations chamber is where my watch team was fielding phone calls. Then there’s the conference room area where Mr. Cheney and Condi Rice were—that’s the space that had the TV monitors, telephones, and whatever else.

Mary Matalin: It took a while for everybody to actually get to that area. It hadn’t been used for its intended purpose—which was to be a bomb shelter—since its inception.

Commander Anthony Barnes: Shortly thereafter, I looked around and there was Condi Rice, there was Karen Hughes, there was Mary Matalin, there was [Transportation Secretary] Norm Mineta. Mr. Mineta put up on one of the TV monitors a feed of where every airplane across the entire nation was. We looked at that thing—there must have been thousands of little airplane symbols on it.

Mary Matalin: The vice president was squarely seated in the center. It was emotional, but it was really work, work, work. We were trying to locate first and foremost all the planes. Identify the planes. Ground all the planes.

Commander Anthony Barnes: That first hour was mass confusion because there was so much erroneous information. It was hard to tell what was fact and what wasn’t. We couldn’t confirm much of this stuff, so we had to take it on face value until proven otherwise.

At 9:59 a.m., those inside the bunker—as well as millions more glued to TV screens around the country—watched in horror as the South Tower fell.

Mary Matalin: We saw the building collapse.

Commander Anthony Barnes: There was a deafening silence, and a lot of gasping and “Oh my god” and that kind of thing.

Mary Matalin: Disbelief.

Commander Anthony Barnes: There are four or five very large, 55-inch television screens in the PEOC. We would put the different news stations—ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC—on those monitors. I remember Cheney being as flabbergasted as the rest of us were sitting there watching on these monitors. Back in those days, a 55-inch TV monitor was a really big TV. It was almost bigger than life as the towers collapsed.

Dick Cheney: In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.

Mary Matalin: We had to go right back to work.

Richard Clarke, counterterrorism advisor, White House: Many of us thought that we might not leave the White House alive.

Matthew Waxman: One of the things we were all very conscious of down in the PEOC was that the White House Situation Room was staffed with our close colleagues and friends who were staying in those spots despite a clear danger. The Situation Room, which is only half-a-floor below ground, was abuzz with activity, from people who wouldn’t normally be posted there, but who felt duty bound to stay there to help manage the crisis. Especially early in the day, there was a palpable sense that close friends and colleagues might be in some significant danger.

Ian Rifield: There was a sense of frustration too, because we were sitting there. Everybody wanted to fight back. We’re trained to go to the problem, and we were sitting there. There was a lot of tension in that regard. You wanted to do something to protect the complex and the office of the president even better than we were, but we were doing the best we could with what we had. […]

Commander Anthony Barnes: I was running liaison between the ops guys who had Pentagon officials on the phone and the conference room [in the PEOC] where the principals were. The Pentagon thought there was another hijacked airplane, and they were asking for permission to shoot down an identified hijacked commercial aircraft. I asked the vice president that question and he answered it in the affirmative. I asked again to be sure. “Sir, I am confirming that you have given permission?” For me, being a military member and an aviator—understanding the absolute depth of what that question was and what that answer was—I wanted to make sure that there was no mistake whatsoever about what was being asked. Without hesitation, in the affirmative, he said any confirmed hijacked airplane may be engaged and shot down.

Col. Matthew Klimow, executive assistant to the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, Pentagon: No one had ever contemplated the need to shoot down a civilian airliner.

Major General Larry Arnold: I told Rick Findley in Colorado Springs [at NORAD’s headquarters], “Rick, we have to have permission. We may have to shoot down this aircraft that is coming toward Washington, D.C. We need presidential authority.”

Major Dan Caine, F-16 pilot, D.C. Air National Guard, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland: I handed our wing commander the phone to talk to the high levels of government to get the rules of engagement.[…]

Col. Matthew Klimow: It was a very painful discussion for all of us. We didn’t want the burden of shooting down the airliner to be on the shoulders of a single fighter pilot, but we also didn’t want to have that pilot go all the way up the chain of command to get permission to shoot. It was decided the pilots should do their best to try to wave the airplane off, and if it’s clear the airplane is headed into a heavily populated area, the authority to shoot can be given to a regional commander.

THE CALL

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, F-16 pilot, D.C. Air National Guard: This sounds counterintuitive, but when the magnitude of the situation hit me, I really lost all emotion. It was really much more focused on, What are the things I need to do to enable us to protect our capital? What are the things I need to do to facilitate us getting airborne?

Brigadier General David Wherley, commander, D.C. Air National Guard, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland: My translation of the rules to Sass was, “You have weapons-free flight-lead control.” I said, “Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?” [Sasseville and Penney] both said yes. I told them to be careful.

Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville, F-16 pilot, U.S. Air Force: As we’re going out to the jets, Lucky and I had a quick conversation about what it is that we were going to do and how we were basically going to do the unthinkable if we had to.

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney: We would be ramming the aircraft. We didn’t have [missiles] on board to shoot the airplane down. As we were putting on our flight gear in the life support shop, Sass looked at me and said, “I’ll ram the cockpit.” I made the decision I would take the tail off the aircraft.

Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville: We didn’t have a whole lot of options.

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney: I had never been trained to scramble [mobilize] the aircraft. It would typically take about 20 minutes to start the jets, get the avionics systems going, go through all the preflight checks to make sure the systems were operating properly, program the computers in the aircraft. That’s not even including the time to look at the forms, do the walk-around of the airplane, and whatnot. We usually planned about half-an-hour to 40 minutes from the time you walked out the door to the time that you actually took off.

Col. George Degnon, vice commander, 113th Wing, Andrews Air Force Base: We did everything humanly possible to get the aircraft in the air.

Major General Larry Arnold, commander of the 1st Air Force, the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida: Bob Marr quotes me as saying that I told him that we would “take lives in the air to save lives on the ground.”

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, F-16 pilot, D.C. Air National Guard: Seeing the Pentagon was surreal. It was totally surreal to see this billowing black smoke. We didn’t get high. We were at about 3,000 feet. We never got above 3,000 feet, at least on that first sweep out.

Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville: There was all this smoke in my cockpit. It made me nauseous to be honest with you—not from an Ugh, this stinks, it was more from an Oh my God, we’ve been hit on our own soil and we’ve been hit big. I couldn’t believe they had gotten through and they managed to pull off this attack.

Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney: The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves.

Lt. Col. Marc Sasseville: They made the decision we didn’t have to make.

There is much more at Politico and  I really want you to read it all. It includes the transcripts and remembrances of the phone calls and cockpit voice recorder from Flight 93.

Too often we talk about heroes, and often we exaggerate. We don’t here, from Vice President Cheney right down to the passengers and crew that took down flight 93, we can truly say,  The soul of the United States of America in action.

Thus ended the first day, many would follow.

 

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5 Responses to America Goes to War

  1. audremyers says:

    It’s as hard today as it was 18 yrs. ago. You wake up sad and you go to bed sad.

    I watch every program on tv and sit and cry like it’s happening now. But I don’t look away, I don’t turn it off. It is my duty, as an American citizen, to watch, remember, pray. I owe those flight passengers, office workers, first responders – I owe it to them so they are never forgotten.

    Liked by 2 people

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