On September 11, 2001 the world as we know it changed forever. 10-years has passed since that fateful day, and we as American’s still find ourselves struggling to make since of it all. Some of us have been able to move on; yet for others like myself, the mere mention of the words “September 11th” brings up paralyzing memories of a day that will forever live in infamy. As a nation comes together this weekend to remember those who sacrificed their lives, I still find myself angered, grieving, and questioning why this day had to occur. While each of us carries a memory of where we were when we heard the horrific news, there are some of us that still struggle to cope with what occurred that day. It’s been incredibly difficult for me because I was there to experience it firsthand. As my wife will tell you, this is not a subject that I like to speak about; in fact, this is the first time that I’ve spoke about it publicly since that fateful Tuesday morning. While most American’s watched the events of this day unfold on television, I had an unwanted front-row seat of what occurred at the Pentagon the morning of the attack. I’ve often been asked what happened that day, but I could never bring myself to speak openly about what I had witnessed. After much soul-searching, I’ve decided to share what I saw as a way to help myself cope with this ordeal; and try and lighten the burden that I’ve carried with me the last 10-years of my life.
In September 2011, I had been in the United States Air Force for 13-years. At the time, I was stationed at Anderson AFB on the island of Guam and was working as a General’s Aide. Like all General’s Aides before me, it was now my time to be sent to the Pentagon for 2-weeks of culinary training. This training occurred at a location in the Pentagon called the Executive Dining Room. This is the area where the top military leaders are fed and the culinary skills of chefs are honed. To be honest, as I began my second day of training, there seemed to be a real eerie feeling in the air. But I shrugged it off thinking that it was probably just the fact that working in the Pentagon was different than I was used to. As we were in full swing of breakfast service, one of my fellow chefs came flying into the kitchen telling us that an aircraft had just hit the World Trade Center (WTC). As we all huddled around that small television set in the corner of the dining room, I like everyone else thought it must have been pilot error. This was until we watched in horror as another plane hit the second tower. As we gasped in disbelief, the kitchen’s food vendor called from the Pentagon courtyard to let us know that the morning shipment had arrived. Needing a break, I volunteered to go down with a fellow worker to pick up the shipment.
Looking back, I realize now that it was pretty ironic that the delivery truck was parked on the same side of the Pentagon where the aircraft hit. We had just finished unloading the truck and started to leave the courtyard while talking about the WTC attack. As we entered the building it seemed as if things began unfolding in slow motion. I remember the glass doors closing behind me as I uttered the words that will haunt me until the day I die, “I can’t believe they hit the WTC, you think if they wanted to hit something they would hit the Pentagon…” Just as those last words left my lips, the building exploded into a ball of fire. We never saw it coming; and we were just a few hundred feet from the aircraft entry point. Till this day I still remember the powerful compression of the blast as it knocked victims to the ground. The glass breaking around us as the walls came tumbling down. Suddenly there was the skyline, filled with smoke. Even as I write this, the memories seem unmanageable; the horrifying sound of screaming victims as they jumped from the 3rd and 4th floors of the Pentagon; the smell of jet fuel in the air; and the stampede of military personnel as they began to evacuate in chaos.
As I ran through the dark hallways in a daze of disbelief, we opened doorways looking for survivors as we evacuated. Imagine 23,000 people in full-blown panic mode trying to get out at once. The outpouring of personnel yelling and crying as we ran down the halls was indescribable. As we made it outside to the exterior of the Pentagon, suddenly the aircraft fuselage exploded sending everyone scattering. People were climbing over fences, hiding under SUV’s, and running through traffic; anything to distance themselves from what was happening. There was such fear and hurt in everyone’s eyes. And take make matters worse, a new warning came over the loud speaker to take cover, an unidentified aircraft was approaching 20-miles out. Luckily this time, it was a false alarm. Yet here we stood, all cell phones were dead, the Secret Service, FBI and local police swarmed around us, and as many as 10 helicopters were flying around as smoke poured out of the Pentagon. To add to the chaos, F-16 aircraft began circling the perimeter and we were told to take cover because they had orders to fire on any approaching aircraft.
When we were finally released to go home, it was 12:30 pm; however, due to the traffic congestion, the once 20-minute drive to my hotel took over 4-hours until I walked in the door. During this 4-hour period, with cell phone service cut, I was unable to call anyone to let them know I was okay; let alone alive. As I grabbed the hotel phone there were so many messages on the hotel message service that they literally stopped recording them. How heart wrenching it was to know that my family back in Guam had known about the attack for 5-hours before I finally was able to call and tell them that I was okay. Not to mention, how much emotion poured out of me when I called my father’s work and told his receptionist that, “When you see my Dad, can you please just tell him that his son is alive…” As I recount what happened that day, I look back now and think how close I really came to dying. 45-seconds longer and I would have been in the exact area that the plane had hit.
Later that evening I received a call that the Executive Dining Room Staff and I were being called back in at two-o’clock in the morning to support rescue efforts. As we walked into the Pentagon it seemed liked such a hallowed place. The once bustling hallways were totally empty. As I write this, one thing that still sticks out in my mind were the plate glass doors entering the building. They were completely smashed as if they never made it open; as if someone was running trying to get out but couldn’t. As we worked to feed the troops, we used literally anything available. Our once 5-Star kitchen had resorted to making sliced hotdog sandwiches; anything to feed those working diligently to preserve this countries peace and freedom in a time of cowardly agression. As we worked through the early morning the Pentagon was still on fire. The walls and floors were covered with thick black ash. And the smell of smoke, jet-fuel, and another chard smell that I wish not to name kept us on the verge of upheaving. As dawn broke, I took a moment to walk about the Pentagon corridors. From the windows, I was able to peer into the courtyard. It was at this time that I was brought to my knees in uncontrollable tears. There, lay row after row of sheet-covered bodies; someone’s mother, father, sister, brother or friend. The sight of innocent people killed while defending our great nation. Lives lost for some useless ploy at disrupting our way of life.
It’s been 10-years and yet the memories seem just as vivid as the day they occurred. As we join together this tenth-anniversary of September 11th, we as a nation remember those who lost their lives. It is at this time that I find myself reflecting on a question that many people have asked, “Where was God on September 11th ?” When we think back at what happened that dreadful day, people tend to focus more on the evil and destruction and tend to forget the thousands of miracles that transpired in the face of evil. While thousands never made it out of the WTC and the Pentagon, there were also thousands that were able to make it out just in the nick of time. Let’s not also forget the brave passengers on Flight 93 who defeated the terrorists and saved thousands of lives from another plane attack. Yes, I can tell you firsthand that September 11th was a tragic and unwarranted attack on this country; however, though these events were horrific, God still proved that He was in control. We should never doubt His sovereign grace. Did God have the power to stop what had happened? There’s no doubt. Yet how many lives did He save that day? How many lives are forever touched? And as a direct result of September 11th, how many people made the commitment to place their faith in Christ for salvation?
So the question remains, “Where was God on September 11th ?” The answer is, right were He was supposed to be. It is in these moments of trial and suffering that we as Christ followers must lean on the words found in the book of Romans, “And we know that all things work for good to those who love God, and are called to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). If we have learned anything from the tragic events that unfolded on September 11th, it should be that we should not go to work each day in an illusion that we live in a perfect world. That nothing of this magnitude could ever happen on U.S. soil. The pain that was inflicted that day will never be forgotten. Only bandages can cover the sores, but the pain will never go away. I for one will never go a day without remembering what I saw. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t shed tears for our fallen heroes. And while I pray for the victim’s families, I thank God that I wasn’t one of them. If you’re taking the time to read this, you have somehow touched a part of my life and I thank you for being in it. I would ask you to go to work each day knowing that one person can really make a difference. That life is too short to worry about the small things. Hug your spouse, children, family, and friends and tell them that you love them. Because that one-day that you don’t, just may be the last day that you’ll ever have the opportunity to. God bless you, and GOD BLESS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!!!
Building HIS Kingdom One Soul at a Time…