It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her … For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the world-flash of a coming future.” – Martin Amis, Fear and Loathing, The Guardian newspaper, 18 September 2001.
September 11. It was just before 9 AM, as I pulled up to the guard gate athttp://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Worth_ARTCC. I was running late, and to make things worse, I had gotten a traffic ticket in a newly designated school zone on the drive over.
I saw an image of the World Trade Center on fire on the small TV inside the guard shack. The guard saw on my face the thousand questions going through my head. As he checked my credentials, he responded “It looks like a small plane has hit one of the Trade Center towers. Have a nice day”.
As I drove through the gate and into a parking spot, I checked my pager. As part of a group of air traffic accident investigators, I silently thanked the fates that this accident did not fall under my regional jurisdiction. Passing through security inside, I learned it was not one small plane, but two airliners that had each hit a tower.
On The Inside September 11
I was on site to attend training, but as the situation unfolded, I went to the front office to get the latest. I then reported to the control room to be available to do whatever needed doing. The atmosphere was a combination of focused, tense and surreal.
I was not certified to do any direct control at this facility, and in reality, there was little I could do in my position except watch the skies empty out. My air traffic gut told me the profoundness of what was happening, but my head had a hard time grasping it all.
In the end, I was sent home to await further instructions, routine and normal activity suspended. I lived at a small private airport, but with the skies closed, I could not even take my plane up to pass time. Everyone was grounded.
September 11 And Other Key Dates
Each generation has a moment, or two, that when asked, “Where were you when…”, images vividly emerge. For my parents and grandparents, it was Pearl Harbor. For me it was, as a child, the day President Kennedy was shot. As an adult, it was 9/11.
This is my first time to write my personal account of the day. There is not much to it, except the raw emotion and sense of helplessness and loss. The fact I was in a position for an inside view as regards the air traffic of the day just makes it personal to me. In reality, there was little I could do, but pray and be available.
A Universal Experience
We all have our stories of that day. Few were oblivious to it. The shock, loss and sense of violation went deep and wide around the world. It hit hard on multiple levels. For those who lost loved ones, a way of life, and more, the scars remain. For me, as a trained air traffic controller and private pilot, the attack using our airspace system felt personal.
Yet, at the same time, we witnessed a robust air traffic system function flawlessly in a way we never imagined. Yes, there were protocols in place for this magnitude of attack. I had learned them as an air traffic trainee in the 70s. But, to actually get those out, blow off the dust and and see them executed was stunning.
In the midst of confused messages behind the scenes, once the order came to ground all aircraft in the United States National Airspace System, within two and one-half hours, it was done. Most aircraft landed within the first hour. More than 3,300 aircraft diverted and landed with no accidents or significant incidents. Anyone can appreciate this, but those of us on the inside know the magnitude of this feat.
Strength In Weakness
Nineteen, years later, in the middle of a pandemic, I take courage. We are more prepared than we realize as a people. In our weakest moments, when we look beyond ourselves we find strength to move forward. Even if it requires blowing the dust off of a all but forgotten faith, looking to a merciful God, we can be assured of a positive outcome. Somehow.
Where were you on September 11? Let me know in the comments. No matter where or what, we all know what we were doing that day. Oh and by the way, my traffic ticket was dismissed.