On September 11, 2001 I was working as a flight instructor at Flight Safety International in Vero Beach, Florida. Unlike many pilots that morning, I wasn’t flying. Instead I was working in the academy’s flight simulator lab.
While in the lab, I noticed that the internet abruptly stopped working. A little while later, a woman who worked in the building came in and said that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center.
My first thought was that it was an accident. I had heard about an army bomber in the 1940s that had accidentally flown into the Empire State Building. Those thoughts vanished abruptly when the word came a few minutes later that a second airplane had hit the WTC. Airplanes don’t just fly into buildings… especially two airplanes within minutes of each other.
Little by little, word trickled in about the attack on the Pentagon and the mysterious crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania. The internet didn’t work again for weeks after that, although I never found the connection between its disruption and the attacks, if any. Confined to the room by my work, I learned slowly what little was known about the attacks at the time.
At lunch, I was able to go down to the school café and watch the news coverage on television there. The small café was filled with people watching the replays of the airplanes striking the towers of the World Trade Center and the collapse of the towers.
I learned that American Airlines Flight 11 had hit the north tower at 8:46 am. I learned that at 9:05 am United Airlines Flight 175 had crashed into the south tower. I learned that at 9:37 am American Airlines Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon. At 9:59 am, the south tower collapsed. The north tower followed at 10:28 am.
While all this was happening, the passengers and surviving crew were fighting for their lives aboard UAL 93. At 10:06 am, they lost their struggle as the plane crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. Their courage saved countless other lives.
At that time, the academy had a contract to train the pilots of a large Saudi Arabian airline. These students had been the source of much amusement in the past. In one case, several Saudi students had gotten drunk and ran their car into the school’s sign. In another, some Saudi students had been caught watching pornographic videos on VCRs in the school library.
Today though, the Saudi students in the café seemed to be the ones who were amused. They were talking animatedly in Arabic and I saw more than a few smiles. Their antics drew angry glares from many of the Americans in the room, but they seemed not to notice.
That afternoon I had been scheduled to fly with several students, but the word reached us that every airplane in the United States was grounded until further notice. I went home and watched the coverage for the rest of the afternoon.
There were early reports speculating on what had happened on the four hijacked airplanes, including UAL 93. There were rumors of other hijacked airplanes. There were guesses as to who was responsible. There were reports from Ground Zero in Manhattan where concrete dust choked the air and firefighters searched the rubble for survivors.
The story doesn’t end on September 11. Flight Safety was one of the schools investigated by the government because it was believed that some of the hijackers might have trained there. The school was eventually cleared, but federal agents were there in large numbers for the next several days.
The airport remained closed, along with the rest of the nation’s airspace for several days. The only airplane I remember seeing move was a lone Coast Guard jet that brought in federal agents. The local newspaper headlines for the next few days covered stories of raids by FBI agents and SWAT teams on the houses of Saudi students in town.
Airliners started flying again a few days later, but it took several days longer for general aviation aircraft and flight schools to get back to business. Since we couldn’t fly, we got our students into ground school sessions instead. Along with millions of other Americans, I gave blood to help the survivors of the attacks, or whoever else needed it.
A few days later, on September 18, a second wave of terror started as envelopes containing anthrax spores started turning up. One of the envelopes was sent to American Media in Boca Raton, Florida, about an hour away from Vero Beach. One of the employees died from the attack.
At the time, I assumed, along with everyone else, that the anthrax attacks were linked with the 9/11 attacks. For days and weeks afterward, I expected more attacks. I wondered if the next wave might be suicide bombers who would simply walk into restaurants, shopping malls, or other crowded areas and kill more people at random.
I remember going an airline flight not long after. As we walked through the security line, a soldier in combat fatigues with a very large, very imposing automatic weapon watched us.
Shortly after, President Bush announced that the perpetrators of the attack were a previously unheard of (at least my me and most other Americans) group called al Qaeda, which was led by Osama bin Laden. He was hiding in Afghanistan and American troops were sent to get him and destroy al Qaeda’s camps.
After Afghanistan came Iraq, and with that came controversy. Bush’s reputation became tarnished by the lingering insurgency there. There was partisan bickering over who was at fault for not stopping the attacks and the justification for toppling Saddam.
I’m convinced that, as historians look back, President Bush’s most important and enduring legacy will be that he held the nation together after September 11. He was the strong voice of unity and determination that kept us from despair and held us together. His swift and decisive actions are directly responsible for the fact that the US has not had another major terror attack since 9/11, in spite of numerous attempts.
After the attacks, students all but stopped coming to Flight Safety. With no students to fly with, I was lucky enough to find my first airline job about nine months after the attacks.
When the government announced the creation of a program to arm airline pilots to prevent another 9/11-type attack, I volunteered and became a Federal Flight Deck Officer. I carried a gun protecting my flights without incident until I left the airlines to fly private jets.
Today, al Qaeda still exists, although it is a shadow of the organization it once was. The larger threat today comes from Iran, a longtime sponsor of terrorism and a nation that has quietly been at war with the United States since 1979. Their current push to obtain nuclear weapons is almost complete and could result in attacks that would make 9/11 seem trivial.
Please comfort the families of all the people who have died or been injured in this war,
Please keep us from harm,
Please restore peace to the world,
Watch over and protect those who protect us,
And help us to learn from the past
So that we don't have to repeat it.
In Jesus name,