“Let not adversity oppress thee: be rather like unto the nail; the farther ’tis hammered, the firmer it holds.”
IVAN PANIN, Thoughts
There are vivid moments in history when people can pull up detailed information of their thoughts, emotions, and whereabouts surrounding tragic events. If you were around in 1963 someone might have asked, ‘Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot?”December 7th, 1941, is another notable day – that is when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For the current generation there is 9/11, and ten years later the memories are still etched deeply within the conscience of American society. Many are still fighting the battle that started ten years ago.
On 9/11, I served as an enlisted member of the United States Navy onboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Specifically, I was attached to the squadron, VF-14 Tophatters, where my job was an Information Systems’ Technician. The ship just completed a long, hot, and challenging six month deployment in the Persian Gulf that started in April and it was then September. The ship was rounding the horn of Africa, bound for the Atlantic Ocean, when the television feeds from downtown Manhattan started streaming in on the ship’s network. I was in my squadron’s ready room updating flight information software on computers that were used to gather data from individual jets while in flight. The data was then used to perform repairs and maintenance on jets when they landed in order to sustain operations.
When shots of the World Trade Center first started filtering in, I saw Tower One engulfed in flames. At the time, I did not know what to make of it; in fact, I thought it may have been a gas line explosion. Reports started filling the airwaves that a plane hit the side of Tower One, but nobody knew if it was deliberate or an accident. As a New Yorker who grew up in Manhattan for twenty seven years, I knew that a plane hitting the building was far-fetched considering that was restricted airspace. Sometime later, there was a news break on TV that another airplane hit the side of the Pentagon in Washington DC. Now I was thinking this cannot be an accident, this is no coincidence. What was going on? As soon as those thoughts crossed my mind, I saw out of left hand corner of the TV screen the second plane slamming into the side of Tower Two. Then, an immediate fireball erupted from the side of the building and lots of debris came falling down. In the ready room, where there was the usual hustle and bustle of conversing pilots, there was dead silence.
My immediate thoughts were – did I know anyone who worked there, or did I know someone who lived close by? The closest person I can think of was my mother. She lived a few miles north of ground zero in Stuyvesant Town. I was going through a mental inventory list of friends and relatives, and I tried to remain optimistic that everyone was safe. As it turned out later, everyone on my mind was ok. Now as these events unfolded, the aircraft carrier, and its Battle Group, that were heading home stopped in the water to await further instructions. The events were still being broadcasted on the ship’s network, and 6,000 enlisted members and officers were glued to monitors. That is when another report came in that passengers overpowered terrorists on Flight 93, and took down a plane in Pennsylvania. Strangers on a plane decided to unite and not let anyone else die needlessly– what a selfless act I thought. My gut feeling told me that we were not going home after all, not after this. Our routine six month deployment may just have turned into something with more meaning.
The scenes that transpired following the impacts were nothing short of a horror film. I saw helpless people that were trapped on the 103rd floor of the Twin Towers jumping to escape a certain burning death. TV cameras showed the entire portion of downtown Manhattan covered in a thick, dark, coat of clouds consisting of smoke and ash. Then, an even worse scene appeared – one tower buckled and came crumbling down to the earth under the millions of tons of damaged weight and jet fuel burning, and then the second tower was leveled. Manhattan’s skyline changed forever. When that happened, my jaw dropped in disbelief and feelings of concern came over me about how many firefighters, police officers, emergency workers, and pedestrians were trapped under the rubble, or did not make it. I knew the numbers would be high. I felt helpless, because I couldn’t do anything to help being in the middle of the ocean. I could only watch in disbelief as my hometown was attacked by terrorists. For some reason at that moment, I recalled the few times I went to the top floor of Tower One, because every Thursday there was live music, great ambiance, and dancing. That would be no more. I felt sad and angry at the same time.
For a brief moment, the broadcast on the ship was interrupted by the Commanding Officer who came on the PA system to make a statement. He said that we were turning ships around and returning to the Persian Gulf. There, we will await further orders. After the events that transpired in Manhattan, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania the crew knew that we were not going home. You just got the vibe when the skipper of the ship came on the system live that some kind of response was coming, and we would be a part of it. During the announcement, the CO mentioned that the ship will maintain external communication silence – no email, no phones, and no contact with family and friends back home for an indefinite amount of time. The only courtesy we were granted was one hour of time to warn our friends and families of the running silent drill. We couldn’t tell them where we were going, or for how long, only that we were ok.
After the message, the feeds of downtown Manhattan came through following the destruction and from the Staten Island Ferry to Greenwich Village there was nothing but dense smoke, debris, ash, and people running away from ground zero. There were photographs and videos surfacing of brave men and women running into the collapsed mayhem to look for survivors. I couldn’t believe that a group of people had the audacity to hijack planes and carry out an attack that aimed to hurt the financial capitol of the world. The primary aim was to frighten and shake the foundation of the American people.
That evening, I remember President Bush coming on air to address the events that took place across the eastern seaboard. He mentioned that he placed the military on high alert, and that those responsible will be dealt with swiftly and harshly – that the United States will make no distinction between countries that protect terrorists and those that harbor them. The President also tried to rally the American people by emphasizing that now was the time to show resolve, strength, and the character of our country. Well, that is where the crew of the USS Enterprise came into play. A few days after 9/11, a mysterious tape emerged of a one Osama Bin Laden taking responsibility for the attacks and announcing that Jihad (Holy War) started. What didn’t make sense to me was how can any group support terrorism in the name of a religion, Islam, which promotes peace, tolerance, and compassion?
On October 7th, 2011, I was there when the bombing campaign started in Afghanistan. Tomahawk cruise missiles lit the skies over the Arabian Gulf and dozens of war planes launched off the decks of carriers to carry out our message. The message was that you can topple buildings, murder innocent people, and declare Jihad, but you still cannot shake our determination. I felt proud that I was part of history, even though there was a tragedy surrounding it. After all, these terrorists made a mess of my home town. I always considered Manhattan home, ever since 1979 when I first arrived there. I went to elementary school, high school, and college there and now a significant part was destroyed. While I could not be there to help, I was over in the gulf honoring the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Somewhere in a textbook one day when my son reads about 9/11 he will ask me, “Where were you on 9/11 dad?” All I have to do it is point to the wall in my house that has photos of the USS Enterprise and say, “I was there”. In truth, my son won’t even have to wait for a textbook, because every September 11th will be remembered forever.