The morning of Tuesday, Septermber 11, 2001 was just beautiful in the Dallas / Fort Worth area. The temperature was nice, the air crisp and not a cloud in the sky. I was walking from my office to a conference room in another building thinking about how nice the morning was and totally oblivious to what was happening in New York.
Our Vice-President, a transplanted British guy who had been born on the tail end of WWII, started the meeting as usual. Within thirty minutes his secretary comes in and announces that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. My mind immediately went to some very old footage I had seen of a small plane hitting the Empire State Building in the ’40’s or ’50’s, I figured what happened at the World Trade Center was something similar so I was not too concerned.
After another thrty to forty five minutes, the VP’s secretary comes in again and says that the second tower of the World Trade Center had been hit by another plane. Everything went silent in the conference room and you could literally hear a pin drop. That was when I blurted out “we’re at war!” , all I could think of was “this is our Pearl Harbor.”
I saw the VP’s face turn completely pale white and I could see in his eyes that old memories were coming back. Immediately he cancelled the meeting and everyone scrambled to the company’s Network Operations Center to catch a glimpse of CNN. No one could speak, most of us were nearly paralyzed by what had transpired.
For me, however, the moment of sheer terror came when I found out that all aircraft in the continental United States had been ordered to land. Back in the 1970’s I was in active duty the US Army Air Defense branch. Among the things you are taught are two commands that are to be issued only by NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) and only in case of a national emergency.
In the bad old days of the cold war, these two commands meant that the USA had been attacked and we were probably engaged in a nuclear war. SCATANA – Security Control of Air Traffic and Navigational Aids – is a command given to aircraft where they are required to land within 15 minutes or risk being shot down. ESCAT – Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic – is a command given to aircraft that requires them to land immediately no matter where they are or also risk being shot down.
My mind was racing, I knew what it meant to have all the aircraft land – we were still under attack, enemy aircraft of unknown origin were probably still in our airspace. I couldn’t help it, my old military mind kicked in – possible air battle, possible nuclear strike, probable use of another aircraft as a weapon – scenario after scenario kept popping into my head. While my mind was spinning, I heard the news that the Pentagon, a valid military target, had been hit.
My military service had ended over 20 years before, but my mind was screaming “What are the orders?” over and over again. As if all of this were not enough, the rumors start running around – several aircraft are unnacounted for, an aircraft may have crashed, there may be a threat to tall buildings in other cities. Because of the potential threat to tall buildings, downtown Dallas was evacuated.
Panic, terror, paralysis all at the same time and all of us completely glued to the TV screen hoping against hope that the fires in both towers would die down.
The first tower collapsed, live and in full color for the entire world to see. The scene was surreal, I looked at my watch and realized that from the moment I was looking at the sky on a bright, beautiful morning to now barely ninety minutes had passed. Then, what seemed a few hearbeats later, the second tower collapses.
Our company was a multi-national enterprise with offices in dozens of countries throughout the world. As it turns out, our primary link to Europe ran through a hub in the basement of the World Trade Center. When the second tower collapses, we lose contact with Europe. The technical personnel that worked in the NOC (Network Operations Center) did their best to go through the emergency procedures for this kind of eventuality but no one was thinking straight today. We eventually re-routed and restored our communications, just in time to find out about the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
I remember, clear as today, an overwhelming feeling that something had ended. I felt that I had lost something and I would never be able to get it back.