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In their own words: Guard members tell personal accounts of 9/11

By Army Sgt. Darron Salzer | National Guard Bureau | Sept. 10, 2011

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JOINT BASE-ANDREWS, Md. - As the 10-year anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, those who were there - or who knew only someone that was directly affected - are once again telling their story, a story that can be tragic or heroic.

Guard members that day answered the call to protect Americans, provide immediate relief to those who needed it and provide comfort in the difficult days that followed 9/11. Today, these men and women are a large part of the living history of that tragic day.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Carol A. Timmons, director of the Delaware National Guard joint staff, and a pilot for a major airline, said, "That morning I was scheduled to take off from Kennedy Airport at 9 a.m. flying a Boeing 767 to Los Angeles.

"It was a beautiful morning. I remember that I woke up early since I drove in from the Delaware area … and as I drove I remember just thinking what a gorgeous, beautiful day it was."

She said that as she came over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and looked up the Hudson Bay towards New York, "I could see the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers. Going over that bridge is just a beautiful drive."

Running late for work due to traffic and enjoying the commute as she always did, Timmons would never have thought that that would be the last time she'd ever see the towers of the World Trade Center. As she rushed to her plane and strapped into the first officer seat, a flight mechanic came over the cockpit radio with news of a fire in downtown Manhattan.

"He said, ‘Hey, did you hear there was a fire downtown?' and we said, ‘Ehh, no one told us there was a fire,' so we kept on doing our thing," she said. "We'd gotten clearance to push-off the gate and clearance to taxi, and literally at 9:03 is when we released the brakes. We turned right so our tail was facing the city and we couldn't see the city.

"When we got out on the taxiway, the ground controller said there was a ground-freeze and everyone stop where you are, and at just about that time we started getting messages from the company."

As she and the pilot received messages to secure the cockpit of the plane because there had been hijackings, Timmons rose from her seat to barricade the door with a feeling of regret, knowing that the flight attendants - who were just as important as family - were left in the rear of the plane to deal with whatever.

"It was a very difficult thing to do," she said.

"The pilot calls them to tell them what was going on, so as he is doing that, I know that I can get a local AM station on one of our radios so I dial [WCBS] 880 CBS [New York] to find out what the heck was going on."

Timmons said as she sat there listening to the radio, they announced that two airplanes had hit the towers and started a fire - it was a terrorist attack on America. Hearing that news caused her to stop for a moment in disbelief over what she was hearing.

"I looked at the captain and told him that I had to call my mother," she said. "That was my first instinct. My mother hates that I fly, and she knows that I'm flying that day, so I get on the cell phone and call her and she is hysterical beyond belief."

Timmons, who at that point was trying to calm her mother down and deal with her own emotions, said she told the captain to announce over the PA system what was going on and that passengers should contact their loved ones. "I knew that eventually we wouldn't be allowed to use our cell phones, and about an hour later you couldn't."

"We were honest with the people," she said. "I piped in the radio so they could listen in on the audio and we were just upfront with them about what was going on."

At about 9:20 a.m., Timmons and the captain were told by the traffic control tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport that the airport was being evacuated and all planes on the flight deck were on their own to find a way back to their departure gates.

"When we turned to taxi back to the gate, I could see that the Twin Towers were on fire," she said. "I can still se that pretty clearly."

Shortly after arriving at the gate, Timmons said one of flight attendants called up to the cabin with some disconcerting news.

"She said, ‘We've got some guys back here that are very agitated that we're going back and that we're not taking off and they look Middle Eastern,' and the captain said there was really nothing that he could do but to let operations know about them," Timmons said.

As soon as we got to the gate and got the door open, those guys were off, she said. "It was total chaos at the airport and they just disappeared into the crowd and there was nothing we could do."

Some believe that Timmons' plane was intended to be the fifth to be hijacked that day. After searching the plane, investigators found evidence of ties to al Qaida in the bags of the men who disappeared.

"They locked down the airport so we couldn't go anywhere," she said, "and you couldn't even got off of the island of Manhattan unless you were an emergency or first responder vehicle."

Timmons said her military training in the National Guard is what allowed her to keep a level head and react to the information about the day's events in a calm manner. Knowing that her first priority was her mother and then the well being of her passengers and crew was just a matter of going into a mission-mode.

"It wasn't until I got back to operations that it really hit me," she said.

"And the whole world has changed since that day."

Timmons said airport security has changed dramatically since Sept. 11, "and the National Guard is now an operational reserve. In the '90s it was a big deal to send an aircrew and plane for 30 days to do a mission, and now a [deployment] with several aircraft for four months is a non-event."

Looking back on the last 10 years, Timmons said the events of that day are a reminder, "of who and what we lost that day. I lost pilots that I flew with, flight attendants that I flew with - people that I considered family."

"We can never forget and we must always remember that loss. Therefore we are always creating a safe environment and keeping our eye on the mission."

A first day to remember

The first day on the job can be a challenge for some people as they try to find a place amongst coworkers or familiarize themselves with office policies and procedures.

It certainly was for Air Force Col. Mark Valentine, a staff officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff Directorate for Antiterrorism/Homeland Defense as the Department of Defense liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I had done 10 years in the regular Air Force," said Valentine, "and I was getting a tour of the [113th Wing] when the events of September 11 went down.

"It was my first day in the National Guard."

Valentine said he was getting a tour of the building that his new unit called home and talking to his coworkers when one of the intelligence officers came into the room and said a plane hit the World Trade Center.

"Of course as a group of pilots, we all looked at one another and thought it might have been someone improperly trained or caught in bad weather and got into a situation," he said. "About five-to-10 minutes later, we all got up to get a coffee from the break room and there was a television.

"I will never forget that when I looked at the television that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up - that is ingrained in my memory - and it was not because the big burning hole in the side of the Trade Center with smoke coming out, it was because of the fact that it was a blue, clear day."

As a pilot, Valentine said he knew that there was no way that what he saw was an accident - it was done on purpose. Standing there looking at the television, he saw the second plane hit.

"From there it was like time just dilated," he said. "We stood there for what seemed an hour, but was probably only 30 seconds, and then everyone just scattered and started doing their jobs.

"It made me proud to see that everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do."

Even though air defense was not a specific mission for his unit at that time, Valentine said the capability was there and the Airmen knew what to do to execute their role. "If there is ever anything that will give you pride, it's knowing that the organization you are with can take that kind of shock and still carry on.

"It was a tragic day, but also an empowering day."

He said he and a group of pilots tried to piece together all of the information they could from several military sources and finally made decisions to launch aircraft and send them north. "It was difficult because not a lot of [information] was out there," he said.

As they worked out a strategy, Valentine said he realized that they might be on missions for a while, "So we set up a rotation and had planes in the air for the next several months, 24/7."

On that day, Valentine does not believe that the National Guard changed. Instead, he believes that the impression of the Guard by external agencies changed.

"Particularly with the Air Guard," he said. "We were always looked at as the back-up to the regular Air Force, but after September 11, people started to look at the Air National Guard as a frontline fighting-force … as something that was going to be intimately engaged in what would become the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, in air defense alert in the United States and everything else."

Valentine said he doesn't believe anyone can go through what happened that day and not be affected in some way.

"We would hope that it makes us wiser, but it does definitely change your outlook," he said. "We just didn't know what was going to happen - it was tough."