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NEWS | Aug. 31, 2021

New York Guardsmen responded selflessly to 9/11 attacks

By Eric Durr, New York National Guard

NEW YORK – Twenty years ago, New York Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Powell was the first member of the U.S. military to realize Sept. 11, 2001, was not going to be an ordinary fall day.

Powell was a full-time Air Guardsman assigned to the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York. The unit's mission was to control the air defense of the northern United States east of the Mississippi.

At 8:37 a.m. Powell, who was then a senior radar technician, took a call from a Federal Aviation Administration controller in Boston informing him an airliner may have been hijacked and that the FAA needed a fighter jet to get a visual on the plane.

NEADs commanders called the 102nd Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard and directed them to get two F-15s airborne.

At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

By the end of the day, 4,265 members of the New York Army and Air National Guard were on state active duty to respond to the attacks. This was in addition to 2,000 Active-Duty Guard Soldiers and Airmen who were at work that day.

New York Army National Guard Soldiers did not wait for the usual phone call alerting them to report to their unit for a state emergency mission. They saw what was happening on TV, put on their uniforms, and reported to the armory.

"The New York Army National Guard was magnificent," said retired Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Thomas Maguire, who was then serving as the adjutant general in New York. "The Soldiers went to the sound of the guns."

When the sun set on Sept. 11, there were 1,500 New York Army National Guard Soldiers on duty in lower Manhattan assisting police and firefighters. Another 1,500, mostly from units of the 42nd Infantry Division, were on hand to assist Sept. 12.

Meanwhile, the New York Air National Guard's 174th Fighter Wing at Hancock Field Air National Guard base immediately launched two F-16 fighters to attempt to intercept United Flight 93, which eventually crashed in Pennsylvania.

Majors Gregg Semmel and Tom Owens had been about to take off on a routine air-to-ground gunnery exercise at Fort Drum. They had only 20 mm cannon ammunition loaded and were not sure how they would shoot down a Boeing 757 if they had to.

Both men are now two-star generals, serving in key Air Force jobs.

By the end of 2001, 12,817 New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen had been part of the response to the World Trade Center attacks. At one point, 6,716 Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen were on duty.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, highly trained pararescue Airmen from the 106th Rescue Wing on Long Island assisted in locating some survivors of the attack in the wreckage and in recovering the bodies of firefighters killed when the building collapsed.

Soldiers from New York City units provided support to the "bucket brigades" in clearing debris in the search for survivors.

New York Army National Guard logisticians moved equipment and supplies and Stewart Air National Guard Base served as a hub for emergency supplies flowing in from across the country.

The New York National Guard's 2nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, which is equipped to detect chemical, radiological and biological hazards, monitored the air quality at Ground Zero and provided communications support to first responders.

New York Army, and eventually Air National Guardsmen, began a day-to-day routine of assisting in securing the site, then providing security on New York's bridges and tunnels, train stations and subways.

When residents of lower Manhattan were allowed to return to their homes, National Guard Soldiers took them into and out of their buildings. National Guard Soldiers provided fuel to emergency vehicles when asked and aided emergency workers at the site. They directed traffic and helped organize incoming supplies.

New York residents said they felt safer having the military on their streets.

"Our city's resources have been stretched to the limit," said Nadine Koza, a Manhattan resident at the time. "We need you here to keep us safe."

As the immediate response evolved into a security operation, armed Soldiers manned checkpoints at bridges and tunnels to assist the police and were also visible at Penn Station and Grand Central Station. Over time, that mission evolved into Joint Task Force Empire Shield, still on duty in New York City today.

"I feel much better that the National Guard is here," said city resident Karen Lutzker in 2001. "If I hadn't seen the National Guard at Grand Central Station, I might not have taken the subway."

While this was going on, the Department of Defense mobilized National Guard forces as part of Operation Noble Eagle, a massive homeland security mission at airports and federal installations.

Elements of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, mobilized on federal orders to protect West Point, while the 1st Battalion, 127th Armor in Buffalo sent elements to guard government sites in the northeast.

The 27th Infantry Brigade sent Soldiers into 19 commercial airports and four nuclear power sites across the state to beef up security.

More than 800 members of New York's two state military forces, the New York Naval Militia and the New York Guard, also took part in the response. 

Five members of the New York National Guard were among the 2,763 people who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

New York Army National Guard 1st Lt. Gerard Baptiste responded as a firefighter, Army National Guard Sgt. Larry Bowman was a security guard in the Twin Towers and died helping evacuate people, and Army National Guard Spc. Roshan Ramesh Singh worked in the towers and did not escape.

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Andy Brunn was a firefighter responding in the north tower, while Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jerome Dominguez was a member of the New York Police Department.

Thousands of the New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the years following the attacks.

The New York Army National Guard has deployed troops to Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas 14,512 times since Sept. 11, 2001, while the New York Air National Guard has deployed Airmen 11,033 times. Some Soldiers and Airmen have deployed multiple times to combat zones.

One of those was Sgt. Christian Engledrum, a member of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry. Along with other New York City firefighters, he was captured in a news photograph raising a battered flag over the World Trade Center site.

Engledrum and three other members of the 69th died on Nov. 29, 2004, when an improvised explosive device struck their Humvee on patrol in Baghdad.

A total of 39 members of the New York Army and Air National Guard died in those deployments in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks.