Monday, September 12, 2011

The Guy In The Gray Suit...Were You There On 9/11?

If you know me, you no doubt have heard me tell of the 15 friends and acquaintances that I lost on 9/11. There are enough remembrances floating around on TV, Radio and the web and I don’t know that another serves any real purpose.  But something occurred to me this weekend that I'd previously not considered. I don't know why I never thought about it, how something like this could have slipped my mind but in the ten years since 9/11 the realization never crept into my consciousness. Saturday it did and the thought has consumed me since.

26 February 1993 didn’t start differently than any number of days for me. I woke, drove from my condo in Brooklyn, NY to United States Coast Guard Airstation Brooklyn at Floyd Bennett Field. A cup of coffee with the boys and off onto the hangar deck to work on one of the five HH-65A Helicopters that we maintained and flew. I remember that we had Howard Stern on the Radio in the morning as usual…everything was as usual. I wrapped up what I was doing around noon and was in the shop washing up before heading to lunch when the radio broke in with a news update. At 12:17pm an explosion had rocked the North Tower at the World Trade Center. It was reported that smoke was billowing out of the underground parking structure and was working its way up the tower, emanating from various ventilation ports on the tower.

Omar Abdel Rahman had assembled a group of like-minded assholes who had driven a Ryder van containing an explosive device made up of a central “fertilizer bomb" surrounded by a bunch of compressed hydrogen cylinders. The bomb was not unlike the bomb used by a bunch of similar assholes to blow up the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983. The asshole who built the bomb, Ramzi Yousef had designed the device with the intent that it would collapse the North Tower, causing it to fall into the South Tower destroying them both. As we now know, that plan failed but that isn’t really the point of this story.

By 12:25 or so the SAR alarm at the Airstation had been sounded. The place was instantly a beehive of activity. Aircrew’s were suiting up, helicopters were being towed out of the hangar onto the tarmac, we could hear the NYPD helicopter crews doing the same thing on the other side of the airfield. I had no idea what we were doing or really why as I ran across the tarmac in my flight suit, carrying my helmet bag toward helicopter # 6530. I completed a quick pre-flight of the aircraft, verified that we had a full SAR equipment load and as the pilots approached again inquired as to what we were going to do. “Playin’ it by ear, we’ll see what’s up when we get there.” was the best the pilot could offer. Within 5-7min the rotors were spinning and we were airborne from the South Side of Brooklyn heading for Manhattan.

As soon as we lifted off we could see the towers and column of smoke emanating from their base. The radios were ablaze with activity. The port of New York has a command structure managed by the Port Authority but in the event of a disaster response such as this it was handed over to the Coast Guard and the Command Center at Governor’s Island was managing the aerial response assets. All five Coast Guard HH-65A’s from Brooklyn were en-route as were all four NYPD helicopters from the same airfield. We were being directed to the top of the North Tower to begin taking people off the roof who were unable to make it out of the building.

Yousef’s bomb had severed the main electrical conduit in the North Tower shutting down the elevators and the air handling systems which kept the stair-wells pressurized. Smoke was pouring up the elevator shafts and stair-wells into the upper floors of the building. Many people, due to infirmities or injury were directed to or followed others to the roof.

The prevailing winds in Manhattan are out of the North, but on this day the reverse was true. We climbed to an altitude of about 1700’ as we approached Manhattan and circled upwind of the North Tower as the first helo on scene, an NYPD Bell 412 landed, took on passengers and departed for the South Street Heliport to offload. We began our approach and I was struck by two things as we neared the helipad. First was the sense of order. There was no visible panic on the faces, some smeared with soot, of those awaiting our arrival. The characteristic stoicism of New Yorkers combined with the group’s collective desire to assist those in deeper need than themselves worked to keep things calm. I distinctly recall one gentleman in a gray suit with a bright blue shirt had assumed a sort of “command” over the helipad keeping things in order and ensuring that those in greatest need were the first to get on the helicopters. The second thing that struck me was the beauty of the scene. Amid the underlying fear I and those awaiting rescue were feeling was an awe of the panorama before us. Even those who were waiting their turn were facing outward pointing at the various sites taking in a view, that not for this event they would never have from this vantage point.

We shot an uneventful landing to the helipad on the roof. The pilots made a quick calculation of our fuel load and estimated that we could take on 5 people at this time, a few more after we’d made a couple of trips and burnt off some fuel. Due to the direction we’d landed from, the door to the helo was facing away from the stairs where the civilians in need of rescue waited. I stepped from the helicopter onto the pad and circled around the outside of the rotor diameter to signal to the people waiting at the stairwell. As I did, I caught sight of the South Tower and immediately noticed the difference in the way the two buildings were swaying in the wind. The oscillations were slow, but seemed to be no less than 10-15’ in each direction. Somewhat vertigo inducing and I advised the pilots not to target fixate on the other building during takeoff. Our five passengers made their way across the pad, climbed aboard with no more drama than boarding an airline flight and we lifted off.

The pilot executed a no-hover takeoff as is typical in taking off from a raised platform and as we cleared the building we began a rapid descent toward the South Street Heliport. I glanced back to the five civilians sitting in the back of the helicopter and noticed that two had begun silently weeping. It took only a few minutes to descend to sea-level, quickly land at the heliport, off-load our passengers and take off again for the climb back to the top of the North Tower. We made roughly 15 circuits that afternoon. I have no idea how many total people were taken off the roof of the North Tower that day. Involved in the operation were our five HH-65A’s, four NYPD helos, two from the Suffolk Air National Guard and numerous news and private helicopters. Eventually the stair-wells cleared and many of the people awaiting evacuation turned and walked out.

On Sunday, 11 September 2011, ten years after a different group of assholes committed their act of barbarism against us all I was riding in my car listening to some wet behind the ears media jerkoff talk about the aftermath on the radio and I was stuck with a singular thought;

How many of those we rescued in 1993 were in the building on 9/11/2001? How many of those good people repeated their task of helping others before themselves? How many thought that this event might turn out as benignly as the first? I wonder about the guy in the gray suit and the woman who wept in the back of my helicopter.

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