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September 11, 2001: What I Experienced

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Friday, September 10, 2021
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September 11, 2001: What I Experienced
 
John R. Grant, JD, Professor, Justice Studies, Berkeley College School of
Professional Studies, and Retired Lieutenant Colonel, New York Army Guard
 
JohnGrant.jpg
Photo Caption: John R. Grant, JD, Professor, Justice Studies, Berkeley College School of Professional Studies, and retired Lieutenant Colonel, New York Army Guard, recounts his experience on September 11, 2001, as Commander, 9th Regiment, New York Army Guard.
 

Was the summer of 2001 a hot one, or was it cool, average even?  I do not remember, not now.  For that matter, as of 0900 hrs on the 11th of September of that year, I no longer knew or cared.  Instinct was starting to take over.

I live, and lived at the time, on Staten Island, the forgotten borough of New York City (and we like it that way).  We are fairly far from the bustle of Manhattan, although the gap keeps closing every year.  I woke up early that morning. I had to go to work and the college I was teaching at was located in Manhattan.  As Commander, 9th Regiment, New York Army Guard, my armory was also located in Manhattan. I remember it was a Ten Best Days of the year: the sun was shining brightly, but not punishingly, the sky was a dark blue, the temperature low enough, and surprisingly the humidity was also low. I was getting ready for work, talking to a friend on the phone, and I was using a landline because cell phones were still quite expensive.  Good Day New York was on the television.

Having said my goodbyes to my friend, I now concentrated on the program on the TV. Shortly before 9 a.m., my television suddenly went to snow.

I changed the channel, thinking there was a problem with that particular station. At the time I did not have cable TV. I saw snow on all channels, and thought to myself that the last time this had happened, enemies of the United States had bombed the World Trade Center. There was a TV antenna atop one of the Towers, which transmitted the television waves to sets in New York City. 

Just as I decided that I was not going to get any more news from the TV, the phone rang.  It was my friend from earlier who stated to me that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.  Practically thinking aloud, I said that was a no-fly zone, it is very strange that a plane should have hit the Tower.  We talked a few minutes more, passing banalities between us, when out of nowhere my friend told me another plane hit the Towers.  I said, “we are under attack, goodbye,” and hung up the phone. I then tried to call my Brigade Commander for further advice. The line was busy, so I turned the radio on, and sat to collect my thoughts. 

In short order I decided that I would be going to my armory this day and not to work. I tried to call work, another busy line. I figured I would pack a bag. I might not be home for a few days. It ended up being 90 days, but who would have known?  Finally, my commander was in touch with me, who called who, I am not sure.  He told me I should get to the Higher Headquarters Armory on Park Avenue as soon as I could.  This was not the easiest of tasks. I needed to take the train to the Staten Island Ferry, then the NYC Subway to the armory, a journey that was approximately 30 minutes on each leg.  I finished packing, put my uniform on, and set out for a journey I never thought I would make in the United States. 

I left my house to walk to the train station, and was almost immediately stopped by my neighbor.  She was almost beside herself, she was so frantic.  Her children attended a private school a good car ride away.  She was afraid the school would be a terrorist target and was sick with worry.  I assured her the terrorists had Manhattan in their sights, she shouldn’t worry.  Having calmed her somewhat, I proceeded to the train station, a short walk.  A few months before I had purchased a CD by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, titled ”500th Anniversary.”  On this CD, along with other selections, they featured Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” in its entirety.  As I walked to the train station, and during the short wait, my mind played back to me the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei.  A fitting sentiment as I travelled, not at all sure what I was going to find when I arrived at my destination. 

As I walked to the train, people were already coming home from work.  They walked away from the station as I walked toward it.  I noted they were upset, and that many of them were covered in what looked like baby powder.  As they passed me they would say things such as “Hurry, we need you there,” or “You cannot believe what they did to us” and things along those lines because I was in my Guard uniform. When the train arrived, I noted a small group of men on the train who were obviously members of the FDNY.  I was called over; they were hoping that perhaps I might know more than they did.  I told them I was as in the dark as they were, and we could travel together to Manhattan.  After a short while, we could look out the window, across the bay to where the Twin Towers had stood just this very day and were now replaced by a mushroom cloud. They had been called to go to the ferry terminal, and when they arrived they would be given instructions as to what they were to do. 

On arrival to the terminal, I could see there was panic in the air.  People wanted to get home and away from the horror they had witnessed.  I tried to get on a ferry, but the crew hand stopped me.  He stated that the ferries were being used to get people out of Manhattan, and further were slated to be morgues.  I told him that I had to get to Manhattan.  He said that I would need to speak with the Harbor Master and get his approval.    He pointed the way, and off I went.  Conditions in the Harbor Master’s office were out of control, and after waiting what seemed an eternity, I decided that I would return to the crew hand and tell him that the Harbor Master said to allow me passage.  The ruse worked, and as just about the only passenger aboard, an eerie feeling came over me, especially as I walked by the deserted snack bar.  All its wares were displayed, but no one was there to serve them or buy them.  As I looked toward Manhattan, just as I had noted on the train to the ferry, the Towers weren’t there. They were gone forever.

The ferry arrived in Manhattan, and five of us disembarked, where on a normal day the number would have been 1,500.  I noted a significant police presence, and went up to a group of police officers to determine if I could take the subway to my armory. They hadn’t been given any particular instructions, nor given any intelligence beyond what we all possessed at that moment.  I determined that I would have to walk, a decision I didn’t like much.  Here I was, in the proximity of a major terrorist strike, and I was out in the open in uniform, with a huge target on my back.  I still expected some sort of sniper attack or random suicide bombing.  This feeling would stay with me until Thanksgiving.  I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I was walking north to my armory, pretty much in the middle of Manhattan.  To my left was Ground Zero, my armory to the right.  I had walked a short way when I noticed a smell in the air, sort of like an electrical fire.  Up another block I encountered two nurses handing out surgical masks, something we are all too familiar with as of late. I took one and thanked them.  I was still smoking at this time, and had to lift the mask to take a drag every so often.  The mask, needless to say, was soon shoved into a pocket.

I went a little further and a soldier on a motorcycle passed me by.  He made a U-turn, stopped in front of me and asked, “Do you need a ride anywhere, sir?”  To which I replied “yes,” and would my ruck cause any problems?   “No sir,” he replied and off we went.  I told him to get close to the site of the attack, later known to us all as Ground Zero.  I wanted to look at what we were dealing with.  We got close enough to see the destruction.

After that, we went first to my Brigade Headquarters.  The Chief of Staff (COS) was already there, so I reported to him and conveyed my conversation with my Brigade Commander.  The COS felt I would serve better at my own armory, and as the motorcycle soldier was standing by, off again we went.

During this whole time, I was still on high alert for further terrorist acts.  Scenarios played through my head, as well as the aforementioned Kyrie and Agnus Dei.  By now the repetition of these tunes in my mind had formed into a prayer, a plea for all those injured or murdered in the attack, as well as for the safety of all responders.  The enormity of life lost was still unknown to me, to us.

I arrived at my armory amid a flurry of activity.  The 69th Regiment was setting up the large drill floor for an onslaught of injured.  I located the Command Sergeant Major for the Regiment, and informed him that by my reconnaissance, there would be no onslaught. I doubted even one injured would show up.  He wasn’t in my chain of command, and thanked me, but explained he was acting on orders and coordinating with St. Vincent’s Hospital.  All the same, I explained that I expected no casualties, and he should just take it on advice.  As it turned out, unfortunately, there were no injured reporting to us that day or any other, because most had perished.

I arrived at my command center in the armory. All was set up as had been taught and drilled over the years.  As the day progressed, I felt a certain pride in the response of my soldiers; so many had reported, ready to serve, no nonsense or excuses.  Orders came that we should guard the entrances of the armory, which were promptly carried out.  Messages, updates and orders poured in the rest of the day, as well as coordinating efforts with the 69th, and this filled most of the rest of the day for me.  At nightfall the shifts on the doors changed, and those not on the overnight shift were left to bed down.  No provisions were made for sleeping, so we all slept on the floor for the next few days.  I was very restless, so I decided to visit the troops on guard duty.  At each post friendly words were exchanged before I moved on to the next post.  I remember one post was manned, and the door was open at a side entrance to the armory.  As I spoke with the soldiers, we heard some people walking by, obviously putting an end to a night at a club or saloon.  They passed by, one man, two women, and seemed unfazed by the occurrences of the day.  Now in my mind played the tune “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey, and the words never seemed truer to me: “You're a native New Yorker, No one opens the door, For a native New Yorker.” Back I went to bed down, tired, yet wide awake.  As annoying as that can be, I thought, “well, there are so many people tonight who no longer have this luxury. Suck it up and be grateful.”   

The next morning, I went out to buy a newspaper.  I was informed that none of the New York papers had printed that day.  It would be a couple of days before the newspapers were printed again.  On the way back to the armory I saw the first of what was to become a common sight, a Missing Person xeroxed sign.  So many were posted with pictures of loved ones who had perished on 9/11, the posting person holding out hope that their loved one was still alive. 

Back at the armory I was informed that the Drill Shed floor was now going to be used to house all sorts of federal, state and local agencies, along with representatives of those businesses located in the Towers that suffered large losses of life.  Surviving members of families were to report to the armory with a DNA sample.  So many responded, the line went out the front entrance of the armory, all around the corner and up the street.  Of course, this created a media circus, just another annoyance to the survivors of this tragedy. 

The next day found me at Ground Zero.  I wanted to see the area, and determine if there might be a further role here for my soldiers.  On my arrival to a place well known to me, I was bombarded with impressions.  This was a place that was very busy, with all the sounds associated with the hustle and bustle of a city.  Today it was quiet.   Additionally, it was gray, very gray.  The dust of the Towers covered everything.  As we walked I felt like I was on the moon.  Each step I took, I sank about two inches in that gray soot.  The soot was a fine gray powder, so fine that it penetrated the stiches of your boots, the fabric of your clothes.  It penetrated to your skin, and had to be washed off as soon as you could get a chance to do so.   The place was deserted, except for those people who bravely worked on “the pile,” digging through the rocks, soot and boulders that were covering the lower levels of the Tower.  We walked by the food carts that were there every morning.  Now they also were gray with soot, abandoned, their donuts and other edibles still displayed, but displayed to no one.  There were office papers everywhere, pictures, chunks of furniture, and worse.  I always supposed that I might see this carnage, but I never thought it would be in the United States. 

Back at the armory, I settled into a routine of sorts.  The survivors came to the armory in the weeks that followed, and then we were told that the operation was moving to one of the piers, I no longer remember which, and things quieted down considerably.   I no longer referred to the armory as the “House of Sorrows.”  There were a few things that came up during those weeks, a few of which I will share.  I left the armory for one reason or another, in uniform, and was approached by a distraught woman.  She came up to me crying, and with both hands pounding on my chest, sobbing, “You make them pay for this.” I was not sure of what to say to her, when just as suddenly as she came up to me, she left.  Another time when I was leaving, one of the soldiers on duty came up to me to tell me there was a woman banging her head onto the outside armory wall.  “What should I do?” he asked.  I told him that we are not trained for this problem, and that I would go inside and find one of the counselors who were present. We made that a standard operating procedure should it come up again.  Inside the armory I was approached by a man who stated that he wanted to volunteer to “do something, anything.”  I thanked him, but told him there was nothing.  He became worked up, loaded with nervous energy, I figured.  I mentioned that the public restroom needed cleaning, and he was happy to oblige.  In fact, I have never seen it cleaner.

The businesses in the area wanted to help, and in particular the restaurants.  After two days of Meals Ready to Eat, this was welcome beyond belief.  There were cadaver dogs at Ground Zero, and again someone must have said the dogs were hungry.  I was standing outside the armory at night, when a man drove up and asked where could he leave dog food. He was so concerned the dogs would go without, he loaded up his station wagon and drove to Manhattan from Pennsylvania.  I directed him south toward Ground Zero.  I had no place to put the dog food, and no way to get it to Ground Zero.

I lost a few friends that day, I found out days and weeks later.  Looking back, I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have saved all the lives lost that day.  Many lessons were learned that day, but I hope and pray we never have to use them.

About John R. Grant, JD
John R. Grant, JD, serves as Professor, Justice Studies, Berkeley College School of Professional Studies. He is also a retired Lieutenant Colonel, New York Army Guard, where he served for 27 years. Grant earned his Juris Doctorate from New England Law in Boston, MA, and resides in Staten Island, NY.

 

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