This is a reprint of a column I wrote on September 12, 2001. The images, sounds, and feelings are as clear to me now as they were eleven years ago. Our freedom is fragile, and there will always be those who seek to destroy it. Please remember all those who were lost.
Although I live in Houston, Texas, I’m writing this column from an apartment in the Washington, DC area. I was here to attend the American Conservative Union’s Policy Boot Camp.
I thought I would leave filled with the excitement of hearing from policy experts on numerous topics ranging from social security and medicare to education and technology. Unfortunately, what I take with me is a permanent image of terror and tragedy which is burned into my mind: an image of a passenger airliner, flying low and fast, and headed straight for the Pentagon.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, I was running late for my morning session. The television was on, and at about 9:00 am, we saw a report that an aircraft had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center. My initial thought was, “Wow, what a freak accident.” With that, my friend with whom I am staying and I were out the door.
We set out in the car and immediately turned on the news radio to follow what was happening in New York City. After fifteen minutes into our trip, a new report came over the radio stating that a second aircraft (another passenger airliner) had struck the World Trade Center. This time, my thoughts shifted immediately from a freak accident to “this is a terrorist attack.”
My heart sank as I began to realize what was happening: those killed in the aircraft, those killed in the buildings, and the horror of the realization that this could happen in the first place.
The route from where I’m staying to my conference hotel runs right by the Pentagon. As we slowly crept along in traffic at about 9:30 am, we rounded a bend and had the Pentagon in our sites — right in front of us. We continued to listen to the radio to take in the latest news on what was happening.
Riding in a convertable with the top down, I then heard a tremendously loud noise from behind me and to my left. I looked back and saw a jet airliner flying very low and very fast. It’s amazing what can run through your mind in just a matter of seconds. As a pilot, I can’t help but look at an airplane and think about airplane topics. What I saw sent a shiver down my spine as I realized something was not right.
The aircraft was so very low — as an aircraft would be on its final approach to an airport. However, if you have watched any aircraft come in for a landing, even though the aircraft is descending, it is angled up slightly. This aircraft was angled downward. In addition, landing gear would also be visible on a aircraft so low and so near landing. This aircraft had its landing gear retracted. Finally, an aircraft on final approach is traveling rather slowly. This aircraft sped by very loudly and very quickly.
All of this flashed in my mind as the aircraft passed from behind my left shoulder to in front of me. It was then that the other events of the morning crystallized in the realization that tragedy was about to occur. With all of these images spinning in my head, the only words that came out of my mouth were “Oh no!”
With that, the airliner crashed into the Pentagon and exploded.
I shouted to my friend whose view was partially blocked by a truck in front of us, “Oh my gosh! The jet just hit the Pentagon!”
Much of the traffic stopped immediately, and the stunned looks on people’s faces are unforgettable. Many picked up their cell phones, presumably to contact friends and loved ones. I did the same, but I could not get through…
The events of September 11, 2001 are being compared to Pearl Harbor. However, there are tragic and frightening differences. First, when all the lost souls are counted, the death toll will be thousands and thousands higher than Pearl Harbor. Second, with Pearl Harbor, we knew exactly who hit us, and we could plan our counter attack. In this case, who do we attack? Where do we attack?
This is the time for America to come together with a united front and send a message to the world that if you attack America, if you cause terror and rip into our democracy, then the United States of America, with all its might, will hunt you down.
My heart goes out to all who were lost in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. I can’t imagine what was going through the minds of the approximately 60 people who were on the flight that flew right by me.
I ask all of you to pray for those lost souls, our leaders, and for the United States of America.