He narrowly escaped death through a sheer twist of fate that took him out of harm’s way at that crucial moment. The others came to help those who were not as lucky. All look back now and reflect on what some have come to characterize as “the Third World War.”
Once again it was a clear sunny morning with no indication terror was on its way. And, once again that terror came from the sky, without warning, as it had 60 years before and 6,000 miles away in Hawaii.
Sept. 11, 2001, brought death and destruction to both the financial center and military headquarters of this nation. For those who survived at the dual scenes, as well as for those who came to their aid, and those who were left behind, it will always be a day that they not only reflect upon but also build upon for the rest of their lives.
“When you go through something like that it becomes a part of you. Probably not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” said Bryan Meckes, EMS Supervisor, Alexandria Fire Department.
On the morning of 9-11 Meckes arrived at the Pentagon with Dr. James Vafier, Alexandria Fire Department’s Medical Director, to find flames, debris, death and burn victims everywhere. Vafier became the command physician on site while Meckes headed the “primary triage team” of Alexandria Fire Department paramedics.
After treating and dispatching the obvious victims to area hospitals, “our duty was to establish the initial triage point for any remaining patients, assess patient injuries, and label patients according to the severity of their injuries,” is how Meckes described his actions five years ago.
That labeling consisted of Code Red for the most severely injured. Then came Code Yellow followed by Code Green, referred to as “the walking wounded.” The last group, Code Black, were beyond the aid of Vapier, Meckes and other first responders. They were taken to an emergency morgue.
TWO OF THOSE in the latter category were from the Pentagon office of Colonel Thomas W. Williams, then Assistant Chief of Staff, Installation Management Agency, U.S. Army. His office was on the ground floor immediately next to the black hole gouged by American Flight 77.
Sandra Taylor, staff action control officer, and Cheryl Sincock, head secretary to Maj. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, died instantly. Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, Executive Officer for Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff, Installation Management, suffered burns over 60 percent of his body. He was spared because he was a short way down the hall at the moment of impact.
Williams had been in his office early that morning preparing for a meeting scheduled to commence later at a nearby hotel. Moments before the attack Williams walked some guests to an awaiting car to take them to the meeting.
When he reached the vehicle he realized he had left something in the office so he told them to go ahead, he’d get another ride. “As I walked back to the office, I heard the explosion and saw all this debris coming down the hallway,” he recalled after the attack. It was that debris that caused Birdwell’s full body burns.
A year later Williams took over as Installation Commander at Fort Belvoir. After three years in that position, he is now Chief Executive Officer for Assistant Chief of Staff, Installation Management, with offices in Crystal City.
One of the programs he heads is Anti-terrorism Force Protection for the Army. “Of all the assignments I’ve had this one hold a real passion for me as I reflect back on 9-11,” Williams said.
“Many people ask are we safer today than five years ago. And, many say there hasn’t been much change over these last five years. They are being very short sighted because they don’t see all that’s been done to make everyone safer,” he said.
“There has been a lot of effort by many people, military and civilian, to make America safer from its enemies. But, it will take a world wide effort to defeat terrorism. They have a will and duty to attack and defeat us. It’s the job of the free world to defeat them,” Williams emphasized.
“Like in all past wars, there is always doubt. But, a lot of the work that is going on constantly was very evident recently when we worked closely with Great Britain to prevent those planned airliner attacks,” he said.
“I often think back on that day and the lives that were lost and altered forever like Col. Birdwell. We sat next to each other everyday. But I also get a very good feeling when I think of how much we have done to protect America since 9-11,” he said.
THERE ARE FEW to whom that protection and readiness is more important than Lt. James T. Morris, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, Penn Daw Station 11, Mount Vernon District. He was, and remains, doubly affected by 9-11.
Following his arrival at the Pentagon devastation, Morris entered the annals of photographic history. He was one of those 11 firefighters from Penn Daw, Alexandria and West Centreville who joined three military personnel on the roof of the still smoldering building Sept. 12 to unfurl a huge American flag next to the gaping hole left by Flight 77.
But, Morris also carried the emotional burden that day of knowing his older brother lay buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center. Seth A. Morris, 35, a successful broker with Cantor Fitzgerald, was working on the 106th floor of Tower One, the first hit and the second to collapse.
He left behind his wife, Lynne, and three children — two daughters and a son, ages 11, 8, and five at the time. His body was finally found on Palm Sunday 2002, according to his brother. A graveside service was held the Thursday before Easter that year.
“I still can’t get quite used to not having him around. I had my birthday recently and he always called at 6:30 a.m. just to bug me. I woke up with a start expecting the call and then once again realized it wouldn’t be coming,” Morris said.
A Connecticut native, Morris came to this area when he enrolled at the University of Maryland. The rest of the family is still in the New Jersey lower New England area.
“Life goes on. His widow has remarried and everyone is very happy with her new husband. And, the kids seem to be doing fine,” Morris said.
But, there have been other changes in the general populace that bother Morris. “Immediately following 9-11 everyone was helping everyone and working together. Now, many seem to have gone back to the old me first attitude instead of ‘we’ and ‘us,’” he said.
“We, as Americans can rally to a disaster and common threat very quickly. But we also forget real quickly,” he emphasized.
“Things changed initially. People were appreciative and very supportive. Everybody said do it in gaining preparedness. But, after a while we began to run into opposition with the budget people,” Morris explained.
“Unfortunately, initially there was this lets throw money at the problem without a lot of planning. Now we’re back into the old world of getting mandates from the federal government with no funds accompanying those mandates,” he said.
“I think we’re better prepared than we were. But, we’re not where we should be. Some communities are very well prepared. Other don’t have a clue,” Morris said.
“I still think that overall preparedness since 9-11 hasn’t been resolved. Too many people in some of the federal agencies see things as business as usual. The funding has also been very uneven. Some have gotten a lot of money that’s not needed and others, that have critical roles and a lot of responsibility, like the Coast Guard, have gotten very little,” Morris explained.
THAT ASSESSMENT of everyone rising to the challenge was buttressed by Battalion Chief John North, Alexandria Fire Department, who responded to the Pentagon five years ago. “You had so many people who went over the top that day. The first guys at the Pentagon were really at risk. It’s amazing what everyone accomplished that day and the days that immediately followed,” he said.
“We, as a department and as professional firefighters have changed tremendously as a result of 9-11. The department is not the department it was. Our members are far better trained and equipped than before,” North said.
As an example he cited the joint cooperation between the fire, police and sheriff departments in purchasing equipment that is interchangeable. “This is unique to Alexandria. But, it was also easier for us to bring this about because of the City’s size. In large cities it would be far more difficult,” he stated.
“The attitude and emotional response of our firefighters is very different now that pre 9-11. They are much more constantly alert — not so relaxed as before. There is also a much higher stress to this job than before,” North claimed.
“Firefighters no longer just fight fires. Now they may be called on to deal with chemical and biological incidents such as happened at the post office after 9-11,” he recalled.
“We are very fortunate in this area in that we have been provided with the funds to upgrade our equipment. But, what FEMA doesn’t seem to realize is that this equipment has a life span — it needs to be updated regularly, not only when an emergency occurs. If they wait until then it’s too late,” North warned.
“I constantly hope that 9-11 was a once in a lifetime — that it never happens again,” he said. Then he just shook his head knowing that was probably wishful thinking.
As Meckes pointed out, “People have to remember we are only hours away from another 9-11 on any given day. They [the terrorists] are out there and they definitely want to hurt us. We need to continue to be constantly vigilant.”
He urged “a more unified front against those that would harm America. This is a modern world war. People have to realize we are at war. It surprises me how people have tried to distance themselves from 9-11.”
America formally enter World War II on Dec. 8, 1941, with a declaration of war by Congress following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech to the joint session. Five years after that, Dec. 8, 1946 America was back to “normal” turning out its first automobiles since 1941.
It was also ignoring the gathering clouds of the Cold War and the hot one on the peninsula of Korea.
Perhaps the most poignant reflection on 9-11 five years later is to paraphrase the World War II slogan America adopted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This time “Remember 9-11.”