Saturday, September 11, 2010

Do I Remember...

Where were you?  What were you doing?  Do you remember where you were? Many people are asking and answering those questions today as we mark nine years since the United States was attacked in the worst act of violence since Pearl Harbor.

I don't talk about that day, and I won't if you ask me.  Someday I will sit down and tell the girl and boy about it because they will need to know about it.  The rest of you who lived through it, don't need to hear me tell you about my day, and for that matter I don't need to hear about your day either.  It was hard enough as it was, getting through it myself  - I don't need your baggage, I've got enough of my own to sort through. 

On this day, nine years ago, I worked at the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP), which at that time was part of the Department of Health and Human Services.  I was responsible for the logistics of deploying the National Medical Response Teams (NMRT).  There are three kinds of these teams Weapons of Mass Destruction(NMRT-WMD), Disaster Medical Response Teams (DMAT) and Disaster Mortuary Teams (DMORT). 

I walked to work like any normal day, as I lived only a block from my office - I had planned to go home for lunch.  I was at my desk at 730am and began my monthly update of my emergency response check list for activating the logistics contracts I helped the government negotiate with Emory Expedite, FedEx Custom Critical, and UPS.

Sometime after 8am, my boss charged into the office with his hair on fire and told me to get my ass in to the Emergency Coordination Center.  "Bring your book - we're going to need it.  This is the NO SHIT REAL DEAL."   Ok. I grab my stuff and head into the ECC, wondering what's going on.  Only to arrive and see the entire OEP Staff standing stock still staring at the TV listening to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric discuss reports of an airplane crashing into the tower one of the twin towers.

A pit drops out of my stomach, this isn't good.  As we begin to assemble to get down to work figuring out what we need to do next, the second plane flies into the tower two.  This isn't a fucking accident, its terrorism - I remember saying this to my co-worker.  He's in shock just like everybody else - "Naw, couldn't be, no way man."  he says.  "Dude, one is an accident, two is deliberate." I reply.  

Minutes tick by - I'm not really sure how long it was before we had our initial operations brief.  But in that brief we were told there's at least 2 more planes, fighter aircraft have been scrambled and Air Traffic Control out at Herndon is bringing everything in US Airspace down, regardless of final destination.  The staff jumped in to action, contacting teams, finding out who's available, and who's not. We're lining up our response team to go to one site, the World Trade Center.

Then the news the Pentagon has been hit comes through. What the fuck - the Pentagon?! Half the team working in the ECC breaks off to assist first responders there.  As they are mobilizing, we receive confirmation there is a fourth plane - and we don't know where it is. Its not even 10am yet and this day's gone to hell in a hand basket.

Time stood still. The cell network was down, the landlines were jammed, and the internet wasn't high speed any more. If some one had a working cell phone - that was the phone we used to coordinate with the teams.  Chaos.

I found myself opening my checklist, that I recently updated that morning, and began calling Emery Expedite, FedEx Custom Critical, and UPS to see which one could help me move the NMRT, DMAT, and DMORTs  from the west coast to the east coast.  I was able to get 3 lear jets at the ready, with pilots on standby -waiting for thumbs up to launch.  The problem was I had 20 people to move from all over the western US to the East Coast, and airspace was closed. I did have in my back pocket a FAA approved call sign used specifically for this type of incident. I just needed to get to the right person to get approval to use it to move those critical personnel.

By the time I had my 3 lear jets waiting for the word go.  The fourth plane had crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and 1/2 the team that had gone to the Pentagon split off, and began heading to the farmers field in Pennsylvania and I began my efforts to get to the right person who could accept my call sign, and give my 3 lear jets the opportunity to launch to pick up those critical personnel so OEP could mount an appropriate response to this disaster.

It took me about 6 hours to finally get the right  phone number to the right person at the FAA Herndon Center, for me to call so I could get clearance to launch those 3 lear jets.  It ended up being a Colonel, USAF - who was working side by side with the regular FAA guys.  I gave him my call sign, the number of planes, their tail numbers, the pilots specifics, and the itinerary for each of the planes, and the number of passengers that would be embarking at each stop.  The first plane was airborne by 6pm est that evening.  The other two launched an hour later. I had to maintain hourly contact with the operator of the lear jets and Colonel to follow progress of these aircraft, and at times we had to change routes, and final destinations due to changes in final deployment locations. 

During all of this chaos, as the head logistican for OEP I was responsible for feeding everyone.  I called around and one local eatery made up soup, sandwiches, roasted chicken and pasta for the team, they also donated all the food.  The eatery manager wouldn't let us pay, because we were responding to what was going on. Some how I was able to find the time to get all this food delivered, and set out for my co-workers so they could eat.

My day ended at 540am on 12 September, when I made it home to fall into bed for a few hours of sleep before getting back up and going back to work to continue working on moving people and supplies to support the recovery response at the three sites, New York, Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. I remember checking my voice mail, and having a message from my parents.  I think it was a week or two before I even had a chance to talk with them.

For most of America September 11, 2001 was one day, for me and the other emergency responders it was more than one day, it became a week, then a month, then 3, and 4 months of non stop work, no days off, 12 hour shifts. It blurred together.  The photographs from the sites that I saw as part of the federal investigation were horrific - things you'd never want to see, but once you see them they're always there.  So, I hope you'll understand next year, and every subsequent year why I don't want to talk about where I was, what I remember about September 11, 2001.

I've been to the chapel in the Pentagon, and I've seen the burn marks on the B-ring, but I have yet to actually go to the memorial site.  I'm not sure if I every will, I'm not even sure if I can.  At some point I know I will have to go.  I'll have to take the girl and the boy so they can understand the history of that day, but until then don't ask me about that day, don't ask me to talk about it, don't ask me to go with you to a memorial site. I still see those images you never saw on national TV, they still haunt me, and probably always will.

Like Pearl Harbor, this day will forever be a scar upon the history of the Republic of the United States.  The costs of this day, have yet to be counted.  Each day the members of our Military serve their call to duty to defend the Constitution, our Republic, and each and every one of us.  Remember them along with the men, women and children who lost their lives in one act of hatred, keep them in your prayers.

Thanks to all the men and women who serve, be they military, police or firemen - you have calling that few are capable of answering.


  1. Gretchen thank you for sharing. Your words are very well expressed.

  2. Thanks, for the report; it now gives us a much better understanding of what you were going through. We knew it was a time in hell, based on what limited information you shared with us. We are proud of you and your service to our country.


    Jim & Shellie

  3. Hard to every forget. Sadly this is one of my kids BD so it kind sucks for them to have this happen on this anniversary but I will never forget that day. I lost lots of friends that day in the Towers.

  4. Thank you for sharing and thank you for serving.

  5. Thank you for sharing, Gretchen. I got chills reading your story.