“To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years.
To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.”
--- Sir Winston Churchill
Piloting a U.S. Army B-25, Lieutenant Colonel William Smith on a foggy morning in late July in 1945 a traffic controller ordered him to land at LaGuardia Airport and head to Newark Airport after the fog lifted from the New York area. For some reason he found himself flying through New York City and had asked for a weather forecast. The controller said, "From where I'm sitting, I can't see the top of the Empire State Building."
Instead Smith requested and received permission from the military to continue on to Newark where he was on his way to pick up his commanding officer.
Because of the dense fog, Smith tried to get below the cloud ceiling to regain visibility, where he found himself in the middle of Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers.
He managed to get below the ceiling only to find himself surrounded skyscrapers. He zigged and zagged through a number of the taller buildings, missing some by only a few yards. Suddenly he observed the Empire State Building directly in his path. Smith frantically tried to pull his plane up to climb and twist away but it was too late.
The B-25 slammed into the 79th floor on the north side of the building at 9:46. Though it was a Saturday, most of the workers were in because most civilian workers were on a six day workweek as part of the war effort.
Lt. Col. Smith's plane created a hole roughly twenty feet square. One engine went across the entire building and exited the south side and landed on the roof of a building on 33rd Street. Other components were scattered throughout the floor. Gasoline spread fire everywhere on the floor and drained down the side of the building and some of the stairwells where the fire burned for some time afterward.
Miraculously only eleven workers in the building and the crew of the plane died in the mishap. The second engine entered an elevator shaft and landed on the roof of a car and drove it into the cellar. Fortunately the mechanical breaks slowed its progress and the two aboard the elevator were not killed.
Of particular interest is the Empire State Building's integrity was not affected.
56 years, 1 month, 13 days, 23 hours later, on a crisp, clear early fall type morning, 8:46:26 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 with ninety-two people aboard, crashed into the north side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, thus beginning a series of events which may not come to an end for decades.
The North Tower became the first on many dominos to fall. The consequences of this act of war may be felt for generations not yet born.
We all have our own memories of the modern date which will “live in infamy.” Like the sneak attack by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, our generation and many other following generations will feel the impact of planes slamming into American buildings.
The shot heard around the world, remember the Alamo, and Pearl Harbor. All have a place in American History. Now we can add, simply, 9/11.
9/11 began for me as most other days. I rose early to check the morning papers from across the nation on the Internet. Breakfast with Helen and a couple of our children still living at home. On this day I drove Helen to school in Swansea, Massachusetts, a suburb of Fall River. My car was in the garage and I needed her car to do some errands. As I headed home I tuned in to WRKO to learn a “small” plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Tower buildings.
Until that news my thoughts were on my errands and then, maybe, take a ride to Horseneck Beach in Westport, Massachusetts. At the east end of the beach is Gooseberry Island. Since the children were mostly grown Helen and I had made a practice of taking a bottle of wine and some food from home and picnic and watch the sun set there. It’s free and magnificent. I had a vision of a sub-sandwich and cranberry juice while sitting at the water’s edge. Life doesn’t get any better than that.
My only thoughts were to get the errands out of the way in an hour or two and then head to “our island in the sun”.
Gooseberry had been a favorite of area people after a stone causeway had been built in the 1920s. Many small summer cottages were built and the island had a regular summer colony which enjoyed the waters for fishing, swimming, or just plain relaxing.
Most of the buildings were destroyed by the hurricane of 1938. The island is only a few feet above sea level and area people say Gooseberry was swamped and the causeway severely damaged.
When World War II began the Department of War (predecessor to the Department of Defense) took over the island and installed a lookout tower and gun emplacements. It was a perfect lookout point for German submarines which could either land subversives or monitor the Boston and New York shipping traffic.
The island is only a short distance from Cutty Hunk, the last of the Elizabethan Island chain which includes Martha’s Vineyard. Looking east from Gooseberry one can see Buzzard’s Bay and the area near the entrance of the Cape Cod Canal.
To the west is a good view of the east edge of Narraganset Bay and Newport, Rhode Island, then a major naval base the Germans tried to monitor.
After the war the Island was abandoned by the military and taken over by the state of Massachusetts.
In the 1950 a series of hurricanes damaged the causeway. It was rebuilt and the island became a daytime refuge for area city dwellers. Fishing is great from the causeway, the beach on the leeward side of the island is good, especially for children because there is little wave activity, walking trails and birds of all sorts. The island is also a favorite of Monarch butterflies who visit each year during their migration.
I never got there that day.
My cell phone rang. It was my son-in-law Jon Rose asking whether I heard about the crash into one of the World Trade towers?
I had spoken to our daughter Georgette and her husband the night before. They lived on Long Island in Amityville, New York. They were in the process of moving to their new home in Riverhead, LI. Georgette’s husband worked for the Long Island Railroad and frequently went to the World Trade Towers as did Georgette went there from time to time. The law firm she was worked with had client they did work for in one of the Towers. Georgette used to marvel at how so many people could come and go from that small area every day.
The attack of 1993 was pretty much an out of the minds of most in 2001. There was a sense the building was no longer vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Many security measures were put in place and evacuation plans would make a mass exodus from the building much easier.
No one could conceive what was about to happen.
As my call with Jon ended I heard on the radio the plane that crashed into the tower was large and smoke was pouring out of the building.
I decided I should go home to see for myself on television what was happening. So much for lunch on the beach. Actually, so much for the errands too.
I got home a few minutes after nine. By then the news networks had live coverage. I knew intuitively this was no mere accident. I had recently finished reading comments about terrorists telling us, sooner or later, we would suffer a serious attack. We had many shows on WRKO discussing whether we would ever be attacked on our soil. The attack on our embassies in Africa and the Cole in Yemen signaled something was brewing. Maybe someone poisoning a lake or water system, subway, large building’s ventilation system. But planes smashing into several buildings?
My first call was to Helen’s school, the Hoyle School. I spoke with the principal Mrs. Donna Zagorski at about 8:55 AM and told her of what happened in New York and she my want to monitor what was happening. She immediately went to Helen’s room to tell her what occurred.
Helen was being relieved by the music specialist for the 9 to 9:15 music lesson (every Tuesday and Thursday morning) so she had a few minutes to leave her room. She and Mrs. Zagorski went to the library to watch the television there. It was about 9:03 as they walked in. Just then the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower. Helen would later tell me she and Mrs. Zagorski had just stepped trough the doorway when that crash occurred. Neither could speak for minutes.
Only an instant after the second crash my phone rang. It was Jon Rose again.
His first words were, “Dad, we’re at war.” Little did either of us realized just how prophetic his words would turn out top be and what an impact all this would have on his family.
My thoughts then turned on Georgette and Bob. I called their home in Amityville. There was no answer so I called first Georgette’s cell phone. Nothing. Bob’s phone. Nothing there either. Their phoned would ring and then simply stop ringing. (We later learned their phone calls were routed through the World Trade Towers communications antennas atop one of the towers.)
At that time neither tower had fallen but the concern was there. Moms and dads always fear the worst.
Georgette’s sisters Carol-Anne and Sarah called to tell me they couldn’t get their sister or Bob on the phone. A small amount of fear was in their voices. Helene then called from school to add her fears. By then I was a wreck. I didn’t want to let on to the girls I was very concerned by then. Dads are like that, yes they are.
At 9:30, President George Bush spoke to the nation from the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. He said the country has suffered an "apparent terrorist attack" and "a national tragedy."
"Those folks who committed this act" would be tracked down. The president also said, "Terrorism against our nation will not stand." It was an echo of "This will not stand," the words his father, George H. W. Bush, had used a few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
Just then the phone rang again. It was Jay Clark, the new program director at WRKO.
“Moe, can you come in right away?”
“Give me an hour and a half.”
“Make it as soon as you can.”
I called Sarah and asked she pick up her mom after school, I was taking Helen’s car to Boston. I didn’t know how long I’d be there.
Just then the news from Washington was something had just happened in Washington. It was American Airlines Flight #77 crashing into the Pentagon.
My head was swirling.
One more frantic call to Georgette and Bob ended as the others had. Nothing.
I packed my brief case with my headphones and the day’s Boston Herald. Some sandwich meat and bread were added for good measure. I had a sinking feeling it would be a while before I would be home again.
I called the Hoyle School again and told Helen I was on my way to WRKO and that Sarah was going to continue to call Georgette and Bob.
As I headed for the door, the South Tower collapsed. I watched in amazement as it came down.
I drove as rapidly as possible to Boston. I listened to our traffic reports and learned I did not have any jams to worry about. Route 24 north to 128 and the Southeast Expressway to the MassPike.
I was on 24 in somewhere around Brockton when the North Tower came down. Just then my cell rang. It was Jay again. I told him I was on the way and less than a half hour away. “Hurry up. I’ll pay for the speeding ticket if you get one.” Jay always meant what he said. My foot pressed a little harder into the accelerator.
In no time I was heading west on the MassPike. I looked up and saw the Prudential Tower ahead of me. It looked a lot like one of the World Trade Towers. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. I developed a cold sweat and decided to call Georgette and Bob again as I passed Fenway Park, , home of the Boston Red Sox. The knot in my stomach tightened when their phones didn’t answer again.
From that moment until I pulled into the garage across the street from Brighton Landing, WRKO’s home, I was oblivious to everything. My heart was pounding thinking of my daughter and son-in-law. I even felt a sense of guilt for giving him a hard time because he is a New York Yankee fan. It’s amazing what crosses your mind in a crisis.
As I walked through the lobby and headed up the elevator I recalled how Georgette and Bob had met.
It was 1986 and the Yankees were in Boston for a weekend series with our beloved Sox. I don’t recall who did what in the series that weekend but I had broadcast from Fenway Park in the “Incredible Talking Machine”, our mobile broadcast studio that Saturday morning. Georgette had come with me to help because we were there for the “Can for the Can Day”.
“Can” was the nickname of Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, a Red Sox pitcher. As it turned out Boyd pitched on that day.
The deal was WRKO hired about a dozen or so trucks and positioned them around Fenway Park (the Red Sox playpen). Fans were asked to bring a can of food which would be deposited for the benefit of the Greater Boston Food Bank.
We interviewed fans and The Can Man. Georgette hustled fans in and out of the “Talking Machine”. At about 8 AM or so Georgette told me she was going to get in line to see if she could get a ticket to the game. She did. When she returned at about 9:30 she told me about those “crazy guys from New York” who waited in line for tickets with her.
She was wearing a Red Sox tee-shirt, hat and jacket. They had their big “NY” shirts and hats. They teased her the entire time. One of them told her he, his brother John, and a couple of friends came to Fenway each year for a Red Sox and Yankee game each summer.
When the broadcast was over Georgette asked me to pick her up at the bus terminal in Fall River about two hours after the game. I agreed to the proposition.
That afternoon I watched the game. Along about the fifth inning I got a call from Georgette. She asked if I remembered the “Yankee” fans in the ticket line? I said yes. “Well, they bought their tickets right after I bought mine and I’m sitting in the same section they are.”
I asked, “Do you want me to call the police or Fenway Park security?”
“No. They’re OK. I’m going to take them to Durgin Park after the game (a great Boston eatery). After that they’ll drop me off at home on their way back to New York.”
I’ll skip all the details, but suffice it to say, they’re happily married with a couple of lovely daughters, Grace and Nina.
I walked into Jay’s office sometime before 11:30.
“Moe, get on the phone with the local hospitals and check in with the Red Cross. Find out whether they have plans on what to do if there is an overflow of injured people form New York.”
“While you’re at it, talk to someone from Otis (Air National Guard base on Cape Cod) and find out what they’re doing. We just heard they may have had planes in the air to intercept other planes.”
“Oh, yes. Plan to do the overnight shift, 11 PM to 5 AM.”
“Do you know anyone at Logan (airport in Boston)?”
I called the local hospitals and they had plans in the works in the event there may be more injured than the New York area hospitals could handle. The Red Cross was planning to set up emergency collection centers. WRKO (and other area Boston radio stations) were first with the news about the medical preparations of the Boston area.
I kept calling Georgette’s and Bob’s phone numbers and still nothing.
Finally I called Bob’s Mom and dad who live in Riverhead. I had held up on calling them out of fear of causing fear on their part. Bob’s dad, also a Bob, had been one of New York City’s highest ranking officers in the New York Fire Department before he retired just a few years before. We later learned he had a number of old friends who perished in the towers. They had been among the first responders.
The initial reports indicated many thousands may have perished in the attacks in New York and the numbers in Washington were not yet known. There was fear many thousands would need medical attention and possibly blood transfusions. By the time evening descended the reality had finally begun to set in.
America was at war. But with whom?
My cell phone rang as I stopped for a coffee late in the afternoon. It Georgette. She and Bob were OK. They had rented a U-Haul truck early that morning and were moving some of their belongings. Bob had the day off and Georgette had been able to finagle the day off for the move. They had left Amityville before the assault on the World Trade Towers had occurred which explained why they did not answer their home phone.
Their cell phones were another matter. They were phones they purchased in Manhattan and most of their calls were routed through the World Trade Towers. Their phones went “dead” at the moment of the first crash. They tried to call us from pay phones but couldn’t get dial tone.
The knot in my stomach finally began to loosen.
“Dad, we’re OK,” Georgette said.
I replied, “Thank God.”
That night and the next couple of weeks I was on the seven to midnight or sometimes, one or two AM program.
All commercial flights were grounded. Jets form Otis circled Boston all day and night until the airports were re-opened.
WRKO’s Brighton Landing studios look out over the Boston sky line and we have a clear view of planes landing and taking off from Logan Airport.
I’ve viewed hundreds of sunrises from there. All beautiful. Sometimes we see the planes lined up waiting to land at Logan and planes taking off in the opposite direction.
We got an occasional glimpse of one of the fighter jets which circled the Boston area. Other than that only seagulls were in the air.
The on air phone conversations were surprisingly cerebral. I say surprisingly because we can in times of crisis get very emotional and lose focus on the issues at hand. Maybe we were still too numbed by the events to allow our emotions run wild.
Over time we learned most of the bombers were Saudis. Contrary to popular mythology our callers did not single out “the Arabs” or “the Moslems” for derision. There was a concern expressed by recent émigrés from the area. There was also anger the family of the chief terrorist Usama Bin Laden were allowed to leave the country. Others expressed concern about the safety of public transportation such as trains and busses.
When we learned of the attachment of the Taliban and Al Qaida there was a demand we end their dominance over Afghanistan.
All commercial flights were grounded. Jets form Otis circled Boston all day and night until the airports were re-opened. I don’t know whether Otis planes continued to circle Boston. When I asked my contacts at Otis, they acted as thought they were sworn to secrecy. To this day I don’t know how long the air coverage continued.
During the evening broadcasts and Saturday and Sunday morning we also talked about the alerts on the trains and buses running in and out of Boston. Patrol cars were strategically parked in critical places like North Station, South Station (both major train terminals), the bus station, beneath the Prudential Tunnel as well as the tunnels to Logan Airport.
No one knew for sure what was going to happen next.
A day or two after 9/11 Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston assured us the city was safe. The port was safe and the train and bus terminals had extra security. Frankly, he was very unconvincing. No sooner had he told us we were safe the mayor began to voice concerns about the safety of the Port of Boston because of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tankers which transited the port on their way to Chelsea, where the tanks are.
On the air I could nor help but compare Mayor Menino with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was a rock when New York needed a rock. Tom Menino was another matter.
Most people showed courage in the face of perceived dangers. The president asked that we go about our business. We should not give in to terrorist acts.
One curious action was by the town of Marshfield which cancelled all field trips and sporting events of their schools which required buses from their South Shore community to transit Boston. They said they feared an attack on Boston might endanger their children while in transit.
After a couple of weeks of the special broadcasts it was interesting to note a change in tone of callers. The approaches the nation needed employ to deal with the terrorist crisis were changing to more angry than earlier. They ranged from deporting all Arab aliens, all Moslems, alien or citizen, we should bomb “them”, who “them” was we couldn’t quite figure out, abandon our ally, Israel. You name it, we heard it. We even had the “we brought it on ourselves” calls.
Finally we began to understand the nature of the enemy. John Rose called me to tell me his National Guard unit was being put on notice, it could be called up. Within a couple of months Jon was called to Afghanistan. He was there before we attacked Iraq (more on that later in the book). He went over for a year.
He spent most of his time chasing the Taliban and Al Qaida terrorists into Tora Bora. We got to see him o television when he was part of the security team protecting Hamid Karzai. The new leader in Afghanistan was attacked by Taliban forces and Jon was filmed returning fire at he potential assassins.
The event was a stark reminder we were in a real war. The war on terror was had truly come home.
Churchill had it right. Ten years to build the towers and minutes to take them down.