Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Simply put, September 11, 2001 cost the lives of more than three thousand people, altered the personal lives of tens of thousands of families and changed the course of U.S. and world history. For me, it all started in Cape Girardeau.

I woke up in my hotel in Cape Girardeau that morning and went down to the restaurant for breakfast. It was going to be a long day, as was any day that involved the opening of one of our new NASA themed, traveling exhibits. This one, "Starship 2040," had been invited by Senator Kit Bond to tour the state.

The senator's invitation didn't come with any funding, so rather than fly to Missouri, I drove a motor pool car, something I had never done before, at least not that far from the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, where my exhibits team was based. We had a six stop state tour scheduled and the first day of the first stop was to be at Southeast Missouri State.

I came downstairs into the restaurant after the media was already reporting a plane had hit the first of the Twin Towers. I watched live as a airliner slammed into the second tower a short while later. Almost instantly, the media reported a third had crashed into the Pentagon.

My first two thoughts were for my exhibits team in route to Cape Girardeau and for my Air Force unit in Atlanta where I was assigned as an emergency preparedness liaison officer. Neither groups answered their phone. My exhibits team's flights had been grounded and cell connections were maxed out around every major airport in the country. My unit in Atlanta was focused on gathering and coordinating information; they weren't picking up the phone. Eventually, my exhibits staffers hired a U-haul truck and drove from St. Louis. And when I finally reached the Air Force National Security Emergency Preparedness Agency (AFNSEP), they told me to pack my bags and stand by for orders.

I left Missouri before my team arrived, driving at speeds of nearly 100 miles an hour down the interstates back to Huntsville. I remember that there wasn't a sheriff or local police car to been seen. I found out later that it was because so many had been summoned into the towns and communities as a show of force to calm people's fears. I returned my borrowed government car and got home in time for dinner. AFNSEP reached me the next morning on my way into work and I was mobilized by noon.

I briefed my boss, called my wife and since my bag and uniforms were already in the car, I drove immediately to Atlanta and checked in. I was billeted in a hotel near Fort McPherson, and I went to bed immediately to prepare to take the night shift as the officer in charge of the Air Force Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on post there.

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