Patriot Files: that day in September | Part Two: Chaos

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
Manhattan was burning.

With the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001, at 9:03 a.m., the world stood still as all eyes turned to New York.

"If you peaked out the window you could see the buildings smoking," said Manuel Fajardo, who watched the tragedy unfold from a classroom at Bayonne High School, in Bayonne, New Jersey. "But it wasn't really the sight, because we were seeing it on the news. It was more the smell of it."

Even though he was nearly 20 miles away, Fajardo said the smells coming from Manhattan permeated the air. It still haunts him, 14 years later.

"The smell is just indescribable," he said. "You know what's in there. You know what's in that building - they're people. It's one thing to be able to see it, it's just another to smell it and know what's happening."

Although details surrounding the attacks were vague at that time, the New York Police Department deployed 2,000 officers, while the Fire Department of New York dispatched 235 firefighters, 20 engines and eight ladder companies to combat the growing crisis.

"Then the firefighters started to come up, and they would holler, 'move to the right, move to the right,'" said Connie Labetti, one of 18 people to escape the South Tower. "I think it was probably about the 40th floor when the firefighters started coming up. And I remember thinking, 'they're gonna climb all the way up to 80?' I mean, how are they gonna do that? They just were stone-faced, just looked straight ahead. They really didn't show much emotion. I couldn't imagine these firefighters going up there into God knows what."

While the world watched in disbelief as emergency responders threw themselves into the face of danger, a young U.S. Air Force captain, now a colonel, deployed to Egypt in support of Operation Bright Star, scrambled for any news he could find.

"Most people that day were out at the air bases. They were bare bases," said Col. Kevin Cullen, 501st Combat Support Wing commander, as he remembered the scarcity of communication. "In fact, the only communications we had was one SIPRNET [Secret Internet Protocol Router Network] laptop computer. We had no phones. We had no television. And the word first spread by word of mouth."

As Cullen, and his team of Airmen, stared in disbelief at the small, pixilated image of a plane smashing into the World Trade Center, more than 5,807 miles away American Airlines Flight 77 executed a 330-degree turn and began sharply descending 2,200 feet toward Washington, D.C.

Inside the cockpit, Hani Honjour and four other al-Qaida terrorists who hijacked the plane, pushed the throttle to maximum power and drove the Boeing 757 into the western façade of the Pentagon, at 9:37 a.m. All 59 passengers, along with 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building, were killed - with 106 others severely injured as fire erupted throughout the building.

"If you can imagine not being able to watch it on television and not being able to see it," Cullen began. "It was really, really hard to believe."

Impossible as it seemed, the reality burned brightly across the Washington, D.C. and New York skyline as people from around the world watched and wondered what would come next. At 9:42 a.m. the Federal Aviation Authority grounded all flights over, or bound for, the United States - including one with Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Callens on board, who was trying to make it home for his grandfather's funeral.

"The pilot came over the intercom and said we have an in-flight emergency and we need to land," Callens, now a retired master sergeant, said. "Everyone was baffled, especially since he said that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft. So we were all stunned at what was going on."

It wasn't until the plane landed and Callens checked into a nearby hotel that he was able to turn on the television and see the chaos unfolding across America. He sat and stared at the monitor, not wanting to believe his own eyes.

"It was so unreal, I couldn't believe it," Callens said. "I was just shocked. You couldn't even fathom it was real or even happening, but there it was - reporting live."

Then it happened. After burning for 56 minutes, the South Tower began to crack and give way. Ten seconds later the building collapsed at 9:59 a.m. - killing nearly 600 emergency responders and workers inside the building and around the area. Fajardo remembered watching as, what had once been one of the tallest buildings in the world, crumbled to the ground.

"I saw people," Fajardo said. "People with their faces covered in ash, running away and screaming. The devastation, the chaos - it haunts me. You had to be there. I could describe it, you could see it in the news - but really, you had to be there. When you actually smelled the smoke, saw the fires and the flesh, you realize the people who were alive moments earlier are now up in ashes." 

Editor's Note: This story is the second of a four-part series that conveys the memories and emotions of people impacted by the Sept. 11 tragedy. Information from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was used in this story.