The morning of September 11, 2001 changed the way I see the world. Growing up with a pilot for a father had always caused me to look towards the sky with awe and wonder. The whine of jet engines or low-flying aircraft had always been a source of excitement for me. The attacks on 9/11 caused me to view low-flying aircraft and whining jet engines with the expectation that something ominous is about to occur.
Some of my earliest memories were formed in various types of airplanes. While growing up, I spent countless hours alone in aircraft with my father defying gravity as we looped and rolled through the heavens. In my twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time jumping out of airplanes and working at a skydiving drop zone in Pennsylvania. My love of aircraft and the sky are a part of my very core.
In that blurry place separating dreaming and wakefulness, I vaguely registered the voice of a loved one that had told me to get up because something was wrong at 6 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001 in Seattle. As I contemplated whether or not it had been a dream, I began to focus on the confused voices coming from the television in the other room. I rolled out of bed and headed towards the voices in an attempt to discover what had happened. It was still dark outside and the lights from the kitchen burned my eyes as I strolled past to get a look at the television screen. I stared in disbelief at the image on the screen and listened to Matt Lauer attempting to gather more information about what had happened. As I stared at the huge gash in the World Trade Center’s North Tower and watched the smoke billowing out, I immediately thought of the bombing in 1993. As I heard Matt describing the situation as an accident and reporting that an aircraft had caused the damage, I immediately thought that sounded very odd.
Growing up around pilots and having flying experience of my own, I began pondering the likelihood that an aircraft was unable to avoid a huge skyscraper in perfect VFR conditions. Every pilot I knew, regardless of experience level, would have done everything in his or her power to avoid striking a building no matter what the personal consequences would have been. It just wasn’t adding up to me. As I listened to the television reporters discussing the events with an eyewitness over the phone, the second plane impacted, removing any lingering doubts about the possibility that this could have been an accident. As I watched the replay of the second explosion, it was quite obvious that it was a large twin engine jet banking at a very high rate of speed while appearing to fly intentionally into the World Trade Center. It was nauseating to me.
As I listened to the speculation about whether or not this may have been a commercial aircraft, my head began to spin. 3,000 miles away on the East Coast, my father was a commercial pilot flying out of Washington’s Dulles International Airport. I immediately picked up the phone and dialed my dad’s cell in an attempt to locate him. A sickening feeling began to churn in my stomach as I was dumped directly into his voicemail. My father was nearly always reachable unless he was flying at the time. I hung up and dialed my mom to see if she knew what was happening. The whole situation was like a sickening nightmare. Not only is my father a pilot, but many of my family’s friends were pilots and some were flight attendants. One of those flight attendants, Michelle Heidenberger, was killed when American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
Unlike many families that day, I got my dad back safe and sound. He had actually been at Dulles the same time as those terrorists. It was difficult for me to imagine. After the attacks, my father took a leave of absence from the airline to return to active military duty. As a Brigadier General, he served as the Base Commander at Manas Air Base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where coalition forces staged and supported Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The base was unofficially referred to as “Peter J. Ganci Air Base” in honor of Chief Peter J. Ganci, Jr., a New York Firefighter killed when the World Trade Center’s North Tower collapsed.
Instead of drifting safely into retirement as planned, my father was back in harm’s way on the other side of the world writing notes on bombs to Bin Laden. Although my father spent most of his time on the ground while in Kyrgyzstan, he did manage to go on a mission in a FA-18 while he was there.
I personally can say that I’m a better person since the attacks. I received my EMT certification and am currently working on prerequisites for paramedic training. I’ve helped a lot of people in need and will continue to do so. I got right back on commercial aircraft following the attacks, continue to love life, and will not alter my behaviors because I’m afraid. Sorry Bin Laden, our communities are closer, we lend a hand more readily, and nine years later I can honestly say that hearing your name doesn’t blow my hair back. I’m looking at the sky with awe and wonder again.