9/11 attacks brought out best of Team Keesler

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Sept. 11, 2001, was just a typical busy Tuesday morning at the Keesler News office in 81st Training Wing headquarters - deadline day to finish stories and layouts for that week's paper.

Someone yelled in the quiet hallway - a plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City. I kept working, assuming it was a little commuter plane and figuring that some air traffic controller was in big trouble.

Then a second commercial aircraft hit the other tower of the trade center ... and another hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. ... and another crashed in a western Pennsylvania field. There was no doubt - it was terrorism aimed directly at the United States.

Nineteen militants linked to the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda had hijacked four airliners for suicide attacks, killing more than 3,000 people, including more than 400 police officers and firefighters trying to rescue people trapped in the flaming, crumbling structures.

I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that someone had attacked MY country ... MY America. Although we continued working, we kept checking the TV news, mesmerized by the unfolding story and the horrifying pictures. And I felt a fear that I had never felt before ... my husband was working in California, my girls were away at school and my sister-in-law, Joann, who worked at the base pharmacy, was visiting her best friend at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. I wanted my loved ones with me, and for the first time in years, I was terrified of being alone.

At that time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, "More than simple acts of terrorism by radical or unbalanced individuals, this was an attack on our way of life, our country, our home ... now that terror has been brought to our door - and as the president has said - to all future generations, to stop it, eliminate it and destroy it at its core."

Yes, it was a frightening time at Keesler, but all those exercise contingency plans fell right into place as base leaders confronted the threat. Reinforced security forces performed frequent random identification checks and bumper-to-bumper vehicles searches at all gates. Parking spaces adjacent to buildings were empty and portions of some streets were barricaded. To enter a building, an ID check and inspection of bags, boxes and briefcases were required.

It was time-consuming and unnerving, but everyone recognized the urgency of the precautions.

Brig. Gen. Ted Mercer, then 81st Training Wing commander, acknowledged the disruptions but insisted, "Freedom is not free. Vigilance is one of the costs of freedom, and inconvenience is a price we pay for vigilance.

"The cowards who committed last week's atrocities failed in their mission," the general declared. "Those who tried to strike fear in our hearts will be surprised to see that instead, they inspired unity, patriotism and a commitment to persevere among Americans."

More than 100 Keesler Medical Center personnel and supplies were deployed Sept. 11, to assist with relief efforts. Sixteen members of the 81st Dental Squadron were dispatched to assist with onsite forensic identification. Donors had to be turned away because of the tremendous response of Team Keesler for special blood drives.

For two days at the height of the alert - Force Protection Condition Delta - the exchange commissary, library, community centers, arts and crafts center, outdoor recreation, post office and credit union were closed and hours and services were cut at other base facilities. Restrictions on telephone, email and Internet access were in place. College classes on base, a graduation banquet, town hall meeting, intramural sports and youth center activities were cancelled. Reporting times for many units were staggered to relieve traffic congestion at the three gates that remained open.

The training schedule was uninterrupted, and the service station, shoppette, child development center, fitness centers, dining halls and billeting operated normally.

The tragedies struck home for a number of Keesler people who had family members and friends who were first responders or worked at the attack sites. One I remember in particular was Staff Sgt. Nicola Natale from the 81st Contracting Squadron, now a senior master sergeant at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, whose Aunt Anita worked at the World Trade Center. Hours after the attack, she learned that her aunt was safe, but it took almost an hour for her to make her way down the stairs and she was only two blocks away when the first tower collapsed.

Thirteen years have passed, and it dawned on me that some of our trainees here at Keesler were in kindergarten when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred - it must seem like ancient history to them. Some of my public affairs colleagues were still in elementary school. But for many of us, the memories are indelible - we will never take the safety and security of our country for granted again.