Friday, September 11, 2009

On a Quiet Morning...

Eight years ago, I awoke to a pounding on my bedroom door. "Turn on the TV!" my mother-in law - who my wife and I were staying with at the time - yelled in Spanish. She's a very mellow person usually. Something was obviously up.

I stumbled out of bed and grabbed the remote. What could be so important that-

Oh God.

Twin towers aflame. Smoke billowing for miles in a plume so huge it could be seen from space. How could both towers be on fire? Then they reran the clips of UAL175 streaking along, banking, correcting. My gut wrenched as I saw the huge Boeing swallowed by the tower and a huge ball of ugly flame belch out of the building. Eyewitnesses said another one had hit the first tower.

Two airplanes? This was no accident. We were under attack. I immediately thought of Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor. The anger punched me hard.

I woke my wife up. We both sat, dumbfounded and helpless, as people struggled to survive a thousand miles away while metal wilted before the heat of flaming jet fuel. Firemen rushed to the rescue. People hovered in windows, waving frantically, trapped between a fiery death or a fall to Earth. Some held hands and leapt, together in their last moments, choosing their fate. Heroism and tragedy intertwined.

Those buildings were so indescribably tall and majestic, and being a child of the 80's I could never picture NYC without them. I remember reading about the B-25 that slammed into the Empire State Building in 1945. That was a 20 ton bomber crashing into a concrete and steel building, not a 150 ton airliner. But, surely, building technology had come a long way since those days.

Then came the first collapse. A short time later, the second. And we could only watch and hope that someone - somehow - had made it out of there alive.

I'd only visited New York once since I was a small child. In May 2001, my wife and I hooked up with my parents and sister in Philadelphia and took a whirlwind tour of the NE United States. Eight states in three days. My wife had never been to NYC before, and we saw a lot of things very quickly.

However, my strongest memories are of the Twins. I recall standing beside them, looking up, and feeling so very insignificant. They seemed to go on forever.

The only camera I had on me then was a DV video camera that also took 1024x768 stills, a pitiful resolution by today's standards. I had a wide-angle attachment for it as well. Here are the pics I shot on that beautiful day in May.

(Here's what the sphere looks like now. It actually survived the collapse and will be placed in the 9/11 memorial when it's built.)

Those are just a little reminder of how things were eight years and one day ago.

A few years later, I went on a class trip to the D.C. area. We hit every type of ATC facility: Washington National Airport Control Tower, Potomac TRACON, Washington Center, and - lastly - the Air Traffic Systems Command Center.

If you haven't seen United 93, you should. It's a powerful film and does a good job of showing what air traffic controllers do and how they react to unusual situations. While actors portray the heroes and terrorists who died aboard the aircraft, many of the folks on the ground - including ATC, military, government - are the actual people who were working that day. That includes the controllers who were on the frequencies and were the first people in the country to realize something was seriously wrong. Also, in tune with its accuracy, no other film has done as good a job presenting the "look" of ATC facilities.

The order to land every non-military aircraft in the United States airspace originated in the Command Center - given by 1st-day-on-the-job director Ben Sliney. Controllers from around the country managed to land every airplane within two hours, a fact that the media certainly noticed in a number of post 9/11 reports.

While visiting the Command Center was certainly a "big picture" look at the National Airspace System's normal daily ebb and flow of ground stops and delays, I also found it interesting to be in a place where a significant piece of ATC history originated.

No comments: