The word ‘veteran’ customarily represents an individual who served in the military. The keyword ‘military’ customarily represents a fighting alliance like the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines or the Navy. Arguably, two other groups could be classified as veterans: Merchant Mariners and members of the Home Front.
On Sept. 11, 2001 a sneak attack by terrorists on American soil made veterans out of all of us. We remember the day, the time and the continuing calamity playing out on TV for the whole world to see. We watched a reality show with real deaths. We watched our fellow citizens die in the crumbling buildings. We watched as the narratives came in about a planeload of Americans that said “enough is enough” and courageously fought back over Shanksville, Penn., and we heard the nerve-center of our military, the Pentagon, had been hit.
Bill LeCount is a citizen veteran of 9/11. He witnessed the catastrophe with his own eyes, saw the second airliner strike then watched as both towers collapsed. One dogged remembrance Bill lives with is the ashy white clouds and debris slithering out over the Hudson River and New York Harbor. This is his story.
A resident of Conyers on 9/11, Bill commuted to New Jersey each week for Price-Waterhouse-Coopers. He recalls, “My apartment was about two blocks from the office which was about three blocks from the water of the Hudson River and straight across from the World Trade Center Towers. I was walking to work after the first plane hit the North Tower but did not know the extent of the damage. People were walking away from the downtown area and I kept hearing comments like ‘a small Cessna hit the North Tower’ or ‘something bad happened at the World Trade Center.’ When I arrived at work the main lobby was empty. Our office was on the top floor of the tallest building in New Jersey at the time.”
Taking the elevator to the top floor, Bill joined a group of employees on the east side of the room gazing out the glass walls. He said, “Just as I joined the group the second plane hit the South Tower. One of the girls let out what can only be described as a blood-curling scream. At that time our senior partner said, ‘We are out of here, people.’ We didn’t know what was going on, other than that second plane strike was not a coincidence.”
“Low-flying aircraft near Manhatten was not unusual. We often ate at a restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center called Top of the World. You could look down and see planes below you. Three airports are within 15 miles of each other, LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark, so watching planes in their landing patterns was no cause for alarm.”
Bill described the confused yet speedy organizations by certain factors following the attack. “The PATH (subway system) was shut down since the first stop from New Jersey to Manhatten was the Trade Center but both lines were soon used to evacuate people from the New York side of the PATH system. I remember all the boats and ferry craft the Coast Guard commandeered to evacuate people. In all the confusion there seemed to be organization by trained personnel. Debris was all over the place, but we had no idea that the towers would or could collapse.”
Bill and two other senior partners set up a command center in Bill’s apartment. “We had 140 of our people to account for so we started calling, faxing, texting, anything to contact our people. My window gave us a clear view of the burning towers, maybe a mile across the Hudson. Smoke was pouring out and about 20 helicopters circled the area. I was watching the events on TV when a reporter said, ‘One of the buildings is moving’, and that’s when the South Tower came down. Ironically I kept watching the collapse on TV until I realized the tragedy was right outside my window. By the time I turned around there was nothing but broad daylight where the South Tower once stood. It just wasn’t there anymore.”
As the North Tower continued to burn, Bill and his coworkers witnessed the phenomena of a huge mushroom cloud covering Manhattan. “The smoke was unbelievable,” he said. “We could actually smell the smoke from inside our apartment building. It was eerie, surreal to the point of disbelief. The debris and smoke almost obscured the North Tower but at 10:28 a.m. we saw it come down. The massive structure looked like it was falling in slow motion, collapsing in an organized sequence, almost as if it was melting.”
In the midst of tragedy, human nature can offer a moment of humor in the strangest of circumstances. Bill recalled, “An Asian guy worked for us but could never get to work on time. To get him to work at 9 a.m. we told him to be there at 8:30am. The idea usually worked, but that morning he had just walked out of the South Tower when it started to collapse. This guy was 5’4” and athletic, so he took off running, ahead of about 1,000 other people. We didn’t hear from him for two days.”
When asked what happened to the gentleman, Bill replied, “Well, he was about 40 feet in front of the debris cloud and terrified the people behind him would run him down, so he sprinted all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge and home to Queens.” Asked the distance, Bill stated, “About 15 miles, and we believed him. He never stopped. By the way, he never came back to work for us.”
People walked everywhere. Tunnels were closed; all roads closed to traffic. Bill recalled, “The Lincoln Tunnel was still open so people used it. You know, they pumped water into ground zero for months and the only place for it to go was into the subway system. They pumped the water out of the subway system which meant the outpour was on the Jersey side. Firefighters and first responders have cancers the doctors haven’t seen before. Think of all the ‘stuff’ accumulated in a subway system for years, and all the debris from the towers, I mean who knows what was in that water.”
When American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, Bill was still in his apartment with coworkers. “When we heard the news about the Pentagon someone in the apartment said, ‘We’re going to war,’ about the same time a reporter on TV stated, ‘We’re at war,’…..well, we knew war had come to America but we didn’t know who we were at war with and then we heard about the plane crashing in Shanksville. That threw us for a loop. Why Shanksville? What’s in Shanksville? We didn’t know at the time it was targeting either the White House or Capitol Building. I know one thing; those were brave Americans on the Shanksville plane. God bless them.”
As dusk fell, a spine-chilling silence engulfed the area. Bill said, “It was so strange. You could hear sirens but other than that you could have heard a pin drop. Then we decided to get a bite to eat at the Grand Banks Restaurant near my apartment building. Outside we noticed convoy after convoy of refrigerated tractor-trailers, probably 50 or 60 total, heading for the river. We walked down to the shoreline….they were bringing people across the river straight to the shore, no dock, and the refrigerated trucks were on ‘stand-by’ waiting for the expected bodies to arrive.”
On calling home: “The cellphone communication towers went down with the buildings so cellphones were dead, except for AT&T. Their towers were on the Jersey side so I still had my cell, all five bars. I called my wife and told her I was okay and so were my people. Being able to use a cellphone on 9/11 was a blessing.”
His final thoughts were varied and poignant. “9/11 is hard for me to talk about. For months it didn’t bother me, but now it does. It is hard to describe the feelings surging through your body as you watched the towers fall. Something I will never forget is watching the South Tower fall on TV then suddenly turning around to look out the window and there’s nothing to see. You know, the towers blocked the sun in the morning and I never had to close my blinds. After they fell, I had to close the blinds every morning. It’s strange how silly things like that stay in your mind….yet, a lot of things about 9/11 remain on my mind.”
Bill occasionally choked up. “Ground zero is hallowed ground as far as I’m concerned. They’re still finding bits of airplane parts and pieces of human parts, and we should never forget what happened on 9/11. And as for the terrorists, nuke them. I know we can’t do that because of the collateral damage and nuclear fallout, but if you saw what I personally witnessed on America’s second day of infamy, well…..enough said.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.