A hijacked commercial jetliner full of terrified passengers smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:37 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 — 20 years ago today.
It was only the beginning.
Things were never the same again for Glynn County Police Chief Jacques Battiste.
At the time, Battiste was an FBI supervisory special agent/bomb technician, driving the big Ford F-350 bomb squad truck from Quantico, Va., to Washington, D.C., to give a “dog and pony show” for government bigwigs. Then something came on the radio about a plane striking one of the World Trade Center towers. He called headquarters to alert a colleague who hailed from the Big Apple.
“The radio said a plane just struck Tower 1 in New York,” said Battiste, who spent more than two decades with the FBI. “I didn’t know if it was intentional or an error, but I called and said, ‘You might want to turn on the TV.’”
At 9:03 a.m., a second hijacked jetliner full of innocent victims barreled into the trade center’s south tower.
“The guys I’m talking to at the office have the TV on, and I hear someone scream, “Oh, my God! Here comes another one!” Battiste said.
Millions of Battiste’s stunned countrymen and women across the nation were tuned in to the shocking carnage by now, coming to terms with a hostile enemy’s ruthless attack on America. He was still on the beltway, still driving
Looking back on it, Battiste remains awed at how casually he noted the commercial jetliner’s unusual position on the familiar D.C. horizon.
“I see this plane in the distance,” he said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow, he’s way off course to make it to the airport.’ I look again. The plane’s lower, coming closer. I think, ‘Damn! He’s low!’”
At 9:37 a.m., a third hijacked commercial jet slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the hallowed halls of America’s five military branches and a paragon of national defense and security. The weaponized jet brushed past Battiste on its way in.
“That jet literally came in right alongside us,” Battiste said. “We hear the jet engines before we see it, and he’s hitting street lights as he goes across the main road, and then he hit the building. We all go, Sugar-Honey-Iced-Tea!”
Camden County native Jean DeVette Baker is retired and living in Brunswick today. Back then she was a civilian in the Pentagon’s Navy sector as an auditor. When the jetliner nose dived into the Pentagon’s Air Force Section, she was on a humdrum errand to the copy machine inside the massive military complex.
“I felt the building shake,” Baker said. “I came out to make a copy of something and the building shook. I knew that the building should not be shaking. My boss came out.”
That is when Baker saw the woman rushing down a hallway, her face contorted in hysteria.
“A lady came running by the corridor with a gash of blood running down her face,” Baker recalled. “She was screaming, ‘Get out of the building! Get out of the building!’”
Still, it was not over.
Terrified though they were, passengers aboard yet another hijacked jetliner delivered the first counterpunch in the war on terror at 10:03 a.m. With the battle cry, “Let’s roll,” doomed passengers stormed the cockpit, forcing their captors to crash land in an empty Pennsylvania field.
By 10:28 a.m., both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed in a searing cacophony of steel and stone, fire and smoke, dust and debris. The nation watched horrified as those trapped on upper floors jumped to avoid rising flames that threatened a fate worse than death.
In the immediate aftermath of Flight 77 pummeling the Pentagon, Battiste and his coworker did not remain passive onlookers for long. He turned on the bomb truck’s sirens, steered off of the beltway, crisscrossed interior roads, then drove against traffic with lights and sirens blaring down an exit ramp toward the smoldering Pentagon. They stopped nearby and joined other law enforcement folks who had instinctively rushed to the fray.
They established a makeshift traffic control sector to help expedite entry of needed personnel and to keep others out.
“After the initial split-second of shock wears off, it’s amazing how quickly training kicks in after witnessing a major crisis,” Battiste said. “We clicked on the sirens and drove in between incoming and oncoming cars and against traffic on the entrance ramp and into a parking lot.
“We’re trying to control the crowd. We can see smoke coming out of the building. One person came out with flames on him, and a Pentagon police officer tackled him to get him help. People were clearly, visibly hurt.”
Baker was in the thick of it. Confusion and panic reigned in the Pentagon’s interior maze of hallways and corridors, she said. By this time, announcements over the intercom system instructed people to exit the buildings.
“One can easily take a wrong turn and get lost,” Baker said of the building. “The scene was chaotic. Workers were running, screaming, and knocking others down. They were trying to escape the unknown terror. My co-workers and I rushed out of the building together.”
She still did not comprehend that terrorists hell-bent on a murderous suicide mission had crashed into the Pentagon, let alone that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“Once we finally got outside, passersby told us what was going on,” Baker said. “We didn’t know at the time it was a plane that hit us.”
Battiste still did not know that passengers had fought back on Flight 93, overtaking their terrorist hijackers and preventing them from their mission of wreaking still more havoc in the nation’s Capital. The plane crashed well short of any potential targets, taking only the lives of the 40 innocent passengers and crew who moments earlier had been bound for California.
But Battiste and other law enforcement officers were still scanning the skies for Flight 93, as well as many other commercial flights that had not yet been accounted for. Now in Kevlar jackets, “full tactical gear” and bearing M4s, Battiste went from being among the first FBI agents on scene outside the Pentagon to operating at security checkpoints around the Capitol periphery on that long Sept. 11, 2001. They fully expected more attacks on land or by air.
“By then the (Flight 93) plane had crashed, but they still had a number of flights still unaccounted for,” Battiste said. “We pulled back to a safety perimeter. We set up a makeshift command post, and we started being diverted into the city to cover major intersections in case the attack came from the ground. We had the posture for another attack — we’re trained to be on point in case one comes.”
Baker injured her leg on an escalator in the chaos of escaping from the Pentagon building. She still knew very little about what had taken place. Cellphone communications were down. She despaired of being unable to notify her children and family back in Georgia that she was safe.
“It was an attack on America!” Baker said. “The District of Columbia was locked down. F-16s were flying overhead, and blaring sirens penetrated the air. My young children and family back in Georgia had no idea if I was alive for dead.”
Joel Kirch is an instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynn County these days. Back then, he was a U.S. Marshal in Albany, New York, and a member of the U.S. Marshal Service’s Critical Response Team (CIRT). By late afternoon on Sept. 11, 2001, he was ordered by CIRT leaders to Manhattan.
The fond memories he once held for assignments to this bustling island borough of New York City are now seared with the memories of arriving there the morning after 9/11.
“It is impossible to describe what I saw in the area that was so familiar to me,” Kirch said. “What remains with me is the smell of jet fuel, the amount of dust in the air, and debris and damaged vehicles in the streets near Ground Zero.”
Kirch joined a “bucket brigade” relay line at Ground Zero, removing the rubble and searching for survivors — one 5-gallon bucket at a time. “Within hours there were dump piles 10 to 20 feet tall where the buckets were dumped,” he said.
Nineteen terrorists, groomed by al-Qaida and global terrorist lynchpin Osama bin Laden, plotted and executed the four suicide missions that delivered carnage and trauma to American soil. Some 2,726 people perished inside the World Trade Center that day, including 343 firefighters, 37 port authority officers and 23 police officers who rushed into crumbling buildings to save lives. Another 184 died at the Pentagon.
The vicious attacks claimed a total of 2,977 innocent souls. It was the deadliest attack on American soil in modern times. On the day that lives in infamy, some 2,335 were killed during the surprise attack by the Japanese on the U.S. Naval station at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
In some ways, nothing would ever be the same after 9/11. From airport security to the formation of new government agencies to combat terrorism, the changes are too many to count.
The nation entered into a war with Afghanistan the following month, striking where al-Qaida hatched the diabolical terrorist plot under the covert cloak of the Taliban regime. In May 2011, Navy Seals slipped into Osama bin Laden’s walled hideout in Pakistan and killed the international terrorist.
Last month, 20 years later, American forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in U.S. history. Some 2,448 American service members died in the war.
The Taliban is now in control of the nation.
But Americans united in the aftermath of 9/11, resolved not to be cowed by terror.
The ankle injury Baker suffered that day would lead to her early retirement from Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in 2007. Today, Baker’s faith in God is stronger, her love for family and humankind runs deeper.
“For me personally, it changed my whole life,” she said. “Instead of focusing on myself, I’ve wanted to help other people. The country really came together after 9/11. For a little while everyone one was kinder and nicer to each other. My family and I continue to pray for the victims’ souls, for the survivors, the families and those who continue to suffer from the physical and mental effects of that horrific day in history.”
A museum and a 9/11 Memorial complex of gardens, fountains and tributes to the fallen now sit on the 16 acres where the twin towers once stood as a symbol of New York City’s strength and vibrance.
“I have often told my family and friends the only thing worse than being there would have been to not have been there,” Kirch said. “First responders will understand that statement.”
By the time Battiste finished sharing his story with The News on Friday, tears welled in his eyes.
“My contributions were minor compared to those who did so much more and sacrificed so much more that day,” he said. “There were so many heroes that went unrecognized, some who lived through the incident and some who perished in the incident. Whether in New York, Pennsylvania or in D.C., some unfortunately paid the ultimate price in protecting our democracy and our freedom in this country. We can never forget them.”