16 September 2011

9/11: Ten Years Later, 11 September 2001 Part 1

As we recently observed the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 11 September 2001 which has changed our lives forever, millions of people across America and around the world have been touched by what happened in one form or another. For me, it was like replaying the Sunshine Skyway tragedy on 9 May 1980 magnified 1,000 times.

Please let me share with you what I felt on that fateful day which we will remember for generations to come. I am going to share this with you in two parts: The first part will be my personal experiences on 9/11 and the second part will be life since 9/11, which I'll post at a later date. That said, here we go.

Part 1: My personal experiences on 9/11

A week earlier, I took a trip to Ft. Lauderdale over the Labor Day weekend. I took Amtrak south from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale and on the Labor Day holiday in 2001, I flew Southwest Airlines from Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) (and I remember back in the days when Southwest was located in Concourse F of Terminal 3; a couple of years later Southwest moved into its new home at FLL in Concourse B of Terminal 1) to Tampa International Airport (TPA). The flight lasted a little under an hour from gate to gate; believe me, flying Southwest sure beats the five to six hour drive on Interstate 75, especially the section from Ft. Lauderdale to Naples known as Alligator Alley.

Fast forward a week later. The date: Tuesday, 11 September 2001. The place: Downtown St. Petersburg, at my office. The time: Sometime around 9 AM.

I was doing the morning project filing as part of my first tasks when I got into the office so that I can tend to any priority items that may come up later during the day. My co-worker, Leslie, just came back from her morning break; as I was doing the project filing Leslie came up to me and told me that one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City just got hit.

I said to myself, “I couldn’t believe it!” I went over to the conference room located down the hallway and the TV was already on. My worst fears were being played before my eyes: Not only one tower of the World Trade Center was hit; the second tower of the World Trade Center was hit too.

Then I kept hearing that The Pentagon in Washington, DC got hit, and another airliner – which we would know as United Airlines’ Flight 93 – was on course for either The White House or The Capitol. By that time, for all intents and purposes America was under attack.

Going back to my desk, I was deeply concerned. With New York City and Washington DC being attacked by airliners – hijacked by teams of terrorists – I was scared if Florida was next. Would it be Miami/Ft. Lauderdale? Orlando? Jacksonville? Tampa/St. Petersburg?

An hour later, I went on my morning break. Already the St. Petersburg Times was printing an extra edition with huge headlines: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK. I picked up a copy and read it in the conference room while the TV was on. As I was reading the paper, I saw a horrific tragedy play before my eyes on TV: One of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. Then the other tower collapsed. Believe me, this was like the Sunshine Skyway tragedy on 9 May 1980 as the Summit Venture plowed into the south anchor pier (Pier 2-S) causing the southbound span to fall into Tampa Bay being replayed in my mind over and over.

Back in 1980 you did not have digital video for instantaneous playback. You did not have live video like we do today (besides, live video from a broadcast TV station’s remote truck was just getting off the ground). Broadcast video technology has improved over the 20+ years between 1980 and 2001: We now have 24-hour news channels that report breaking news the moment it is received, such as Bay News 9, the 24-hour local news channel in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

Later on after I returned to my desk, I found out that all airplanes were being directed to land at the nearest airport. United States airspace was being closed to all air traffic nationwide, as we were experiencing for all intents and purposes a national emergency. Then the theme parks such as Disney World in Orlando were closing for the day and everything else was either curtailing operations or shutting down because of the tragic events taking place. However, my office remained open as we had an obligation to serve the public.

What about the international flights from Europe coming to America? Once American airspace was closed to all commercial air traffic that fateful morning, it became a logistical nightmare as flights were being diverted to major Canadian airports as a part of Operation Yellow Ribbon; Gander International Airport in Newfoundland was the most notable airport as it played host to 38 airliners according to the Operation Yellow Ribbon article on Wikipedia. To handle the diverted air traffic, Canada closed its airspace to departing aircraft. After all, this is the spirit of our Maple Leaf neighbors to the north assisting us in an hour of need.

At the end of the day I took the bus home. Once I got home I had my TV turned on primarily to Bay News 9 but if I were to flip around the channels, I noticed that a lot of the cable networks which were not news related were either relaying live wall to wall coverage of the tragedy that unfolded or with a static slide stating that the station was not on the air due to the national emergency that was taking place.

Speaking of a national emergency, where was the Emergency Alert System on 11 September 2001? From what I understand activation of the Emergency Alert System on a national level was not needed as the broadcast and cable stations across the country were providing the warning. Furthermore, I found out that the 34 Primary Entry Point radio stations around the USA were kept on high alert, just in case.

Do you know what a Primary Entry Point radio station is? If and when the President of the United States (no President has done this to date) orders an activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on a national scale, a nationwide code - called an EAN, which stands for Emergency Action Notification - is transmitted from The White House to FEMA. FEMA relays this notification to the 34 radio stations across the USA that are part of the Primary Entry Point system. Once a Primary Entry Point radio station receives this alert it must be relayed to other radio stations as well as TV stations and cable systems; at the same time normal programming is suspended until the conclusion of the emergency. The ultimate goal: To have the President of the United States address the nation within 10 minutes of activation.

Sporting events such as football and baseball (especially since baseball was in its last month of regular season play as the playoffs leading to the World Series was just around the corner) were cancelled for a while as a result of 9/11. For the next few days after 9/11 our America was in a state of shock and sorrow. However, here in St. Petersburg we had another event we had on our minds in addition to 9/11: Tropical Storm Gabrielle, which caused heavy rain and street flooding.

The next week - Monday, 17 September 2001 - was nothing but normal as America tried to recover from the shock and horror of the day that will live on in our minds forever. A couple of days earlier, some airliners were returning to the skies amid tightened airport security.

In the days since 9/11, our way of life in regard to how you and I go about our everyday business has radically changed. Unfortunately, these changes have come at the price of sacrificing the freedoms we Americans enjoy and are accustomed to. In Part 2 of my blog entry on 9/11: Ten Years Later I will discuss life that we are accustomed to since that fateful day.

By the way, if you have a 9/11 related story you would like to share, please feel free to post a reply. Just make sure that your post is clean; all posts are moderated before they are published.

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