🇺🇸🎗 #Honor911: an Australian in the American heartland on 9/11

Fall in Kansas City, September 2001
Written by our Emergency.Life Editor Andrew McIntosh, who lived in the US from 1999-2006 and had just finished Firefighting Certification at the University of Kansas in 2001:

We the People

I love Washington D.C. Not sure if it was the steady diet of American movies I grew up with or the 1950 and 60’s American Fords my father owned, but I was always fascinated with the US. Like many people of my generation, born in the 1970’s, the hit TV shows “CHIP’s” about the California Highway Patrol and Los Angeles Fire Department show “Emergency”probably played a big role in both my interests in emergency services and the United States.

One of the things I love about D.C. is that you never know what you will find around the next corner. Your first trip there is always a little awe-inspiring you tour the U.S. Capitol building, the Whitehouse or any number of famous places you ever saw in the news or on the movies in far flung Australia. In the 1970’s it was prohibitively expensive to take an family to, say Disney Land: it could be dreamed about.

In 1999 I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity live in the US for a year. That turned into seven years and, two kids later, while we left as two, my wife and I returned ho
me to Australia as ‘four’ in late 2006. Based near Kansas City, you pop up to Chicago or be midway between New York and LA, we used every opportunity we had to travel while we were there.

On the same day in stumbled upon the still stand Ford Theatre where President Lincoln was shot, and was amazed to find the “house where Lincoln died” also preserved across the street, I wondered past the United States Archives building. Not knowing what expect I walked in, no queues. To my surprise, there, behind bullet proof glass, encased in brass and eagles was the Declaration of Independence. The real deal.

I can’t remember specifics, but I believe it was nuclear bomb proof, and you descend down several stories beneath the ground every evening into concrete vault for protection. Amazing. While there I purchased a black note book on the 9th of August 2000. It would be my next diary. Who knew what the blank pages would contain.

The black notebook had embossed gold wording “We the People” with “The Constitution of the United States, September 17, 1787. National Archives, Washington DC.”

Christmas 2000 & Presidential Inauguration 2001

Christmas in 2000 was amazing. We had made good friends with a U.S. Marshal and his family and we headed off to a frozen hog farm in Wahoo, Nebraska! If was one of the best Christmas’ of our lives, the hospitality, food and friendship was amazing. Ice longer and thicker than your arm hung from buildings on the farm, including a huge, classic American style barn. It was a first Christmas of snow; amazing for Australians who endure exhausting summer heat each Christmas.

We played with all sorts of cousins and relatives, tobogganing threw snow so deep you could never found the ground. I glided sideways, full throttle, on a quad bike back and forth on their frozen lake as my nose and cheeks went red in the freezing cold. It was sealed, in of all places, Wahoo Nebraska: I love America!

To make the most of our ‘one year’ in the States, we jumped at opportunities to travel from Florida to New York and San Francisco to San Diego. In 2001 a Inauguration of the President and Vice-President of the United States would take place. US residents, if they are quick, can contact their local Congressman for tickets. It did not matter if it was George Bush or Al Gore, how often would an Australian have the opportunity to see a President sworn in?

One the 20th of January 2001, I missed the reception with Congressman because of the massive DC transport chaos. Standing in the freezing cold, not far from the podium, I watched President George W. Bush sworn in but the United States Chief Justice.

Life before 9/11

In June I noted in my journal that I passed my fire fighting exam at the University of Kansas to get National Accreditation. As a local volunteer, I was really enjoying emerging myself in American culture and, after meeting with the Kansas National Guard, I decided to join the local Fire Department instead. In June Timothy McVey was put to death for bombing the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma in 1995.

My last entries were about a vehicle extraction out in the County and in early September my wife’s travel back to Australia and would arrive back in Los Angeles on September 10, 2001.

That day in September

These are my actual journal notes from 15 years ago:

“Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. An amazingly beautiful day, about 25 degrees Celsius in Lawrence (Kansas).

Today started pretty much as usual, I was running a bit late to work. Michelle had arrived safely home from Australia just last night. We went to bed about 9pm, both fairly exhausted. Her father’s (open heart surgery) operation had gone reasonably well, but some concerns still existed today – a high pulse rate (130) and an infection in a collapsed lung.

I thought to myself something noteworthy would happen today.Whenever my odometer reaches a significant milage, something tends to happen. At about 7:50 am I was on the Interstate 435 heading East towards Nall and then to Sprint World Headquarters. My odometer was approaching 99,000 miles within a mile or two.

The 8am NPR (National Public Radio) News started with a brief report that that a aircraft had hit one of the World Trade Centers in New York. By 8:10am I had walked my familiar path from parking lot A to Building 6160, Sprint Parkway, park of the massive new Sprint ‘Campus’ in Overland Park, part of the great Kansas City area.

The last photo I took of the WTC.

There was crowd of people watching the first floor TVs next to the elevators, on Fox 4 News. I was absolutely shocked to see huge plumes of black smoke pouring from one of the Twin Towers.

I was then in even more sickening shock moments later – having heard on the news that an aircraft, possibly a twin engine propellor driven craft, I saw live a shocking sight of a large airplane, possibly a 727, fly directly into the other WTC Tower – flaming, I could not believe it.

As I walked to the third floor, large crowds gathered near the elevators on each level to watch the now twin burning towers. I spoke to shocked colleagues. We could not believe our eyes.

At 8:30am team meeting, our Manager said we probably won’t get much done today. People compared stories of what they had seen on TV, the internet or radio. At the end of the meeting, our Manager said 

“There is nothing we can do except pray for those people in New York.”

As we left the meeting, people were still crowded near the stairwell watching the TV.I saw more smoke and heard the commentary the Pentagon was now in flames, apparently hit by another plane. The news reports were speculating that the third aircraft had been hijacked and, despite saying earlier they may be cargo planes, at least some appeared to hi-jacked commercial flights, possibly American Airlines , US Airways or United.

It was very apparent that the United States was under a major attack. The President, George W. Bush, addressed that Nation from a school in Florida.Amongst all this, the crows at the foyer TVs grew. My Sprint Vice President, Directors and Managers sat in chairs or on the floor watching.

Two our complete horror, one of the World Trade Center Towers collapsed. We saw huge plums of dust and smoke. Police, Ambulance, Firefighters and office workers ran through streets covered in dust, glass and huge amounts of debris. Reports started of people jumping from buildings, fall to the streets. People started talking about Pearl Harbor – we were witnessing the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.

Some people cried. I can’t believe the images of the planes bursting into flames, massive explosions, flames – it was incredible. News talked of another jetliner hi-jacked and possibly heading to New York City or Washington D.C.

The President was on Air Force One, no-one knew where. The FAA cancelled all fights in the US – all flights forced to land at the nearest airport.

Then the next page of this nightmare unfolded – the TV went live to screams and confusion, from the dust and chaos, someone screamed “the second tower has collapsed.”

Shock. Just stunned silence. Then “oh god” as the second tower collapsed. And sure enough, the footage from the news helicopters confirmed – the second tower had crashed to the ground. We had all seen it live.

Reports that a 767 passenger jet crashed outside Pittsburg. My colleagues started, or continued, to talk about friends and love ones, not knowing. Lisa’s sister-in-law was in NYC on vacation. Her friend works at the Pentagon. Meeting were canceled and the Sprint CEO sent a statement to all employees.

Dan, who I went to the Inauguration with, could not contact his brother-in-law. His mother was frantic, not knowing, father in law was numb. Dan tried to call him too. No luck, all calls to NYC not getting through. Dan had access to call records as part of his job. He pulled up his brother in law’s number, it has calls out until 9:12am NYC time, the abruptly stopped. Dan kept checking for hours before lunch, but no luck, not calls out.

I went to lunch with Dan and Craig. Flags were already at half mast. We talked about how how squeal it all was, like a movie, but even too unreal for a movie.Estimates of 10,000 dead are now being said on the news. When we got back to Sprint the usual sleepy security guards were all standing up and checking our IDs. The TVs were now off on every floor.

People tried to get through on cnn.com or nbc.com, but could not get much, only a brief one page report, which stated “you are seeing this page because of high demand.” I was able to see the horrifying sight of still photos at the Australian newspaper theage.com.au. People around me started using the Australian sites to see the images – some so terrible, of people falling from the towers. The site mentioned the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was visiting Washington DC and had been rushed to the Australian Embassy. It mentioned that some of the flights we Qantas or Air New Zealand code share flights.

The TV’s soon came back on the story seems to be as follows:

  • Two commercial airlines were hijacked from Boston and flown one after the other into separate WTC Towers
  • Two of the planes, all either United Airlines or American Airlines, were hi-jacked and one flown into the Pentagon in DC and the last plowed into the ground in a field near Pittsburgh.

Dan finally heard from NY: his brother-in-law had been on the 26th floor of a nearby building and was evacuated after the first blast. On the street, he actually saw the second plane hit and explode in flames. Then, in a dream almost, he said he saw both towers collapse and he was covered in dust. Trying to shelter from the storm of concrete dust and paper, he ran into the subway, but that too was closed due to a bomb scare. He then went back onto the street and walked 30 blocks north to safety, eventually being able to get a line to call home to Kansas City and tell his family he was safe.

Most people left work early. No one has claimed responsibility. Talk of $6 per gallon for gas in some towns, some people left to fill up their cars. I made the trip home from Kansas City to Lawrence on the K-10: some queues at gas stations, but prices not above $1.80 per gallon.

At home our answering mating was packed with messages, including:

  • My brother called to see if I was OK, he’d head that there was a “War on America”
  • Janet ran to see off Michelle has made it home from Australia. Yes, her passport stamped arriving in the US on Sept 10, 2001
  • Our tennis coach called and said he would understand if we cancelled our tennis lesson tonight because of the attack on NY
  • A tearful message from Mum hope we are OK, they had also called us at work from Australia
  • Jacqui, tearful, called have seen it all on TV in Australia, wondering if had heard from a mutual friend staying in NY
  • Anthony from NY called, he was OK, we should call him.

The US and the world are in shock – those images are amazing. We all wait to see what reaction will come from the US. President Bush gave a live address at 8:30pm vowing to get the terrorists. The broadcast was from the Oval Office – believed to be important, showing he was home in Dc, after being in New Orleans, Omaha, Nebraska after leaving Florida.

All aircraft travel in US is halted. The Mayor of NYC addressed the Nation. Up to 300 NYC firefighters are believed to be dead. About 30 NYC Police are also unaccounted for.”

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