A number of years ago, I got an email from an old high school friend of mine asking if I could help his daughter out with a school assignment. His daughter was now attending the same high school we had graduated from and she had been given an assignment to talk to someone about their experiences on September 11, 2001. Knowing that I had been living in the DC area since I graduated high school as well as the fact that I had spent several years working at the Department of Homeland Security, he asked if I would be willing to share where I was that day as well as my experiences of that day with her.

I told him that I would be happy to assist his daughter and we arranged for a time to talk on the phone where she could interview me. When we finally had the call, I found it a bit of a cathartic exercise. I was passing along a story I had shared with family and friends for years but now had an opportunity to share it even further. Storytelling is one of the most human of activities. It gives us context, taste and perspective of what it was like to experience a particular moment. Recording where I had been on 9/11 had always been something I wanted to do – especially for my kids. While I know my memories of that day are as vivid today as when they occurred so many years ago, I know without recording my story in some shape or fashion I risk losing it.

So, I sat down to write down my memories of that day so that my children (and theirs) will know where I was that day and what I experienced. I’ve shared my experiences of that day with my three children – one of whom was not even born when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Every year when the anniversary comes around, each of them will ask me something about that particular day. It usually relates to something I saw or felt that day, or what I think about our ability to endure a similar attack today. Terrorism is as much a part of their world as the Cold War was for me and my generation as we were growing up. It’s a perpetual shadow you can’t avoid but by sharing our respective memories of that day I hope it will inform them about their own readiness and perspective on dealing with threats in all of their forms. I also hope it helps them better appreciate the freedoms we as a nation possess and the people of all colors and backgrounds who wear the uniforms of our military, police, fire, emergency services and so many others that work to keep us safe, secure and resilient.

My own story is nothing compared to the thousands, if not millions of others from that day who either lost someone very close to them in the attacks or found themselves deployed to war zones in the years after 9/11 to take the fight to their front door. But it is my story about where I was that day and what I saw and experienced. And here it is…

On the morning of September 11th, I was working at NASA Headquarters as the Senior Advisor to the NASA Administrator (Dan Goldin) and the NASA Chief of Staff (Courtney Stadd). It was a truly gorgeous day in the National Capital Area and I remembered as I got in my car for the very early drive to work that morning what a perfect day it would be to play hooky and take my wife and then two very young children to a park and play that day but I had a desk full of actions to deal with so I went to work like everybody else. The humidity was low, the temperature perfectly comfortable and the skies were cloud-free and clear. Even in that early hour you could see some of the gorgeous blue that would be forever stained by the morning’s tragic events.

It was shortly after the 8:30AM senior staff meeting that I exited the Administrator’s conference room when I saw on the TV by the Administrator’s Secretary (Denise Stewart) an image of smoke pouring from the top of one of the WTC towers. I asked her what happened, and she said news reports were talking about a commuter plane that had struck the tower. I looked her strangely as you could see there was no fog or low cloud cover in NYC that could obscure the view of a plane. Furthermore, the hole in the side of the tower did not seem like a commuter plane size. It was a smoke-spewing gash.

I remember turning to our head of Public Affairs, Glenn Mahone and remarked to him that we should probably get ready to respond to media questions about the new air traffic control systems that NASA had been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop. While the FAA had responsibility for the country’s air traffic control systems, NASA played a big role in doing a lot of the FAA’s research work. I then proceeded to walk down the hallway where my office was at but instead crossed the hall and went into the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Sue Garman to talk to her. I asked her if she had seen the TV and she said she had just turned it on to see what was happening. As we watched the television which was on NBC’s Today Show, we both talked about how strange this was and looked puzzled at the TV and unfolding images. By this time, you could see that they had begun setting up different news cameras to broadcast what was becoming a very frightening situation.

As Today Show staff was talking about the event, the next thing you heard from the TV was the shrieking female voice of the on-site correspondent saying, “Oh my God there’s another!” and then a cascading ball of flame filled the one side of the other WTC Tower. My first thought was it was one of NY’s infamous news choppers that had collided with the building or another helicopter had crashed into each other trying to get the best shot of the fire in the first tower but as the ball of flame grew larger and larger, I knew that it wasn’t a helicopter crash. As the ball of flame got bigger and bigger, I felt a horrible cold chill go through my body that I had never experienced before.

I looked at Sue and said, “We’re under attack.”

“What?!” Sue responded to me turning in her chair looking at me. I said, “We’re under attack and that’s next!” and I pointed to the US Capital dome which was directly outside of her office window.

I had no more than said those words when new NASA’s Director of Security, (Dave Saleeba) a recently retired US Secret Service agent that had joined NASA just a few weeks before the attack literally ran into the Administrator’s Suite and quickly catching his breath asked, “Where’s the Administrator?”

We told him the Administrator was at the Israeli Embassy meeting with their Ambassador to discuss the future mission of the first Israeli astronaut (which would be the ill-fated flight of Col. Ilan Ramon onboard the Shuttle Columbia in February 2003). He explained he “had just heard from his buddies in the Secret Service that we’re under attack.”

We stood there stunned momentarily at confirmation of the horror we had seen on TV and Dave quickly asked, “What do we have on the pad?” referring to the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The initial fear was because since we didn’t know how many other planes there might be, that the terrorists might be looking to strike at any large visible targets’ representative of the US and its power. Needless to say, KSC is such a site and possesses a lot of explosive gases to fuel rockets, etc. and if something were to go wrong there, it could be disastrous on several levels.

From that point on the morning is blur of activity. Shortly after the second WTC Tower was hit, I called my wife, Lisa at home in Alexandria, VA. Because our two kids were watching their morning shows on Playhouse Disney, she was completely unaware of the unfolding attacks. I told her that I would not be home anytime soon as there were actions, we had to do in the building to look after the workers there; find out if we had any of our people on business travel on some of those planes but also to monitor what was happening.

Needless to say, Lisa was not at all happy once she got the TV on and saw what was happening in NYC because she wanted me home. I told her she needed to reach out to her cousin, Allison and to find out about Bob Wildermuth, (her cousin’s husband). Both of them lived in NYC but I knew that Bob had worked in Lower Manhattan. He was an architect and had even done some design work after the 1993 World Trade Center attack on the twin towers. Like anyone who knew anyone in NYC that day you wanted to reach out to see if he was safe. [Lisa was not able to get through to her cousin or any other member of her family that lived in New York (both the city and out on Long Island) because of the jammed phone lines. Her cousin’s husband – Bob had worked on the redesign of the sprinkler system of the WTC following the 1993 attacks. Despite Bob’s own skills and those of his architectural colleagues nothing they could have ever designed or built could have done anything to stop the horror unfolding in those buildings. Bob also was safe that day and ended up taking pictures of the WTC collapse from the rooftop of the office building where he was now working. Truly chilling photos too.]

Once we understood what was happening, Sue Garman and I moved to an emergency call center inside the NASA Headquarters building and started to work the phones to call the various NASA Centers around the country to discuss emergency procedures with them. While doing that, the building had a brief shudder. What we didn’t know was that was the impact of American Airlines Flight 77 – the plane that had struck the Pentagon but because we were in the interior of the building and had no windows and the news had not reported it yet, the shudder we experienced we just ignored and kept doing what we were doing.

Shortly thereafter everyone’s computers and Internet connections began to seize up because of the volume of usage as people were trying to get news updates and send emails to loved ones, place calls, etc. That made getting updates to coworkers and family members an issue. Additionally, there started to be news reports about car bombs going off around Washington, specifically by the White House and the State Department. Once we moved back to the Administrator’s Suite, we immediately knew those media reports were wrong as we could look out the windows of the top floor (8th floor) of NASA Headquarters towards the White House, the State Department and see that there was no billowing smoke denoting something awful had occurred. The only smoke that was visible from where we were at was the black smoke rising out of the side of the Pentagon which was across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia.

By this time, you started to see military jets flying low over Washington ready to shoot down anything that might be making an approach towards DC. The Capital dome was by far the most visible target and against a crystal-clear blue sky, you could not miss it.

It was a fearful chaos of emotion, confusion, anger and so much more that was unfolding. People in the building were visibly and understandably upset because you didn’t know what was happening at any time. You could see the carnage on TV, but you knew it was right across the river at the Pentagon and you didn’t know if there was something other than suicide planes that might happen next.

People who had driven to work that day went to their cars to drive home. In truth they couldn’t go anywhere because the streets were blocked and clogged with traffic of other people in their cars trying to do the exact same thing – get out of the city. Only adding to the choking congestion was the addition of emergency vehicles trying to get to the Pentagon to help with the raging fire that was now burning there.

As a result, hundreds of cars had their engines running in the building’s three level parking garage. Because the streets were blocked and cars were sitting there idling, we had to tell people to turn their cars off because we feared the garage might fill up with carbon monoxide causing even more havoc and tragedy on an uncontrollable day.

Since people couldn’t get out with their cars or dial out because the cell phones and regular phone lines were overwhelmed, this became especially problematic. Buildings around the city, as well schools in the area were all closing early and letting people out to get out of the city.

Many people decided to take the Metro (DC’s Subway system) to get home but more than anything you saw people begin to walk towards home. You literally saw thousands of people take to the sidewalks, bike paths, etc. just to get out of town.

My wife ended up being angry with me that I was not one of those walking home but I made the decision to stay at work which was my job and do whatever I could to aid the Agency’s leadership (and the country’s) that day. I was able to call her and my parents (back in the northern suburbs outside Pittsburgh) at some point in the afternoon after many tries of not being able to get the phones to work to let them know I was OK but for me staying put was the best thing for me to do that day.

I’ve got a notebook stashed away in my basement that chronicles everything that happened day. It served as my daily notebook for work actions and “To Do’s.” I honestly haven’t looked at those pages since probably the week of September 11th, 2001. With that particular notebook I knew I just wanted to put it away to reflect on the events at some later date. It’s something I really need to do but the memories, images and emotions are still so raw from that time period that I don’t need to open that green notebook to know what happened or what I felt.

It was just awful and it’s emotional to recall all of this stuff even as I type this out now but it’s an important exercise to share with people especially my own children about what it was like.

There are four other memories that stand out from that day. The first was watching on TV as the first of the two WTC Towers fell. There were audible shrieks and cries by men and women in the front lobby area where a big television was in the front foyer of the NASA Administrator’s suite.

I will never forget the face of Joe Rothenberg, the then Associate Administrator for Space Flight (meaning he was the boss of the Shuttle and International Space Station programs) turn ashen and covering his face in horror. He then looked at me and others in the space and said something to the effect of, “worse than Pearl Harbor… worse than Pearl Harbor…”

The second was later that afternoon walking up to the US Capital where those of us left in the building (and in town) made what seemed to be a pilgrimage walk of sorts up to the symbol of our democracy that was still standing. The NASA Chief of Staff and a couple of other senior NASA folks and I went up there around 6PM or so and there were a couple hundred people — Congressional staffers, Government employees, business people, etc. that stood at the West Front of the Capital (that overlooks the Washington Mall).

People were milling about in state of shock with lots tear streamed faces and then people began to sing the National Anthem, God Bless America and other patriot songs. I remember it was very uplifting at that moment but also very heartbreaking too. It was certainly emotional to be a part of that but surrounding the area you could see US Capital Police, DC police and US Park Police all holding weaponry in their hands that you had never seen put on public display before. On top of that you had military aircraft of all variety flying fairly low all over the area.

Since living in the DC area for thirty years, I’ve attended several Presidential Inaugurations and other events in DC that had maximum security but what you were seeing this time was truly unprecedented an unsettling.

The third was driving home that night around Midnight and crossing the 14th Street Bridge and seeing all of the pulsing red, blue and white lights from the fire and emergency rescue vehicles flashing with remnant smoke still coming from the shattered Pentagon. While the fires were mostly out, there was still smoldering ruin that you could see and smell in the air. I couldn’t help but think that I had several friends who worked there, and I honestly did not know if any of them were alive or dead. [They all got out OK.]

Driving home through Old Town Alexandria towards my home (near Mount Vernon), the car radio was on and was replaying the President’s Oval Office speech which was followed by reporters trying to piece together the who, what and why of what we had just experienced.

That leads to that final fourth memory. That was walking into my home very late that night, seeing my wife waiting at the kitchen table for me, holding her tightly and then completely losing all composure and just crying. All the emotion that I had to put in check to do my job that day came pouring out. I then walked upstairs to see my young daughter and almost one-year old son sleeping soundly in their beds. They literally knew nothing of the events of that day, and I couldn’t help but think the big tough world that they had been born into had become a whole lot uglier and terrifying than it was when I had left them earlier that morning.

I then tried to go to sleep – maybe got three hours if I was lucky and went to work very early the next morning to begin the “day after.”

And my life and everyone else’s has never been the same since.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More