Friday, September 11, 2009

National Day of Service and Remembrance

Did you know that that is the official title for 9/11? Kinda' silly, I think, but I've seen a lot of people posting about what they were doing that day and I don't think I've ever written down my experience...so for posterity's sake, here it is:

At the time, I was 22 years old and living at home. I had been working as a civilian contractor on the U.S. Naval Weapons Station in Fallbrook, CA (where I grew up). This is basically a huge storage area for Navy weapons - right next to Camp Pendleton, CA. I was the "Ordnance Secretary" - for those who don't know, ordnance is just another word for ammunition or weapons. On the base, there were probably about 50-60 personnel who were also civilian contractors who took care of the ammunition - that included cleaning out the bunkers where they were stored, moving the ammo if the need arose, etc. It was my job to make sure those personnel were taken care of. They had to have yearly physicals, eye exams, etc. They had to wear protective equipment such as respirators and safety glasses, etc. I made sure they got their physicals on time and kept all their licenses, etc. current.


I had to obtain a security clearance in order to work on the base. They did a huge background check to make sure I was a good person and I obtained a "secret" clearance. That's one step below "top secret". I sometimes felt like a spy. ;-) With that secret clearance, I was responsible for downloading secret navy messages that would come in from the ships out at sea - I would deliver those messages to the head of security on the base. Pretty important stuff, if I do say so myself.


Ok, so each morning to get onto the base, you have to show your badge so they know you are cleared to be on the base. I lived about 5 minutes from the base. A very nice commute!


On 9/11/01, I awoke at my usual time (prob. around 6:45) and turned on my radio and began getting ready for work. I heard something about a plane crashing into a building in NYC and went out to see if my mom had heard. We turned on the TV and saw the footage of that first plane going into the building. Then we witnessed the second plane hit. I watched as much as I could then finished getting ready for work and left the house. Clearly, I was not thinking, because I did not anticipate the line of traffic to get onto the base that awaited me. Duh...this was a terrorist attack - of course the base is going to be on high alert! So, my usual 5 minute commute turned into an almost 2 hour commute. I sat in my car - in line with civilians and military personnel - and listened to the radio. I cried. I'm sure there was not a person in that line that wasn't crying. All those people that were trapped. All those firefighters running towards the rubble instead of away from it. (My dad was a firefighter - he just retired after 35 years of service) Thanking my lucky stars my dad was in CA and not NY.


So when I finally got to the gate, I found out the reason it was taking so long to get onto the base. The Military Police who man the gate had to search every vehicle that drove through for any sign of foul play. They had mirrors attached to poles that would allow them to see under the vehicle, they popped the trunk and searched, they had me get out and proceeded to search the entire inside of the car. Well, I passed and finally got to go to my office.


We were not allowed to park next to the building. Just in case, for some reason, a car got past security with a bomb attached, it would not be within 100 ft. of the building in case there was an explosion. (It was like that for MONTHS after). As you can imagine, the military personnel were very busy. There was really not a whole lot for me to do - so several of us "civilians" sat together and talked about what this could possibly mean. Are we at war now? Is it going to happen again? Could something terrible happen here on our little base? After a couple of hours of accomplishing nothing, all "non-essential" personnel were told to go home. Mostly just the military personnel remained. I went back home and glued myself to the TV. It all felt so surreal...could this really be happening?

I have a hard time remembering now - I don't think I went in to work the next day - and maybe even a couple more after that. But the long line to get onto the base continued for some time.

I'll never forget the amazing patriotism that was shown as a result of the attacks. Seems like one of the only times we all came together and we were just Americans. We were not Republicans or Democrats. We were Americans and we all felt the pain of being attacked. Seems like, politically, we're in a pretty yucky place right now - if only we could feel united like that again (without the devastation, of course).

So on semi-related note, about a month or two after the attacks, I was at work and I was in my "secret room" downloading my secret messages when a man came to the doorway and asked me where Linda Dresser's office was (she was a co-worker of mine). He was a white man wearing jeans and a t-shirt and a baseball cap. (you'll know why that is important in a minute). I gave him directions to Linda's office which was right down the hall. He said "Well, I don't have a lot of time - she left this (points down at a large black briefcase) down at the cafe - can you return it to her?" I was kind of annoyed because her office was literally not that far away, but I said sure, I'd deliver it. The man turned around, and as he began to walk away, he yelled "Long live the Taliban!" and RAN OUT OF THE BUILDING! Then... slow motion...I hear him yell that and I look down at the briefcase and I immediately knew that I was looking at a bomb. I ran out of that room so fast (which, by the way, I'm not supposed to do because I left all the secret messages on the computer screen for anyone to see, but I wasn't exactly thinking about that at the moment!) that I was probably no more than a blur...and ran into someone - he caught me and had to restrain me because I was still trying to run - I wanted nothing more than to get out of that building - and FAST. "Kristie, it's ok...you're ok". I looked up and realized that it was the head of security. Then, instead of restraining me, he was holding me up because I crumbled. I was bawling and he had to tell me repeatedly that it was only a drill. "Kristie, it's not real, it's only a drill - I need you to go tell everyone else in the building that we are having a drill for a bomb threat".


Even though I knew it as not real, I still couldn't pull myself together. The feeling was still too raw - it was too soon after the attacks. So I walked down the hall with the head of security, whose name I am trying desperately to remember...I think it was Kenneth...something along those lines. Anyway, I get to one set of offices and let them know we're having a drill and everybody needs to evacuate. They all look at me like, "If this is a drill, then why are you crying?" - hello embarrassment. Then I had to do the same for the other side of the building. So we all met outside at our rendezvous point where I finally get to tell my coworkers why I am hysterical. We remained outside for some time where we were all questioned. They asked me about the man who brought in the briefcase - I had to give them a description of him. Have you ever thought about that before? Like when you see TV shows where people are asked to describe a person they saw for only a few seconds? I don't think we realize how much we DON'T pay attention to the details a lot of the time. So I did my best. Then not long after that, the man approached me. I must say, my description was fairly accurate. Probably could've been better, but nobody scolded me. (-; He shook my hand and apologized for scaring me. A few days later, he came to my office and handed me a folder with an x-ray image of the "bomb". Now obviously, it was not a real bomb, however - they had it rigged so that if I had picked up the briefcase, it would have triggered a reaction. It may have just shook the briefcase or made a popping noise, I don't know exactly. But if I had picked it up, something would have happened and scared me even doubly bad!

I've kept that x-ray all these years...


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5 comments:

Steve said...

Kristie, that was a real eye opener. I remembered you working there but I never heard that story. It was GOOD. My heart was beating hard just reading it. I was hoping to see many more FLAGS out in front of peoples houses but I didn't see that many and I walked to work also. only one other house on our block besides ours.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenn said...

Wow- what a story--thanks for sharing. It is a day of remembrance I've been thinking all day about the people who lost their lives.

So, did you ever get lunch?

Kristie said...

Teddie - my heart was beating all over again as I was writing that!!

Jenn - no, I never got lunch. How rude.

Alisia Faumuina said...

Great Story Kristie! That is definitely something you will never forget. It is sad to see that we as Americans can not stay untied, That it takes a direct attack on our soil to bring us together and than months later the flags are taken down. I think my husband called it Fair weather Americans. United we should Stand!!!