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Chapter 2: Sept. 11, 2001 
By Chaplain (Col.) Andy Meverden, Colorado Army National Guard 

Chaplain (Maj.) Andy Meverden was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation and was taking part in a “career-enhancing opportunity” when he joined several other Soldiers and Airmen on a trip to Washington the week of Sept. 9, 2011.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of his unfinished manuscript.

***

I was in class at St. Anthony’s Grade School when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. On April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., I was in the schoolyard playing ball across the street from our family home. And when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff on Jan. 28,1986, I was in Lisbon, Portugal, serving as a Baptist missionary.             

Most memorable of all significant dates in my life, though, was Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.  It was to have been a “career-enhancing opportunity” – a three day temporary duty trip to Washington – earned after serving five successful years as chaplain for Colorado Army National Guard’s light utility helicopter battalion, stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. The former battalion commander, Col. Larry Ciancio, recently promoted to the position of state aviation officer, made extra efforts to make sure my name was included and remained on the flight manifest for what was to be a quarterly staff visit to the Army National Guard Readiness Center and the Pentagon.

Passengers were primarily full-time Colorado National Guard staff employees. I was an oddball and felt like it. You see, I was one of few “M-Day” (traditional) Guard members on board.

In addition to the two pilots, passengers included the COARNG commander, his aide, the inspector general, several other department directors, aviation officers, and me– the oddball M-Day chaplain, along for some unspoken reason. Most on the plane had appointments at the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon or both. I had an appointment to visit the National Guard Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain (Col.) Father Frank Hill. I thought the best use of this unexpected trip would be to get an informational update on the latest chaplain briefings used in support of deployments. I had recently helped a Colorado medevac unit through a six-month deployment to Bosnia and wanted to share with Chaplain Hill what I had developed. I also sought to gather more current information on post-deployment briefings. Time permitting, I also hoped to make an unscheduled visit to the Office of the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains, in the Pentagon, across the street from our hotel. In my naiveté, I thought I could just drop by, since “I was in the neighborhood.” I have since learned differently.

With a two-hour time difference, most official trips to the East Coast from Denver take the better part of one day. With day two for scheduled business and day three for return travel, I was on a three-day Active Duty for Special Work travel order.

The first rays of sunshine exploded over the Eastern plains as I arrived at Hangar 909 with my overnight bag with on Sept. 10th. As the group of military travelers assembled, more than one asked me why I was going on the flight. By the third query, I had my reply sounding pretty official: “I’m scheduled to meet with the National Guard Bureau Chief of Chaplains to present deployment briefings I developed in support of recent our operations in Bosnia. I also hope to obtain the latest information available to update briefings to Soldiers and their families.” That seemed to satisfy most of the inquiring minds assembled.

We loaded our bags into the nose and rear cargo compartments of the twin-engine Fairchild Turbo Prop aircraft; affectionately dubbed “the flying sewer pipe.”  Seats were selected by order of rank, so I settled near the rear of the passenger compartment. Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, the pilot-in-command came back and told me take his seat next to the co-pilot. I buckled in and put on the headphones as the co-pilot, my former commander and flight sponsor, began to give me an in-flight briefing as the plane, on autopilot, flew eastward.  

As the pilot reviewed the cockpit gages and controls, he would interrupt the familiarization process with necessary responses to air traffic controllers along the way. Monitoring the almost incessant voice traffic between controllers and aircraft seemed to me a challenging task. My anxiety level remained low, however, and I enjoyed the special in-flight briefing.

Over the previous three years, I had flown countless training flights in well-maintained vintage UH-1 “Huey” helicopters in and around the Rocky Mountain region with this experienced pilot at the controls. He was a former Cobra attack helicopter pilot and most recently, an instructor pilot in the UH-1. He had taken me into and through the Rocky Mountains and up to Camp Guernsey, Wyo., where we flew dozens of hours NOE (nap of the earth), practicing low-level terrain hugging rotory-wing tactics, like those showcased in the Disney movie, “Operation Dumbo Drop.”

As I sat in the left seat, I remembered a previous “air assault” training exercise to South Dakota to recover the ice cream shop on Mount Rushmore from enemy hands … and give our visiting Slovenian Air Force counterparts a tour of this historic landmark. Guard helicopters loaded with camera-laden National Guard soldiers flew around Mount Rushmore in figure-8 patterns to allow personnel on both sides to view and photograph the four granite presidents. It was, in my opinion, a well-conceived and ably-executed training exercise for the flight crews, and a great morale flight for the ground crews who supported the battalion, not to mention our Slovene guests.

I was jolted back to reality when the pilot said, “We’ll be landing for fuel in 30 minutes, so I need you retake your seat.”

I smiled, thanked him, removed the head phones, and exchanged seats with the other pilot. Several passengers snoozed as I buckled in, but a couple looked at me with an inquisitive look. “Why was he allowed to sit in the cockpit?” I imagined them thinking. I knew, but it was none of their business.

After a brief mid-point stop for fuel and lunch at a civilian airport, we took off on our final flight into Washington-Dulles airport. I stayed in my seat the rest of the two-hour leg. After landing and taxiing to a General Services Aviation area, we deplaned, unloaded our luggage, and piled into several rental cars.

Forty-five minutes later, we checked into the Arlington DoubleTree Hotel.  I was on the fourth floor with limited view. The co-pilot’s room was on the seventh floor with a great view of the Pentagon across the street and Washington Monument in the distance.  At supper we coordinated our departure times for the next day, as the majority were to have breakfast at National Guard Bureau, with members of the COARNG who were assigned there. One or two were heading to the Pentagon.

I was on time in the lobby as we piled into the rental cars. It was only my second visit to D.C., but the first time on a military assignment. We joined a small group of Colorado Guard members in the cafeteria of NGB headquarters for a short welcome briefing and à la carte breakfast. As we were introduced, I met two senior officers who were heading to JP-1 where the National Guard Chief of Chaplains had his office. After the breakfast meeting, we all headed off to three main destinations, NGB Headquarters, JP-1 and the Pentagon. My first stop was JP-1, with the nearby Pentagon only a short walk away as stop two.

Leaving the underground parking structure of NGB headquarters with my senior-uniformed chauffeurs, we parted company in the main lobby. I pushed the elevator button to the floor marked on the post-it note written by my wife, who was temporarily filling in for my church secretary. She was able to make an appointment through the senior Chaplain Assistant Sgt. Maj. Ed Mazekas. I found suite 9500 and met Chaplain, (Col.) Father Frank Hill’s right-hand man. He was expecting me.

While Chaplain Hill was occupied with another appointment, Sgt. Maj. Mazekas and I chatted. I learned that he was a former State Trooper in Vermont and, like Father Hill, was not too far from retirement. He spoke of his family and his time in the National Guard. As we spoke, he received a call from his wife directing him to turn on the TV in his office suite. It was about 8:30 a.m. As the station tuned in, we heard a news anchor telling of an airplane that had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Suddenly, Chaplain Hill emerged from his office apparently aware of the incident. He beckoned me into his office with an eye to the TV monitor outside his door. It was a brief visit, not more than 10 minutes, but it seemed like we covered a lot. I shared with him paper copies of the pre-mobilization briefing I had developed and asked him for more information on other materials available for returning Soldiers and their families. He told me about the website that contained sample copies of all types of briefings that I could review and download. He also showed me a copy of recently-approved position descriptions for full-time support chaplains and chaplain assistants in the National Guard. As he did, I felt like he was sharing with me something he felt was a great importance and future worth to the National Guard. Almost like some kind of crowning career achievement.

The phone rang again and his face showed greater alarm. He said he had to leave, so I quickly did what any good former altar boy would do in the presence of a senior priest – a monsignor. I asked for his blessing.

“Father, may I have your blessing before you go?”

Surprised, but pleased, he leaned across his desk, resting his elbows on the blotter, he placed his hands on my head and prayed, “Father, grant this chaplain the courage to sow peace where peace is needed and discord where discord is needed. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Firmly leading me out his office door, we both saw on the TV smoke billowing from both Towers of the World Trade Center. Sgt. Maj. Mazekus was just hanging up his desk phone. “I just spoke with a police officer friend at the base of the Towers.  Something terrible is happening!”

At that moment, the building’s fire alarm sounded and people rushed into the hall to board the elevator and descend the stairs. I tried to get into an elevator that opened almost immediately. It was packed, so we instead descended by stairs to a swarm of exiting blue and green military uniforms. Though no one visibly panicked, faces expressed alarm and confusion over what was transpiring.

As I left the steps of the multi-story building, an explosion echoed to my left. Several people on cell phones called out about something at the Pentagon and yelled commands to take cover. The crowd disbursed as dress uniforms ducked behind large cement vases that held trees, crouched behind hedges across the street and generally scattered in unannounced directions. Most of these people worked in the building and knew their way around. This was my first incursion into downtown Crystal City – and where many Department of Defense offices were located – and I had no idea where I was or where I could find safety.

People with cell phones began to exchange reports.

“A helicopter crashed at the Pentagon,” one uniformed member called out.

“It was a helicopter loaded with explosives,” called out another.

Suddenly, a cloud of smoke and ash engulfed us. As I looked down, I saw what appeared to be a section of tar paper or roofing material in the shape of huge footprint, which had just drifted to my feet. My first thought was, “I’ll bet this is from the Pentagon. Man, I wish I had a big Ziploc baggie to put it in as a souvenir.”  But I didn’t have a baggie, and I needed to let my family and church back in Denver know I was OK. My family and church staff knew I was heading to the Pentagon and I figured they would be worried.

I opened the Motorola Flip phone provided by the church to call, but the local circuits were already overloaded. Figuring the Pentagon was east of my position, I calculated that the hotel was north. I recalled someone saying that JP-1 was just two blocks from our hotel, so I started moving northeast. As I rounded the street corner, I saw streets jammed with cars, delivery trucks, busses and emergency vehicles struggling to maneuver toward the Pentagon. Passing under an overpass that led into a Pentagon parking area, I spotted the hotel and jogged in that direction.

Entering my room, I tried my cell phone again to no avail. Using my hotel room phone I was able to make two calls. No one was home, so I left a message that I was OK. I then called the church office and told the volunteer receptionist that I was OK and wished to speak with the office administrator. Again, I assured her that I was alright, and that I was heading back to the Pentagon to see if I could help. I still wasn’t sure what had occurred. I only had my Class B uniform with dress slacks and short sleeve shirt. Spying my fanny pack, I loaded it with snacks, my cell phone and a pocket knife. Grabbing two bottles of water, I headed back toward the Pentagon to see if I could help.

The Arlington Police had already begun setting up a perimeter. Whereas most of the foot and vehicular traffic was flowing out of the Pentagon, a few people in military uniforms were heading in. As I crossed toward the Pentagon parking area, I suddenly found myself walking with an Air Force Chaplain, a one-star general. I asked him where he was heading and if I could help and he told me to come along. A short Asian-American Arlington police officer told us that entry was prohibited. When we asked how and where we could help, he pointed to a fire engine parked one block over.

As we started toward the engine, a tall three-star Army general, wearing a Green Beret, crossed into the Pentagon lot. The officer yelled for the general to come back, that he couldn’t go in there. Without breaking his stride, the lieutenant general looked back and said in a firm voice, “You clearly have the wrong person!” and he strode deliberately back toward the burning complex on "Hell’s Bottom."

When the Air Force chaplain and I reached the fire engine, we asked how we could help. The engineer said we could stand by with them or retreat to a makeshift medical point being set up in the cafeteria of the Drug Enforcement Administration back across the street. After a few anxious minutes, the Air Force chaplain, probably emboldened by the resolve of the Green Beret three-star, decided to enter the Pentagon perimeter.

I accompanied a group of exiting Pentagon civilian employees across the street, directing them to a medical cart that was parked under a tree outside the cafeteria. Once safely across, we asked the half-dozen or so female employees if they were injured or needed anything. One woman had lost a shoe in the stairwell, another left her purse in her office desk, another forgot her cell phone, and another scraped he knee and elbow running across the parking lot. One lady had her car keys, but having crossed the police perimeter, was unable to re-enter to get her car to drive home. Each one had a personal dilemma to upset her.

After tying to get a cell signal, and redirecting people indoors to a land line, I introduced myself to the three-member EMT team who was rushed down from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center emergency room. We spent the next three hours assisting the exiting Pentagon employees, cleaning scrapes, attempting to make calls and occasionally, praying for a distraught soul.

When the mass exodus was apparently complete, we said goodbye, disbanded and headed out; the local EMT personnel to their hospital and homes, and me to my hotel up the street. We had done all we could and it was pitifully little as the Pentagon smoldered under torrents of water pumped in by several fire engines.

When I got back to the hotel, it was around 4:30 pm. There were several messages from other members of the contingent; one directing me to meet in the lobby at 5 pm. When I arrived, all but a few were present and accounted for. Missing were the general, his aide-de-camp, and the inspector general. Hearing that the IG had business in Pentagon, concern swept the remainder of the group. It was agreed that the group would break for supper and reassemble at 7 p.m. in Col. Ciancio’s room on the 7th Floor, the room with a view of the side of the Pentagon that had been hit.

After a quick, light supper, I watched the evening news in disbelief. A total of four civilian airliners had been hijacked and crashed into three separate locations: Two into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon – less than a quarter mile from where I was – and one somewhere in a Pennsylvania field.

I got to Col. Ciancio’s room a little after 6:30 p.m. Several others had already arrived, including other military personnel outside our group. I stepped out onto the balcony to observe the activity. Multiple fire engines poured water into the smoldering wreckage of the Pentagon. Though I had been told that a plane had crashed into the structure, I could see no signs of plane wreckage.  Frankly, it was incredulous. I stared transfixed as helicopters landed and took off from inside and outside the mammoth, five-sided fortress. Someone offered me a bottle of beer, but I declined and accepted a Coke, instead. Though raised in Wisconsin, I wasn’t much of a beer drinker. I couldn’t help but stare at the rescue and recovery activity less than a half-mile away.

As we talked and milled around the room and onto the balcony, someone mentioned that the president was going to address the nation. Just a few miles away, Mr. Bush, the Joint Chiefs, and Congress were assembling. Suddenly, the room erupted as our missing IG entered the room. Visibly shaken, but physically whole, Lt. Col. Mark Schoenrock began telling of his visit to the very section of the Pentagon that had been hit.

At a crucial moment, he turned left down a hall leading away, to visit someone else, before entering the section to visit comrades he had worked with just the year before. That decision to turn left instead of right saved his life. We stood around Mark congratulating him on his left turn.

Shortly after, Brig. Gen. Ronald G. Crowder and his aide, 1st Lt. Rob Bell, arrived. Relieved that the last of our group was present and accounted for, we gathered around the wall-mounted TV in the colonel’s room. The group quieted as the president entered and stepped to the podium. After describing the events of the day, I recall how Mr. Bush asked for prayers for those who had been killed and injured earlier in the day and their families. At one point he looked into the camera and said, “To the members of the military I say, ‘Get ready!’”

After the president completed his address, the room was quiet. I looked at Brig. Gen. Crowder and said, “Sir, our commander-in-chief has asked us to pray. With your permission, I will lead us right now.”

Waiting only a second, I bowed my head, and as I did so, all bowed with me. I asked God to comfort the families of those who had lost loved ones, guide the eyes and hands of the rescuers to those still alive and prepare us who served in the military.  When I concluded, everyone said “Amen!”

I wandered out onto the balcony one last time. Semi-trailers loaded with generator light sets were being brought in to illuminate the recovery area for night rescue and recovery operations. The number of helicopters that had been taking off and landing from the Pentagon courtyard was decreasing. Fires continued to burn and smoke continued to rise. Watching the events unfold, I wondered what all this would mean. …

Before returning to our rooms, it was decided that our group would still try to depart for home the next morning. Hearing that all commercial aviation was grounded, our pilots expressed slight optimism that we might take off. We agreed to meet in the lobby at 8 a.m.

Arriving together at Dulles airport, we parked our rental cars and moved into the fixed-base operator waiting room. Col. Ciancio and his pilot-in-command were on the phones filing flight plans and checking for clearance. Col. Ciancio called us all together. He had a plan. Knowing that the Federal Aviation Administration had grounded all commercial flights, he figured that if he filed a flight plan by a military aircraft that included one refueling stop at military airfield, it would have the best chance of getting approved. That, plus the fact that we had a general officer on board, just might get us clearance.

After two hours of calling and waiting, the pilots told us to grab our bags and head out to the plane. As we loaded, the pilots pre-flighted the aircraft. We took our seats and the co-pilot pulled the door shut. With the clock approaching noon, the engines roared to life and the co-pilot gave us our safety briefing. At 12:01 p.m., on Sept. 12, 2001, we were the first aircraft to take off from Washington-Dulles airport; and quite possibly the only non-tactical military aircraft that took off in the continental U.S. that day. Our destination: Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado.

Our refueling stop was Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois. Unlike our flight out, this time we landed on an Air Force Base under the tightest security. Guided to a special parking area, we had to wait for a bus escorted by security police to take us to the Burger King on base for lunch. Though we were U.S. military, the SPs watched us carefully, scrutinizing the 12 civilian clothing-clad passengers and two uniformed pilots. While we ate, our plane was refueled. Within an hour we were back in the air.

This time, the radio chatter was almost non-existent. With no commercial aircraft in the air, the flight seemed eerie and surreal. As we approached the Colorado border, personnel in the air traffic control tower at Buckley directed our plane to head north into the Nebraska panhandle. As our pilots complied, two F-16 fighters appeared on the left and right.  Close enough to have a clear view of the pilots, I could see that they were carefully examining our aircraft. Our flight path took us right over the top of Denver International Airport – something that would never occur on a regular day. As I looked down, I saw absolutely no movement on what was typically the busiest airport in the Rocky Mountain region.

We landed at Buckley without incident. When our plane taxied up to the hangar, I could see vehicles and uniformed personnel all around. Upon deplaning, Colorado Air National Guard SPs in full battle gear and weapons surrounded the aircraft. We unloaded our bags and headed home.

As I glanced at my watch, I noticed that I still had time to make it to church for my Wednesday evening new members orientation class. I drove straight out the Mississippi Avenue gate to Parker Road and parked in the church parking lot, already filling with cars for mid-week activities. After gathering my teaching materials in my office, I entered the classroom designated “the Parlor.” There waiting, and surprised, was my newest crop of church members. I plugged in my laptop, booted my PowerPoint presentation, took a deep breath and tried to pick up where I left off from the previous week. That, I found would be difficult.

Return to 9/11 in their own words

9/10/2011