On Sept. 11, 2001, then-Colorado Air National Guard Lt. Col. Chris Ryan was the Colorado National Guard’s counterdrug coordinator and was in Washington to make a case to acquire a helicopter for the mission.
He’s now a UH-60 pilot in the 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation, Colorado Army National Guard.
When the first airplane hit, I was sitting in the office of the Chief of Army National Guard Aviation with Lt. Col. Joel Best and Col. Larry Ciancio. We were there to make a case for stationing a Counterdrug Reconnaissance and Interdiction Detachment in Colorado to more effectively support Colorado law enforcement agencies.
While we were talking, a staff officer stuck his head in the door and told us that an airplane had just “hit” the World Trade Center. We were concerned because this was obviously unusual, but our assumption was that someone had mistakenly flown a small airplane into the building. Maybe the pilot had become incapacitated somehow. We didn’t discuss the possibility of anything more sinister at that moment. The details would come later. Little did we know. …
A few minutes later, the staff officer interrupted again to say that a second airplane had impacted the other tower. It was on the television and we should come out of the office to watch.
While we were watching replays of the airliner crashing into the building, someone on the other side of the room shouted that an airplane was flying by very low. As I looked toward the shouting noise, I just caught a glimpse of an airliner flying by the ARNG Readiness Center just above the tree tops. A few seconds later someone yelled, “There’s smoke at the Pentagon!”
As the resulting chaos began to shape the coming days (and years) our military training kicked in and we began to act. We gathered our group and counted heads. Two of our group had appointments in the Pentagon that morning and could not be immediately accounted for… I called the Colorado National Guard Joint Operations Center to pass a situation report. I actually got through, but before I could get a word in I was told that they were busy dealing with a national security incident and I should call back later, click, buzz… A few minutes later the cell phone network was overwhelmed and failed. Our cell phones would not be functioning again until much later that afternoon.
The next order of business was to return to our hotel. It was across the highway from the Pentagon. As D.C. was being evacuated, our task would be to move against the massive flow of concerned and terrorized citizens, toward the scene of the attack. One of the rental cars was on my orders, so I was, by default, one of the drivers. The D.C. metroplex was in a state of near gridlock with outbound traffic. Our destination was inbound. The drive, that would normally have taken just a few minutes, took almost an hour that morning. I actually had to drive on the sidewalk once or twice to reach our hotel.
What follows, in my mind, is a collage of memories in no particular order. Brig. Gen. Ronald G. Crowder collected us in the lobby of our hotel, counted heads, gave us an update and set a time to reconvene and update again. The hotel was filled with smoke and its restaurant was running out of food by that afternoon. Later in the day, as we ventured out to find dinner, we found the streets of Crystal City and Alexandria deserted. The scene reminded me of a post-nuclear holocaust science-fiction movie. It seemed eerily lonely and quiet. Stores, restaurants and businesses were all closed. All we found open were grocery stores and liquor stores. We visited both and returned to the hotel.
That evening, I have a very clear memory of our group gathered in Col. Ciancio’s room. We were all standing, watching the television. President George W. Bush had just landed and was addressing the nation for the first time since the attack. We passed a bottle of Scotch whiskey as we listened, the room filled with smoke that I hardly noticed by this time, the flames at the Pentagon visible in the corner of my eye, out the window to my left.
Return to 9/11 in their own words