AMC During 9/11/01: The 20th Anniversary of the Terrorist Attacks

By MR. GARY ELL, STAFF WRITER

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the Secretary of the Air Force, Public Affairs team from New York City (NYC) had arrived at McGuire Air Force Base (AFB) in New Jersey to have their official photos taken. It was an ordinary day, and I looked forward to networking with our friends from NYC. They used our services for fun assignments, such as when an Air Force officer threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. The very least I could do in return was to provide them with exceptional studio photography for their official photos.

At about the same time, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger airliners—with a dastardly agenda. We were alerted to turn on the television sometime during the portrait session, and we watched as the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. The team from NYC frantically watched, worried for their loved ones who were somewhere in lower Manhattan during the attacks. One officer knew that her school-age child was near the vicinity of the World Trade Center. With tears streaming down her face, she stated that her cell phone was not working.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, the attack had cut cellular service from the transmission tower on top of the collapsed north tower.

A KC-135 Stratotanker had already been launched to refuel the F-15s that were pursuing the hijacked aircraft before the second plane hit. Then the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA. It was terrifying as we watched with tears flowing down our faces, followed by fears of the unknown. What the hell was going on? Were we at war?

In Air Mobility Command (AMC), the response to the attacks was immediate. “AMC’s response to the terrorist threat simultaneously proceeded in different directions to provide for homeland defense in the first 48 hours after the terrorist attacks,” the AMC Office of History states. “As soon as the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] directed clearing skies of aircraft, AMC ordered to land the fleet. At the same time, they coordinated with the FAA to put assets in the air to protect the homeland, to support national leadership, and to provide disaster relief.” It also meant that AMC was to support movement for President George W. Bush.

And that is exactly what we did. At McGuire AFB (now named Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst), I managed the visual information services function, a small team of highly skilled aircrew-certified photojournalists that would be at the epicenter, documenting the missions as they unfolded. Search-and-rescue teams and medical supplies were airlifted by AMC aircraft and crews on September 12. McGuire became the staging center, designated by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to house and feed urban search-and-rescue teams operating in New York City. The base also established a combat support hospital and a tent city for evacuees, in case they needed it. McGuire also assumed from Andrews AFB the designation as FEMA’s mobilization center for the aerial port of debarkation. Our team of photojournalists would now be supporting NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), FEMA, and President Bush.

During the first 48 hours following the attacks, aircrews in AMC and its gained assets flew 37 airlift missions in support of homeland defense. Operation Noble Eagle also began on September 11, and AMC was right in the middle of the support effort. Noble Eagle’s core mission is the air defense of the U.S. homeland. The dilemma that I had was how to cover all those taskings coming in from NORAD, FEMA, Air Force Special Operations Command, and AMC with only four photojournalists—at least until the 1st Combat Camera could deploy assets from Charleston AFB to relieve us.

Lt Gen Brad Webb, Commander of Air Education and Training Command (you may recognize him as the guy sitting next to President Obama in the Situation Room during the Bin Laden raid)—then Lt Col Webb—was serving as an MH-53 Pave Low pilot. When the attacks occurred, crews from the 20th Special Ops Squadron from Hurlburt Field, FL, were on a TDY at Fort Bragg, NC. “We had just completed a night cycle when I heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center,” Webb said. “I had just woken up and was watching the news when the second plane hit. I think everyone realized then it was not a mistake.” The detachment of Airmen rallied and prepared to respond immediately to the crisis. With air space shut down all over the country, the crews were on standby. “At the time, we thought the mission would primarily be recovery of the people who were injured or affected by the 9/11 attacks,” Webb said. “We had no idea how devastating the attacks were.” Just before midnight, the aircrews arrived at McGuire AFB and prepared for the next day’s uncertainty. “Our instructions were very clear and direct: Go help Americans,“ Webb said. “And that’s what we were focused on.”

On September 13, FEMA tasked our team to provide aerial images of Ground Zero. I met Webb and the crews of the MH-53s, and we were on our way. It was haunting as we buzzed over an empty Verrazano Bridge that was closed to traffic and, a few minutes later, flew into the acrid pillar of smoke that engulfed lower Manhattan. In a dramatic twist of events, our helicopters landed on the USS Intrepid Museum. Webb had contacted the Intrepid’s curator before we arrived and formulated a plan to move the static displays to one side of the flight deck so the MH-53s could land. Due to the limitations of civilian helicopters, we did not have information on the actual locations affected at the site. The agencies on the ground needed situational awareness of the disaster site and where to best concentrate the firefighting. We linked up with FEMA on the ground and developed a plan to provide the first pictures of the area since the devastation occurred. The aerial perspective left us feeling aghast. Between the smoke, the acrid smell, the chaos on the ground, the lost innocent souls, and the massive destruction site, it was very hard to digest what we just experienced. I laid my head between my shaking knees as we headed back to McGuire. It was right after sunset, and I looked up at the very second that my pilot buzzed the Statue of Liberty. In that flash, the window framed only the loving, beautiful eyes and smile of the statue, which was recorded and permanently archived in my memory. I was at a low, but she was still bravely standing there in the harbor, giving me a smile and the nod that I needed. In that moment, I knew we would be OK.

Our team consisted of me as lead, Kenn Mann (USAF Aircrew-Certified Photographer), Scott Spitzer (USAF Aircrew-Certified Photographer), John DeStefano (Graphics Illustrator), and Carlos Cintron (Support Photographer). Because Combat Camera folks were deployed in the field, I brought a support photojournalist, Jarrod Needle, from the U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, CT.

On just one day, September 14, we covered President Bush’s historic visit to Ground Zero via McGuire, Combat Air Patrol refueling missions over Manhattan, FEMA aerial photography of Ground Zero, search-and-recovery operations, and FEMA support personnel transitioning.

The 305th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs team from McGuire AFB brought in support staff from the 108th and 514th Air Force Reserve Squadrons. MSgt Mark Haviland (USAF/Ret.) served as Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the Base Public Affairs office. He stated, “We took over the McGuire

AFB Officer’s Club and established a media center following the attacks. We responded to more than 2,000 media queries in the days following the attacks.”

By the end of 2001, tanker aircrews, flying both KC-135s and KC-10 Extenders, had completed 3,199 missions, and their receivers numbered 9,822. On one peak day in 2001 while supporting the operation, tanker aircrews flew 74 missions in a 24-hour period.

“During those first months of the contingency, AMC also had 228 airlift missions, delivered 2,189 passengers, and moved more than 1,490 short tons of cargo,” AMC history shows.