Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a nice, clear Tuesday morning in New York. I was about a month into my first trimester of my sophomore year of college as a midshipman at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. One of five federal service academies, it’s situated on the north shore of Long Island in the town of Kings Point, N.Y. Kings Point is only 15 miles as the crow flies from mid-town Manhattan. The campus offers a commanding view of the New York City skyline, a view that I had grown quite fond of over my first year at the academy.
I had started my morning off with an early morning medical appointment at a large hospital on Long Island. I recall walking through the hospital lobby after my appointment and I noticed a large group of people huddled around televisions in the lobby area. I glanced at the television and saw the unmistakable façade of one tower of the World Trade Center ablaze. I remember a newscaster giving an early update that it had been reported that a “small plane” had crashed into the tower. I remember thinking that the damage shown on television looked way more serious than what would have been caused by a small plane.
As I watched the news footage with this group of people, we saw the second plane hit the other tower. I remember hearing a collective gasp from the crowd around me. People started crying. Others immediately concluded it was a terrorist attack.
In only a few short minutes, there were numerous pages over the hospital PA system announcing all kinds of alerts for the medical staff. It was clearly evident that this hospital was preparing for a mass casualty event. There were then public calls for anyone in the building who was willing to donate blood to report to a certain area, which is where I went.
After finishing at the hospital, I had difficulty trying to get a taxi to go back to the academy, as the phone lines were all down or busy. I resorted to walking up to a taxi that was stopped at an intersection and asked if I could share the fare with the person already inside. While on the drive, I noticed that countless fire engines and ambulances, from towns all across Long Island, were headed toward New York City. Somewhere along this drive, I learned that the World Trade Center had collapsed. It was hard to even fathom that notion.
When I finally reached the campus, I noticed that the roadway leading to the main gate had been blocked with large piles of dirt being used as a primitive force-protection measure. As a federal installation, the academy was already in lockdown. Classes had been cancelled and the regiment of midshipmen (the student body) had been tasked with preparing our school to be used as a casualty evacuation site. I quickly ran to the waterfront side of campus and gazed over to that iconic skyline that I had grown to love. The World Trade Center was indeed gone. In its place was a towering column of black smoke.
The roads leading in and out of the city were gridlocked. Bridges and tunnels were sealed off to vehicles and trains. People resorted to miles-long hikes in their business clothes just to flee Manhattan. This gridlock also made it impossible to transport victims to hospitals and get rescuers to the scene. The academy was relatively easily accessible from the city via the East River and Long Island Sound, so the casualties would be moved there by boat. Our school was a maritime academy and we had a sizable fleet of small- and medium-sized vessels along with crewmembers trained to operate them.
Our academy vessels were dispatched toward lower Manhattan to help transport survivors. Once the survivors reached our campus, they would be transported to various hospitals on Long Island or sheltered until they could be reunited with family.
Elsewhere on our campus, the football field was being set up as a helicopter landing zone. Empty ambulances began staging on the campus grounds. We already had some large tents set up around campus for an upcoming parents’ weekend.
I distinctly recall being handed a box containing hundreds of “toe tags” and was told to stage those tags with body bags in one of the larger tents. It was hard for me to comprehend that we could possibly need all of those tags. It would have meant a staggering loss of life.
As the day wore on, the winds shifted and the smoke from Ground Zero drifted toward Long Island and our campus. I will never forget that smell. I reasoned that it was the smell of burning jet fuel and bodies. It would last for days. The midshipmen remained at the ready to render assistance throughout the day, but it became apparent that survivors weren’t coming. There were none.
I was also able to finally place a phone call back to my parents in Eau Claire. My mother, Rebecca Noland, was the finance director for the city of Eau Claire, and I had asked her staff to interrupt a meeting that she was in so that I could let her know I was safe. The phone lines had been busy all day, and I didn’t know for how long that would persist.
For a couple of weeks afterward, our school kept vessels and crews in service ferrying rescue workers back and forth between New Jersey and lower Manhattan. On Friday, Sept. 14, I was able to volunteer at Ground Zero. As we were walking toward the volunteer staging areas, a professional iron worker flagged me down. He told me that he had come down to help out but could not gain access into the disaster area. He took his leather tool belt off, full of tools, and asked if I would carry it in with me and give it to rescuers. I carried that belt and the tools to a Red Cross tent and added it to heaping piles of supplies that had already started to accumulate.
Everything near Ground Zero was coated in a fine white dust. Windows everywhere were broken out. I saw large fire trucks that had been crushed flat. A large forklift passed by me carrying crushed cars that were being stacked on top of each other. Large floodlights had been set up around the debris pile. We had to walk through the World Financial Center atrium. This building had sat on the waterfront, next to the World Trade Center. It too was heavily damaged. The restaurants inside the atrium were shuttered, filthy and being used as a rest area for rescuers. I also remember the shock of seeing another large building, the Deutsche Bank building, with a gaping hole, many stories tall, that had been caused when the WTC collapsed into it. That building would remain standing and scarred for another several years until it was dismantled floor by floor.
To this day, I can also still picture the hundreds of missing person posters that had been placed by hopeful and desperate families seeking loved ones who had not been located and were presumably still in the rubble. These posters were everywhere but were especially prominent in Grand Central Terminal. These posters remained up for some time and we would see them each time we took a train in the city. It was extremely sad knowing that every one of those people had been killed. To me, the posters served as a memorial to those lives lost.
The terrorist attack of 9/11 defined my remaining time in college in New York. Recovery and rebuilding efforts continued well past my graduation in 2004. Our nation had also entered into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by the time I graduated. As a newly-minted military officer, I knew that I was headed off to join those wars. My classmates and I, after witnessing firsthand the death and destruction caused by terrorism, were ready to do our part to make sure something like this could never happen again on American soil.
Upon graduation, I took a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force and went on to train as a navigator, flying the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. I have flown hundreds of combat missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria over the course of eight deployments to that region. To this day, reminders of 9/11 are still prominent across the military and, no doubt, that day inspired my generation of service members. I continue to serve and am proud to have been part of our nation’s deterrence to ensure that there has not been another terror attack of that scale on our soil.
Noland is an officer with the Eau Claire Police Department and continues to fly as a C-130 navigator with the United States Air Force Reserve out of Minneapolis.