US Military Leaders Recall 'That Raw Moment When Everything Changed'

Defense Secretary Ash Carter attends a wreath ceremony during a memorial for the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter attends a wreath ceremony during a memorial for the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

At first light Friday on a clear September morning, much as it was 14 years ago, a huge flag of the United States unfurled and flapped in a gentle breeze over the rebuilt side of the Pentagon as a prelude in a day of solemn remembrance of "that raw moment when everything changed."

The first in a series of raw moments, in the words of Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, came at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, as American Airlines Flight 11 exploded against the 80th floor of the North Tower of the 107-story twin towers of the World Trade Center. It happened in the area of lower Manhattan that would become known as "Ground Zero."

Seventeen minutes after 20,000 gallons of flaming jet fuel gushed through the North Tower, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower at about the 60th floor. The official death toll in New York City was 2,753.

At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 sheared off light poles in the Pentagon parking area and hit the west wall of the building on the E-ring between Corridors 4 and 5 at 345 mph. The death toll at the Pentagon was 184, including 125 in the building (70 civilians and 50 military personnel) and 59 aboard the plane.

At 10:03 a.m. United Airlines Flight 93, forever known as the "Let's Roll" plane, slammed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at an estimated 600 mph. All 40 passengers and crew were killed. With the cry of "let's roll," the passengers had battled the hijackers for control of the plane before impact.

The first tributes to the victims of 9/11 came in moments of silence. At 8:46 a.m., President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stood with heads bowed on the South Lawn of the White House. A Marine bugler then played "Taps." The flag atop the White House was at half-staff.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Gen. Selva, the new vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stood at 9:37 a.m. at the Pentagon's memorial to the victims -- 184 benches over pools of water.

In his remarks later to the families of the victims, Selva said, "It takes a great deal of courage to come back" to a site that recalls such pain, and especially "on a day like today that's not unlike that day in 2001. That can bring back in such stark relief that first raw moment when everything changed."

Carter said that the 9/11 attacks had given the nation a lasting resolve to exact justice and confront terrorists wherever they may hide.

"Terrorists who hope to intimidate us will find no satisfaction and no success in threatening the United States," Carter said, "because not only do we come back, but by living in honor of those we have lost, we come back stronger than before."

"And after 14 years, we know that terrorists who would threaten us have learned this simple yet profound truth: no matter how long it takes, no matter where they may hide, they will not escape the long arm of justice. As Americans, we have the will to see that justice is done. As a military, we have the capability to see that justice is done," Carter said.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who was conducting a separate interview Friday morning with Military.com on other subjects, recalled that he was a lieutenant colonel working at the Pentagon when the plane hit the E-ring.

He remembered the smoke, the sprinklers and alarms going off, the chaos. What happened then "has obviously set us on a course of events that will continue to be with us for years to come. The nation should be reminded of the freedoms we have and the need to protect those freedoms," said Lanza, now the commander of I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

In his annual National Days of Prayer and Remembrance proclamation, President Obama focused on the nation's recovery from 9/11 as well as the memory.

"Today, we continue our unfaltering march forward, enduring in the perennial optimism that drives us and brightening the light that the darkness of evil can never overcome," Obama said.

"We remember and yearn for the presence of the beautiful lives lost, and we recommit to honoring their memories by shaping the days to come -- in as stark a contrast as possible to those who took them from us -- with courage, liberty, and love."

Obama was speaking later with troops at Fort Meade, Maryland, in a town hall meeting to show his appreciation for their efforts after 9/11.

In her prayer to open the memorial services at the Pentagon, Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben, the chief Navy chaplain, echoed Obama's proclamation in offering the hope that the nation's enduring values would always guide the resolve to combat terrorism.

She prayed that the U.S. would go forward "with unity and resolve as we still face threats to our liberties. In our zeal, may our desire for peace not be an excuse to abuse our power, and our need for justice not be jaded with hate."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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