9/11 Reflections: Steven W. Nichols, Legalman First Class, U.S. Navy Retired
I served in the U.S. Army for 10 years as an enlisted member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. After getting out of the Army, I decided to join the U.S. Navy Reserves. I was active duty for training on September 11, 2001 attending the Navy’s Leadership Continuum Course at the Mine Warfare Training Center at Naval Station (NAVSTA) Ingleside, Texas. NAVSTA Ingleside is no longer an active Navy military installation. Several active-duty mine warfare first class petty officers and three Naval Reservists (all with admin rates) that included me were attending the training course on that fateful day. My classmates and I were in our second, and final, week of training when the terrorist attacks occurred.
My classmates and I learned about the attack shortly after the first plane was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). We were on a break when the Command Master Chief entered our classroom and said, “A plane has evidently crashed into one of the World Trade Center – you might want to turn on the television (TV) and watch the news report until it is time to resume your training.” The Master Chief thereafter departed to return to his duties. The TV in our classroom was used to show training videos during training courses.
One of our instructors, a First Class Minean, turned on the TV and tuned it to CNN. Those of us in the room stood around watching the news report. CNN, as with other networks, had reported that there were reports that a private plane had accidentally crashed into WTC North Tower. As we stood there watching the news report, each of us witnessed the second plane slam into the WTC South Tower. One of my active-duty classmates “sat down hard” and exclaimed, “We are under attack, we are at war!” The time was 8:03 a.m. Central Standard Time (9:03 a.m. in New York City).
We all stood there stunned and took in what we had just seen. CNN’s anchor and reporters were reporting on what appeared to be a Boeing 767 that had slammed into the second tower. It took at least a minute for my mind to register what I had just seen. My thoughts were, “Surely this is not really happening – not in our country.” Once what happened registered with me, I too realized that our nation was now at war. It did not register in mind that the United States had just been brought into a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy.
Our other classmates and instructors returned to the room. They were stunned when we told them what we had just seen. They too became glued to the TV as everyone was trying to make sense out of what we had just witnesses.
I lost track of time and do not recall how long we all stood and sat around watching the horrible and shocking news unfold.
My classmates and I sat with our instructors watching the news coverage of what would end up serving as the catalyst for the Global War on Terrorism. We heard the CNN anchors report that U.S. government officials, the FAA, and FBI had reports of other aircraft that may have been hijacked.
Our conversation focused on the terrorist attack we had witnessed while watching CNN news. We also all expressed concern for those in the two WTC towers and the passengers aboard the two airliners that had crashed into the towers.
Then at 9:37 a.m. (Eastern Standard Time), Flight 77 was crashed into the western façade of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. We heard the news report of the attack on the Pentagon shortly thereafter. That news confirmed to those of us in the classroom that our nation was indeed under attack.
At approximately 9:45 a.m. (to the best of my recollection), the Command Master Chief returned to the classroom and informed us that he had received official confirmation (not sure of the source of his news) that the World Trade Center had indeed been attacked and struck by two commercial airliners. He told us to stand down and await orders.
As we all sat in the classroom watching the news coverage and waiting for orders as to what we were expected to do, I could not help but think of what my then 14-year old daughter (she will be 32 at the end of next month) and wife were thinking and how they were responding. I also thought of the rest of my family and said a few silent prayers for them. At the very moment the first plane hit the WTC, they were at an orthodontic appointment for daughter. I stepped out into the hallway and called my wife’s cell phone. I could not get through as the phone lines were “jammed” with calls of worried Americans. I keep trying to call my wife at different times during the day and was not able to reach her until about 11:00 p.m. that night.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m., CNN reported that another flight, Flight 93, had been hijacked and that the plane had crashed near Stonycreek Township in Pennsylvania. That news further stunned my classmates and I.
At approximately 10:30 a.m. (to the best of my recollection), the Command Master Chief returned to our classroom and informed the active-duty mine warfare men that they were to immediately report to their respective ships (minesweepers of the Osprey-Class). My active-duty classmates immediately departed to join their respective ships. I was not to see them again.
Later, word was passed that all non-essential personnel were to depart from Naval Station Ingleside. I assumed that the directive applied to the Department of Navy civilian employees and contractors were working on the naval station.
At noon, the course instructors informed my fellow reservists and I that we were to return to our respective hotels and await further orders. As I departed the Mine Warfare Training Center, I saw a lot of activity on the base. Base security forces had erected both concrete and water filled barriers at the gate and along the perimeter fence. Armed Master of Arms personnel had manned the gate and controlling access into and out of the base. I also saw other Mater of Arms personnel who were patrolling the base. I departed the base and returned to my hotel in Ingleside to await further orders.
I then spent two days in limbo at my hotel awaiting word as to what I was expected to do. I phoned and reported into the Mine Warfare Center twice a day and asked if there were any orders or instructions for me. Meanwhile, I informed my civilian employee, the Insurance Council of Texas, about my status. My executive director was concerned that I might be kept on active-duty. I told him that it was possible that I may not be released back to reserve status. I noted that I knew that there was a possibility that someday I could be called to active-duty and discussed how he could temporary fill my position. I kept in touch with my wife throughout the “limbo time.”
I watched the news coverage on the television in my hotel room. I was watching CNN News when the first tower started to collapse. I watch in horror as the tower fell. I had a lump in my throat and tears came to my eyes. I have not cried since my childhood. After the second tower came down, I shed tears and prayed for the first responders who were attempting to rescue people from the towers. I also prayed for those who were trapped in the upper floors and perished when the towers fell. I called my wife at around 11 p.m. and finally got through to her. We both glad to hear each other’s voices. My wife and I talked for at least an hour – sharing our thoughts and discussing how our daughter was responding to what happened. We both decided to reassure our daughter that everything would be alright and that she was safe – we would keep her safe.
I stayed glued to the television and news coverage of the tragic aftermath of the terrorist attack on our nation for the next two days only stepping away when I went out to get lunch and dinner.
On September 14th I received a phone call and was told to report to the Mine Warfare Center. After passing through the high security at the gate, I reported to the Mine Warfare Center. I was informed that my classmates and I were going to be graduated and released to duty. I was informed to contact the Naval Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve Center, Corpus Christ to ascertain if I was to be released from active-duty or was expected to report to duty at my gaining command. I called the Reserve Center and was informed that I was to have the Mine Warfare Center endorse my orders and release me back reserve status. Once that was done, I returned to my hotel to change out of my CNT uniform into civilian clothing, check out of the hotel and make the 2 and half hour drive home to Austin, Texas.
After checking out of the hotel where the front desk staff wished me luck and said to be safe (they knew I was in the Navy), I gassed up my care and started the drive home. As I drove past the Corpus Christi International Airport, I noticed that there were quite a number of airliners parked on the tarmac and at the jet-ways of the terminal. I noticed that there were absolutely on aircraft other than an occasional Navy aircraft in the skies. I listened to Fox News and CNN News on my XM Radio as I made the drive home. The drive was one of the “longest” drives I ever made. I saw no civilian aircraft or airlines in the skies. I saw an occasional military aircraft as I approached San Antonio and some Army helicopters as I entered Austin city limits.
Prior to leaving, I called my wife to let her know that I was coming home (she was also a Navy Reservist and was worried about whether I would be released from active duty). I then called my executive director to let him know that I had been released from active-duty and would be in the office on the following Monday. My executive director, who was a decorated Vietnam veteran, was glad to hear that I would be back at the office on Monday.
I arrived home shortly after my wife had returned from work. Both my daughter, wife, and mother (she lived with us at the time) greeted me when I entered our house. They were all very happy to see me and I them. I continued to watch news coverage of the rescue efforts throughout the weekend and returned to my civilian job on Monday.
I later learned from my mother that one of my sister’s college classmates had perished when Tower One collapsed (my sister is almost 10 years younger than me). My sister had been informed by her friend’s husband that she did not get out of the tower before it collapsed. My mother reminded me that I had meet her several times. That was a sad moment as I recalled her as being a lovely, vibrant, and very smart young lady. Upon returning to work, I learned that several employees of one of my association’s associate members had died in Tower Two when the second plane slammed into the tower. I was told that several of them routinely attended our annual property and casualty insurance symposium. More sad and tragic news. A lot to take in over a period of a few days.
When I shared my experience at the Mine Warfare Center with friends and a World War II veteran I knew (Bill Glass who is sadly no longer with us), they all listened intently. Bill Glass said that you kind of know what it was like for those of us on active-duty on December 7, 1941 and subsequent days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We both shared that we felt angry and a bit helpless as we wanted to do something to strike back but could not. I learned later that one of my classmates from the Naval Justice School, a Legalman First Class, was called to active-duty a few days after the attacks. She left a large Chicago law firm where she was the Law Office Manager and deployed to Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain where I would serve a month on active-duty with her two years later. I one month tour of duty at NSA Bahrain occurred shortly after Operation Iraqi Freedom began. That is another unique experience I shall never forget. I was never called to active-duty to serve in the Global War on Terrorism. I would have gladly served had I been called upon. There was, however, no opportunity for me to do so other than as a reservist.
I shall never forget the events and my experiences on September 11, 2001 as long as I live. It was my “where were you at when…” moment. Those experiences and my subsequent active duty tours shaped who I am today. I shall always remember the heroes and victims who perished on September 11th. I make a point to watch the annual 911 observance and remember those who lost their lives on that fateful day and during the resulting Global War on Terrorism.
I lost an acquaintance in the war – CW5 Sharon Swartworth. CW5 Swartworth gave her life for our country when a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was shot down Nov. 7, 2003, in Tikrit, Iraq. I became acquainted with CW5 Swartworth, who was the chief warrant officer of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, as I contemplated applying for appointment as a warrant officer one legal administrator in the U.S. Army Reserves. She joined the ranks of other heroes who have previously and would later lay down their lives for nation during the Global War on Terrorism.
I retired from the Navy in 2006. I shall be forever proud of my many shipmates, the soldiers, Marines and airmen who have gone into harm’s way as they have fought the Global War on Terrorism. It is important that Americans never forget about the events of September 11, 2001. It is equally important that they not forget those who lost their live on that tragic day and during the on-going Global War on Terrorism. I have no doubt that the United States and our many Allies will win the Global War on Terrorism when all is said and done. I have no doubt that Americans will never forget the events of September 11, 2001.
Steven W. Nichols, Legalman First Class, U.S. Navy Retired