Patriot Files: that day in September | Part Four: Hope

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
The shimmer of red and blue lights flashed against the dust-filled night sky of lower Manhattan, New York.

At what was now being called "Ground Zero," teams of rescue workers relentlessly dug through the ruined remnants of the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001.

Frantically, they searched for survivors - for any signs of life amidst the broken wasteland.

"There was no heavy equipment in there yet," said New York Police Department Officer Tony Conti. "We just had like a daisy-chain of human beings of cops and firemen. We passed equipment down. We passed shovels down - buckets, any hand tools. If you were on deck next, you would go in there and start digging away. It was dark and still kind of smoky. But, you were pretty much working on adrenaline. That's what made you go - adrenaline, and knowing the fact that someone was down there alive. You just wanted grab him and just hold him and pull him out."

That feeling spurred Conti, and others like him, to work through the night and into the morning - searching for survivors. For U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Monty Baker, 423rd Medical Squadron Mental Health flight commander, that passion led him to the ruins of the Pentagon - where he worked to counsel people who lost loved ones in the attack.

"On the one hand, we were surrounded by this death and tragedy," Baker said. "But, on the other, there was still hope. You felt that we were going to deal with this and move on."

Baker felt fortunate for the opportunity to help others deal with their grief. He said it gave him a sense of pride to serve and help where he was needed, as well as an opportunity to see the best in other people.

"There are just so many really good people out there," Baker said. "I saw it firsthand when I got there. All these volunteers from all over - different backgrounds and ways of life, all wanting to help in whatever way they could. It was impressive to see that kind of humanity."

The humanity Baker saw at the Pentagon, as teams of volunteers worked with survivors and family members, was echoed across the ocean - where a young Air Force captain, now a colonel, worked in Egypt to transition an exercise known as Operation Bright Star into the opening stages of America's war on terror.

"I think really what we just saw was another example of the greatest generation," said Col. Kevin Cullen, 501st Combat Support Wing commander. "The Airmen and the other Service members who wanted to serve because of 9/11, we've seen that - that is what makes America so great and America so strong."

That strength was given a face in the countless Service members who deployed within weeks, sometimes days of the Sept. 11 attacks. Service members like Staff Sgt. Daniel Callens, who missed his grandfather's funeral , and found himself on a plane bound for Beale Air Force Base, California, Sept. 14.

"Nobody was really saying anything," Callens, now a retired master sergeant, said, as he described the fear that permeated the cabin. "They were just looking around. You could hear a pin drop. I mean there was just silence."

Two weeks after returning to Beale, Callens found himself on another flight to Southwest Asia - supporting U-2 Dragon Lady operations in the Middle East. He said the events of Sept. 11 left a lasting impression on both him and the rest of the world.

"That day just changed America," Callens said. "It changed our lives forever. It's as significant as December 7th. So, September 11th, I believe, will be another day that will live in infamy."

While Callens recalls the historical parallels between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 tragedy, others see the day as a call to arms. Manuel Fajardo, who watched the events unfold from a classroom at Bayonne High School, New Jersey, said he will always remember Sept. 11 as the day he decided to stand up for something.

"I thought about it a few times and knew I had to do something," Fajardo said. "A month later, I went to see a recruiter and by January I was swearing into the delayed enlistment program."

Fajardo, now a technical sergeant in the Air Force, said he wanted to always carry a reminder of why he joined.

"I chose September 10, 2002, as the date I went to basic training," he said. "I joined because of September 11th. I joined because I love my country, and I would do anything to ensure it stays safe."

Fourteen years later, Fajardo said that sense of patriotism has not diminished.

"I believe in the values that we live by," he said. "We're not perfect. We are not a perfect society. But what we have is truly amazing, and if anyone tries to take that away I will do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening."

Editor's Note: This story is the fourth of a four-part series that conveys the memories and emotions of people impacted by the Sept. 11 tragedy. Information from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was used in this story.