Minnesota National Guard
Witnessing, now remembering the 9-11 attacks

Five years after witnessing the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a C-130 flight crew from the Minnesota Air National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing remembers the day like it was yesterday.
Taking off from Andrews Air Force Base, the crew enjoyed the beautiful weather and admired the sun shining off the Potomac River. It was Lt. Col.

Steve O'Brien, the aircraft commander, who spotted an airplane at his 10 o'clock position. The aircraft was American Airlines Flight 77 that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.

"When I first saw the aircraft it was moving fast and that's when air traffic control called and asked, 'Do you see an airplane, can you tell me what kind it is,' and then asked for us to follow it," said O'Brien. "Never in 20 years of flying was I asked to follow a commercial airliner."

A few minutes later, O'Brien and his crew witnessed the nation under attack without realizing it. "We saw a fireball on the ground from jet fuel exploding and then saw the silhouette of the Pentagon through the haze of smoke," said O'Brien.

After air traffic control received the report from O'Brien, the flight crew was advised to continue their original mission and return home to Minnesota. The F-16 fighter jets were immediately mobilized to patrol and secure the area.

Starting the flight home, the crew tuned in a newscast using an old-style navigation radio. Although they were expecting to hear about an airplane crashing into the Pentagon, the first thing the crew heard was that a second airplane hit the World Trade Center. New York City was reported to be up in smoke. And then reality struck; the nation was under an organized terrorist attack.

Minutes later while the crew was flying over Pennsylvania air traffic control made contact with O'Brien and asked if they could spot another aircraft, Flight 93. After glancing in all directions outside the windows, smoke was detected barreling from an open field at the left hand side of the airplane.

"I thought the smoke was from a farmer burning, or a junk yard," said O'Brien. "I was trying to be optimistic - the last thing anybody wants is to witness two commercial airliners crashing in the same day."

O'Brien reported the position of the smoke to the air traffic controllers and then was directed to land at the nearest airport, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio. When the crew landed they witnessed another rarity; many large aircraft crammed into one small airport. All airplanes were grounded at airports across the nation.

After landing, the aircrew participated in a debrief with the FBI and intelligence officers, explaining what they witnessed. Once released for the evening, O'Brien checked into his room, turned on the television and watched a report on Flight 93 crashing in a field in Shanksville, Pa.

"The news report confirmed what I saw, I knew it was an airplane crash," said O'Brien. "After our initial crew rest, we were put on alert to assist the Air Reserve for a few days before returning to Minnesota."

Many sleepless nights followed for the crew. O'Brien explained that after a few weeks he started to wake up in the middle of the night in a complete conscious state of mind. When the pattern continued for him and other crew members, O'Brien gathered the group to meet with a flight doctor to discuss how the mind deals with post-trauma. In the meeting the flight doctor explained how sleeping patterns would restore, and they did.

But memories still come back like the experience was yesterday.

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Rosenthal, Flight Engineer, explained that on a daily basis he is reminded about his 9/11 experience by reading the newspapers, watching the television and reminiscing about a recent deployment to the Middle East.

"Still today we see first hand the results of terrorism in the world," said Rosenthal. "Because I witnessed it first hand, I have a deeper appreciation for what we are doing and I know why America is fighting."

O'Brien and Rosenthal deployed multiple times since 9/11 to support Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and are gearing up for another tour in early 2007.

Five years after Sept. 11, 2001, Rosenthal remembers the day clearly. "I think I can speak for the crew and what we remember is not a memory, but a wish that it never happened...as time goes on, it seems like a memory that we all could have down without."

By 1st Lt. Sheree Savage

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