Americans outside New York City woke up on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, to what they expected to be another work day, only to hear and see appalling sights of destruction and death.
Two airplanes highjacked by Islamic jihadists were purposefully flown into the two tallest towers of the World Trade Center.
Another plane was flown into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. And a fourth plane presumably headed for the U.S. Capitol or the White House was heroically diverted by passengers and its crew, and crashed in an empty field in Pennsylvania.
It was the deadliest attack on American soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Nearly 3,000 Americans died on 9-11; and, after reports of the first plane hitting the North Tower, millions watched on live television as the second plane hit the South Tower, and the shocking coverage after that.
William “Bill” Groneman was a captain in the New York Fire Department in September of 2001, 49 years old, assigned to Engine Company 308 in the borough of Queens, about 2 miles north of the JFK Airport.
He had a home about 5 miles out of the city, living with his wife and daughter towards Jones Beach, Long Island.
He said on Monday, Sept. 10, before the attacks on Sept. 11, he was at Fire Department headquarters working on a writing assignment; and he had the day off on Sept. 11.
“On my day off, I went to Jones Beach about 8:30 a.m. for a run/walk on the boardwalk,” Groneman said. “So I was out of communication during the first key moments.”
He said on his way back to his car, he suddenly got a feeling that he had to get out of there, that he’d been there too long.
“At the field where I parked, I saw other people in intense groups, and a woman with a portable radio that was broadcasting something about a disaster and Mayor Guiliani and thousands dead,” Groneman said.
“When I started listening to the news, I thought, ‘This is just like Pearl Harbor’ and reminded myself to remember everything I saw that day.”
He said to leave the beach, he had to drive over a high-arched drawbridge, and that was when he first saw the smoke on the horizon, a mushroom-shaped cloud that turned out to be over the first tower after the plane hit.
“I drove home fast and switched cars and started driving to the firehouse. I had to go through a checkpoint where a state trooper was stopping citizens and checking all IDs for emergency personnel before letting them drive into the city,” he said. “At the firehouse, I was told both towers had collapsed.”
He said he changed into a uniform and was told to take his division to a staging area in a nearby park with all their gear. He went with the first five guys in a car to the park in Lower Manhattan; and then to a command post on the east side of the building collapse site.
“Conditions were horrendous, the dust and the smoke; and your eyes burned so you could hardly see. We walked down Church Street, but were stopped by some cops, and ran back the other way. We passed a church on Murray Street. The most incongruous thing I saw was a jet engine just laying on the corner,” Groneman said.
Other officers had set up a command post at Broadway and St. Ann St., he said; and he and his men were wearing their bunker gear and carrying their uniforms.
He said the command post was across from a chapel, actually only a couple folding tables, with two officers trying to make assignments while everybody waited in line for their turn.
“The line took forever. We were just off the northeast corner of the site.”
Groneman described the site before the attack, saying the World Trade Center sat on about 16 acres and included seven total buildings. (By comparison, that’s less acreage than the old Hal Peterson Middle School property on Sidney Baker N. here.)
The North and South Towers that the attackers flew the two planes into were each 110 stories tall. He said each floor on each of those 110 floors was about equal to one acre.
Buildings 4 and 5 each had nine stories; Building 6 had eight stories; and Building 7 was 47 stories tall. There also was a 22-story hotel on the same acreage.
“About five of us took cover in the Woolworth Building; and I took my group to the second floor. While we were going upstairs, I felt vertigo. The whole building shuddered. I found out Building 7 collapsed, too. But everyone had gotten out.”
He said after a while, he took his crew outside and a senior officer asked them to relieve another crew.
“I took my company right across from one side of the collapse site. It was about dusk by then. The conditions got worse the closer you got. While we were there, a fire broke out in a nearby building and we gave them some of our equipment.
“For a long time, the only breathing protection we had were painters’ face masks.”
He said at one point the radio said to go to the collapse site with fire extinguishers; and a civilian stole one from a McDonalds to have one to use.
“We went to the rubble pile. You had to pick your way very carefully, every step. And they told us there were people in the pit rescuing two Port Authority police officers. I would yell down to the street to ask for tools or whatever the others in the pit asked for. And it would be passed up to us one step at a time and down to the guys in the pit the same way.
“Then they requested a longer fire hose because fire had broken out around them, down there, Groneman said. “That was one of the scariest things I pictured in my mind that day.
“They got those two men out. We passed stretchers up from the street and down to them the same way, and then the stretchers with the men on them were lifted by hand up out of the pit; over the top edge and down to the street to ambulances.”
Groneman said the NYFD changed the work shifts to 24-hours-on, 24-hours-off, in this disaster; and he split his team to send two men back to the firehouse. But after they left, he felt light-headed and walked into an aid station “for another shot of oxygen.” There were generators running, everywhere; and all kinds of other equipment around them.
“The doctor asked me if my face was always that red. I couldn’t see it, but I told him no. And he checked me out and said I had carbon monoxide poisoning. He said if I stayed on the rubble pile any longer, I’d die.”
Groneman said he found a bus to return to the command post, and then to his firehouse to shower and check his gear. Then finally he returned to his home about five miles outside the city.
“The streets were absolutely deserted. I had never seen them that way, even in the worst blizzards,” Groneman said.
He returned to his firehouse 20 hours later, not officially on duty. But he worked with his battalion chief on lists of the dead and missing.
“Luckily a lot of them turned up in hospitals, but that list had 343 names on it.”
Groneman’s Engine Company 308 officially had three lieutenants, 25 firefighters and a battalion office in the firehouse.
He said by Sept. 17, 2001, he returned to 10-hour shifts, including two dozen 10-hour night shifts.
“There were long lines of guys on the rubble. And at first, we were removing pieces of it in 5-gallon plastic buckets,” Groneman said.
“Two weeks after that, it was not rescue, but a recovery operation, and the people on the site were looking for human remains. One painful thing in one last week was, a guy we knew had gotten promoted to captain, before the attack. I was there the night they found his body. We helped form an honor guard for him on the street.”
He said at the Command Post they heard many crazy rumors. But one of the unbelievable things for Groneman was to think all that rubble used to be office buildings; and yet there were no signs in the rubble that said that.
The only two things he saw were a single wheel off an office chair on the pavement; and on a street nearby, an office chair seat impaled, upright, on a damaged sign post.
Does he think we’ve learned anything, as a country, from this disaster?
“No. I feel betrayed for the whole country. And I still have anxiety sometimes. How can I protect myself?”
He left NYFD with a Rescuer’s Medal, one of three kinds given out after the attacks. The others were “Survivor’s Medals” and “Campaign Medals.”
The only physical reminder he kept is a large, heavy structural steel bolt he found on a street where hundreds had fallen – a thick six-sided head and shaft more than 1 inch thick that the force of a building collapse literally sheared off at about 7 inches long.
Move to Texas
Groneman retired from NYFD on Feb. 28, 2002; and moved to Texas in August ‘02.
“I went back to New York to visit, on the first, fifth, 10th and 15th anniversaries.”
He still has family there, and his extended family has returned to the same beach on outings. Groneman is now grandfather to his son’s three boys.
Between 2003 and 2010, he wrote a book titled “September 11, a Memoir.”
Local residents’ remembrances
Toni Caldwell said in Sept. 2001 she was working in Corpus Christi at United Way as a “loaned executive.” “We walked into work, and turned the TV on. And we left it on all day. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Jody Grinstead said she and her family were living in California, and it was on the 6 a.m. news. “I thought it was a movie at first. Then I woke up my husband when I realized it was real. And when I drove to work, everybody on the freeway seemed to be in a daze. At the Orange County Superior Court, it was surreal and everybody was in shock and disbelief while we watched TV most of the day. I kept thinking, ‘This is America. This does not happen here!’”
She’s visited NYC once since then and saw the 9-11 memorial there. “It’s very impressive.”
Amie Cavazos said she was in her sixth grade class with Mr. Gregory, when the attacks were announced on the intercom. “But they wouldn’t let us turn on the TVs.”
Shirley Liefeste was a schoolteacher here, and in her classroom that day. She said she first saw the news on a TV in the school office; and found it almost impossible to believe.
Becky Etzler said she was in Florida at work at a vet hospital with no radio on, when a client came and said, “You need to turn the TV on. You won’t believe what happened.”
“Our hearts were in our stomachs and were in complete shock. We didn’t close but many people missed their appointments. None of us had ever experienced anything like that. Weather emergencies are different. Your heart sinks. But the human cost on 9-11 is different.”
of 9-11 attacks, Eastern Time
• 7:59 a.m. – American Airlines Flight 11 takes off from Boston for Los Angeles, 5 hijackers on board.
• 8:15 a.m. – United flight 175 takes off from Boston, also for Los Angeles, 5 hijackers on board.
• 8:20 a.m. – American flight 77 takes off from Washington, D.C. for Los Angeles, 5 hijackers on board.
• 8:42 a.m. – United flight 93 takes off from Newark for San Francisco, 4 hijackers on board.
• 8:46 a.m. – Flight 11 crashes into the WTC’s North Tower at the 91st floor.
• 9:03 a.m. – Flight 175 crashes into the WTC’s South Tower.
• 9:37 a.m. – Flight 77 crashes into the Pentagon.
• 9:45 a.m. – U.S. airspace is shut down; all civilian aircraft ordered to land at the nearest airport.
• 9:57 a.m. – passengers on Flight 93 begin running toward the cockpit; and the pilot begins to roll the plane back and forth, attempting to destabilize the aircraft; and it crashes in Pennsylvania at 10:02 a.m.
In New York City, the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m.; and the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. Building 7 collapsed at 5:30 p.m.