My Account of 9/11 as a Sailor Aboard the USS George Washington
Those of us who are old enough to remember have our stories about 9/11, and we have all read or heard countless recollections. It is a time we will never forget, when the heart of our nation came under attack by radical Islamists and the price was thousands of lives lost and millions of lives changed… forever. This is my story. I was a Second Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy, serving aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS George Washington. After twenty years, I can say with a certainty that I cannot recall every little detail of the 24 hours I’m about to write of, but the feelings I experienced in those hours will be with me, will haunt me, to the end of my days.
The average age for the sailors aboard the GW was 19, but she ran a tight ship, and that gaggle of 3,500 sailors (ship’s crew only; the population grew to nearly 6,000 with a full airwing aboard) was capable of feats that any private sector CEO would be jealous of. Me, I was what they referred to as a “nuke”, meaning that I was a nuclear plant operator. Specifically, I was a Nuclear Electronics Technician. My expertise was monitoring and caring for all of the instrumentation necessary for safe operation of the two nuclear reactors that provided all the energy the 100,000 ton vessel would ever need. An ET’s crowning achievement was qualifying to operate the reactor themselves. As of 9/11, I was not yet qualified as a Reactor Operator, but I was getting close. I was 23 years old at the time and little did I know how serious life could get. Serving aboard the GW was fun, my shipmates were a blast, and it made the time away from home worth it. We always prepared for the worst, but we never expected to have to face it.
September 11th, 2001, 0530 hours
The five-and-dime rotation was typical for underway conditions, and this morning I found myself waking up at 0530. I had just gotten off watch at 2200 hours the previous night, so my next shift was the 0700 to 1200. I woke up in my “tiny heaven”, a rack that measured approximately 75 inches in length, 28 inches in width, and the bottom of the rack above a mere 18 inches above face. Sounds fun, right?
Anyway, I woke up and put on my coveralls and my boots, trudging my way to the mess decks to get my morning coffee. Waking up for this watch, I had to ensure that I took my coffee from the urn that had been sitting out the longest; the sludgier the coffee the better. To sweeten said sludge, I always added a packet of hot cocoa, the sugar rush was also a necessary evil. Then I made my way to the aft smoking sponson, the “nicotine” was the best way to start the day. I followed that up with a relatively large breakfast and made my way down to the plant to take the watch at 0630.
My watch team was always in Two Plant, as there were two, nearly identical, reactor plants aboard the grand vessel. And my current watch station was titled “Instrument Watch”. It was a fairly boring watch station, but, then again, if all operated as it was supposed to, every watch station was boring. This was a result of the fantastic amount of over-engineering that went into these plants. But I digress…
I took the watch and set about doing my first hour of log readings. The 4th Deck was not really all that noisy; but being above the steam driven equipment in the lower decks of the Reactor Auxiliaries Room, it could get quite hot. So, even though it was against protocol, I would enter the Enclosed Operating Station, where the Watch Officer, Reactor Operator, and two Throttlemen stood (or sat) their watch stations, and tarry there for as long as possible until the Watch Officer kicked me out. I was on my second “tour” of EOS when Petty Officer Evans requested to enter and report.
He had told us, with a very cynical smile, that “some douchebag just ran a Cessna into one of the World Trade Centers.” That got a huge laugh out of us, and the conversation quickly devolved into stories about who wanted to become pilots and the stupid things that pilots have done. It was quite enjoyable and passed the time quickly. He had left after some time and I went back out to get my next set of hourly logs and went back to EOS. We were incorrigible, what can I say? Petty Officer Evans showed up again shortly after, but this time his expression was concerned, and he relayed to us that it was a commercial jet that had collided with one of the towers. We shared his concern, but we were not prepared for what happened next.
I was just about to leave EOS for my next set of logs when Petty Officer Evans entered yet again, but this time he looked like he had seen a ghost. We all went silent, and he explained to us that another commercial jet had collided with the other tower in Manhattan. And no sooner had those words come out of his mouth then the bells of the Throttlemen stations began to sound. The starboard main engines were given an “All Ahead Full” and the port mains were given an “All Back Full”, we were turning the ship as quickly as possible. The order came to the watch officers in both plants to raise reactor temperatures in preparation for high speed operations. And when the ship was pointed due north, we put the pedal to the metal at “All Ahead Flank”, about 45 mph. There was a collective “Oh, shit” in EOS, and I was quickly dispatched to the other watchstanders in the RAR to inform them of the news.
There was a ship-wide announcement made to alter the ship’s Material Condition to what is known as Modified Condition Zebra, in which all watertight hatches to the 4th deck and below are closed, and access is only granted through the scuttles, small circular openings in the hatch. Then the skipper came over the MC to inform the crew that we were headed north to New York Harbor, and should arrive in roughly 24 hours.
The next few hours were a blur, as the news coming to us was fast and, in hindsight, often inaccurate. By the time we were aware of the collapse of the towers, the ship had begun landing F/A-18s on loan from the USS John F Kennedy, stationed in Florida, because the bulk of the fighter airwing attached to our ship was still unavailable refit maintenance schedule. When all was said and done, we had a total of nine fighter jets aboard.
My post-watch time was spent watching the television and the constant replays of what happened intermixed with real-time footage of the chaos in New York City, Washington DC, and a place in Pennsylvania that I had never heard of, Shanksville, even though I was a permanent resident of the state. The talk was of war, and who the enemy would be. Fear began to creep into every one of us at the specter of war, for we were due to deploy the following June. What was once looked upon as routine now seemed like a road into the unknown. There was no sleep to be had for me, despite having to resume the watch at 2200 hours that night. I finally reached my rack at 0230, but my sleep was fitful, and I awoke the next morning not well rested.
September 12th, 2001, approximately 0730 hours
I didn’t even think about going to the mess decks for my normal morning routine. Instead, I got dressed and headed straight for the Hangar Bay. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the faces of my shipmates, some with tears streaming down their faces, made the pit in my stomach feel like a 2 ton boulder. I didn’t want to see what I was about to see, but I couldn’t wait to it either. And then it happened…
I came to the open Hangar Bay door and stared across New York Harbor, and stark against the deep blue and cloudless autumn morning was the dense black cloud of smoke rising from Manhattan. In twenty years, I have never been able to find the right words to describe that moment, and they still elude me to this day. The only fitting description is “sobering”, but that is akin to describing an iceberg in terms of an ice cube. What should have been a relatively noisy scene, even from the distance the GW was at, was eerily silent, broken only by the occasional roar of a Hornet flying over the city. There was no air traffic, no sea traffic… everything was locked down. All there was was the column of smoke and sadness.
I had never considered myself a “hero” for my service, for I wasn’t a front line combatant, I wasn’t a pilot. The only danger I faced was from the nuclear plants on board, and while such catastrophic were possible, their likelihood was insignificant. My job was to make sure the ship had steam for electricity, propulsion, and catapults. My job was to make sure that others could be heroes. So, I stared at that black column of terror and wondered at the heroes that rushed to the scene and gave so much of themselves, even their lives, and gave them a moment of my time, a moment of reverence for their bravery, courage, and selflessness. Could I have been one of them, if the situation had presented itself? I would like to think so, but we all have those thoughts that tell us, “Yeah, you could that, too.” But, even in hindsight, I’m not sure I could answer that question with confidence and conviction. Not at that age, anyway. Nowadays, I know that I would make that sacrifice, but the added wisdom of twenty years has done wonders for my character.
The tragedy of 9/11 changed us all, and, as I said, we all have our stories to tell about where we were and what we were doing. Stories about how it affected our lives in the immediate aftermath, having to face restrictions to our daily lives depending on what occupation we had. For me, though, and the hundreds of thousands of other men and women in uniform, it was a time of confusion as we stepped into the unknown. We were kept orderly by those in leadership positions who remembered the days of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This, though, was very different.
Our deployment in 2002 was an adventurous one, for it was commonplace to walk by the fighter jets chocked on the Hangar Bay and see bullet holes in the fuselages. It made the whole thing even that much more real, even 100 miles from the nearest coastline, steaming in the calm heat of the Persian Gulf. Nothing ever returned to normal following that day, and many things have gotten worse.
The memory of a serene September morning interrupted by a stark black cloud over Manhattan will always be with me, as will the feelings of sadness, loss, and rage that followed. May God bless and keep those that lost their lives on that day, and every day since as a result of that horrible attack on our nation.