Tears in Heaven

Randy Leonard


I woke up feeling excited. The next morning I would be flying to the east coast to watch my son, Ryan, graduate from Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey. I had found a very cool, small hotel to stay at in Cape May that was just across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. I couldn’t wait to get there and see my son in his uniform, standing at attention saying “yes sir”. From a petite and fragile being that I cradled -even before his Mother held him- to a graduate of the United States Coast Guard. How could this be? I had to see it to believe it.

I lay there and played out my itinerary in my head. I would get off work tomorrow morning at 8am, drive directly to PDX, get on the plane, arrive in Baltimore, rent a car and make the 4 hour drive to Cape May.

Ryan and I would head to Philadelphia for a few days after he graduated. I love the east coast and all of its history. But to spend some time there with my oldest child as he began a new life in the United States Coast Guard was..., well, I was riding on top of the world.

But first, I had to work my 24 hour shift at the fire station that would begin in two hours. I was assigned to Station 17 where we had a fire engine and a fire boat. I loved my job and the guys I worked with. We loved working with each other.

I jumped up, saw a bright day beginning outside, said good morning to my wife, who herself was getting ready for work, and popped the “Best of ZZ Top” cd into my stereo. I cranked it up.

It was the morning of September 11, 2001 and life could not get any better.

As I headed to Station 17, on Hayden Island in the Columbia River, I took my usual route with my usual guy accompanying me, Les Sarnoff on KINK FM 102. I was still thinking about my east coast journey when I realized that I had been driving for 10 minutes and all there was on the radio was news chatter. Very unusual for Les. Focusing on my radio dial, I saw that it was in fact on KINK. I turned it up and heard a strange voice talking about a plane flying into a building in New York.

“Jesus,” I thought. I remembered reading about the plane that flew into the side of the empire state building over 50 years ago as the city was hidden in a fog bank. It must have happened again.

But an instant later, my reasoning was shattered by the man on the radio saying that a second plane had hit the building right next to it.

My first reaction to that announcement was that I was listening to a version of the radio spoof from the 30s when Orson Welles broadcast “The War of the Worlds” and everyone listening went into abject panic. I am too savvy for that, I thought. I am not biting. To think that two separate planes had slammed into two separate buildings was, well, unthinkable.

I will never forget where I was when I realized this day was no spoof.

I was sitting at a red stop light on NE Martin Luther King and Columbia Blvd. I was still convinced I was listening to some put on about an attack on the World Trade Center Towers in New York. As the announcer on the radio kept talking, I looked to my left and saw a woman sitting in her car next to me also waiting for the light to change. Her hands were clasped tightly over her mouth and tears were streaming down her face. Even when the light turned green she stared straight ahead and did not move. She just sat there horrified, crying.

I felt as though I had been hit in the stomach. As I finally began driving I tried to comprehend how this could happen. I remember becoming aware that this could be no accident. Someone was attacking us.

Of course, I thought about the innocents working in a building that had been transformed from a familiar work place to a living hell. But I could not help but focus on the scores of firefighters who would be entering the buildings to rescue those trapped hundreds of feet above the earth. Having been to many high rise fires, I knew the unique dangers of fighting a fire far above the ground –and safety- below. “God”, I thought, “Be Safe.”

As I went into the fire station, the on coming and off going shift of firefighters were huddled around the TV. The image of the two high rise towers burning evoked chatter amongst us of similar infernos we had all been part of battling in Portland. We were all worried for our colleagues across the continent, of course, but they were doing what firefighters do. We had all run into burning buildings while even the rats were running out. We had seen similar fires countless times in our careers. Its’ dangerous, but we know what we are doing.

And then the unthinkable. In all of our collective careers, none of us had ever seen or heard of anything like it. First one, then the other tower crumbled to the ground in kind of an exclamation point to the horror of this day. We sat in stunned silence knowing instantly what it would take others hours to come to grips with.

Anyone in either building when the towers collapsed was gone. In an instant, gone. No goodbyes, no second chances at life. Gone. In the gallows humor at a fire station, we often say “dead is forever”. We had never seen such a horrific example of it.

Eventually, we began our routine at the fire station that day, but it was different. We all had been to firefighters and police officer funerals where inevitably someone would say the officer or firefighter had “given their life”. We always knew that was a lie. None of us would ever “give” our life. It would have to be taken. We would fight to live until silence and blackness overwhelmed our consciousness, no matter the odds.

We had seen with our own eyes hundreds of our fellow firefighters lives stolen in a cataclysmic convergence of hate, physics and destiny. Whether those firefighters had plans for a family reunion, birthday or witnessing the graduation of a child from the coast guard boot camp, this was to be their last day on this earth.

While each of us knew we could lose our life, we also knew we had the tools to trick death. Death in the performance of duty was something that happened, but only when mistakes occurred. We drilled every day to minimize –if not eliminate- those mistakes from occurring. We would cheat death at every opportunity and then laugh about it.

There was, however, no amount of training that could have prepared my heroes that day. The only warning would have been the deafening noise of each of the floors above them collapsing onto the floor beneath. One floor at a time, growing louder as the collapsing floors came closer. 343 of the 3,024 lives lost that fateful day were firefighters.

While I would not be able to go to Ryan’s Coast Guard graduation in New Jersey, I would eventually be able to hug him again. That embrace was probably longer than it would have been had there been no September, 11th.

  • Kismet (unverified)

    How very poignant. Thank you for sharing your very personl account of Sept 11th. I am a BOEC dispatcher and we too experienced that 'kinship of horror' upon seeing the images of the twin towers collapsing, knowing what it meant for not only those inside but also those who were left grieving.

  • Jack Bogdanski (unverified)

    As a student attending high school about a mile away, I saw the twin towers being built, every weekday in the late '60s. Thirty-some years later, at the same high school, my nephew watched them fall. He and his class and teacher were on the roof watching the fire in the first tower when the second jet hit.

    The words to describe this event escape me. I'm glad they didn't escape you.

  • El Zonda (unverified)

    Very touching and powerful post.

    That morning I was on my way into New York on a commuter train from New Jersey. Though so close physically, my distance was as great as yours in terms of experiencing the event -- perhaps more, as it was hours until I saw any images. The first indication -- too tenuous to suggest what was happening -- was that passengers on the train were advised that service to the WTC station had been interrupted and that those who would have normally switched to the Hoboken train had permission to continue to Penn Station in New York.

    Someone on a cellphone came through the cabin saying a plane had hit the WTC. While reminiscent of the B-26 crash into the Empire State Building in 1946 (if I remember correctly), the report was immediately suspicious, given that the weather was maximally fine and visibility was unlimited. There was always the possibility of a heart attack, a careless stunt gone wrong or a suicide. All the passengers who heard the report assumed it was about a small passenger plane -- a one- or two-seater.

    When the second strike was announced, all doubts about the nature of the event vanished. I contacted a colleague whose father worked in one of the towers. Fortunately, his father was on vacation. But my colleague, who was already in the city, explained breathlessly what he had seen on TV when he and some others had gone across the street to a bar with a TV: these were jet airliners. He mentioned the aircraft model and specs; and as he happened to be someone very familiar with civil aviation matters, he was an unimpeachable source -- incredible as such testimony would otherwise have been. What he told me painted a very different picture than we on the train had assumed.

    I never made it into New York that day, unsurprisingly. The train was halted a little later, and all the passengers were directed to disembark. As we sat in t

  • Javier O. Sanchez (unverified)

    I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Councilman Leonard for sharing this and many other interesting posts on the blog. It's refreshing to hear ideas and opinions from local leadership and decision-makers and I strongly encourage other elected officials to step outside the voter box (Yo Erik! Where are you homey? I never thought I would say this, but you should take a page from your fellow council member and reach out to your constinuency).

    I voted for Serena in 2002 and continue to support the sister in her quest, but have found admiration and, dare say, a connection with you through this portal (maybe it's the Jeopardy thing!) Thanks again and keep posting!

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    "There's supposed to be a big fire or explosion somewhere," I told my son, starting for school, "probably an oil refinery in Houston or something." The fall morning so bright blue and yellow, distracting his mind toward noon's promise by the dawn, he probably didn't hear me.

    It was Monday, Sept. 10, 2001. I was up before dawn, about 5:40 am. That time should be after dawn, but this was false daily savings time and in truth it was only 4:40, and the missing hour was already deposited for the day.

    Rising so early was my pattern then, but on that day I had some purpose. (BTW, yesterday, 9/10/04, a news story ran on the internet recounting the hijackers' 9/10/01 day. It rang true.) I was up that morning to see the Moon pass in front of Saturn and obscure it. Pronounced 'Moon occult Saturn.' Moon: the day's mundane. Saturn: the age's fate. It's called opaque but, indeed, the sensation to see is Saturn's re-emergence twinkle the instant the Moon has passed it -- there's one sequiny dazzle as Saturn reflects a beam through the valleys notched in the trailing edge of the Moon, an optical perfusion. I call it the Disney moment, it gleams once like Tinker Bell's wand waved over Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

    I was one minute late and missed it. There sat sulphur-dull Saturn already out from behind, just by a smidgen. With it was giant Moon, straight up, smiling cheshire-cat half-round toward the eastern pre-dawn aurora. I went inside and woke my teenage son to come see. Oh was he begrudging for ten minutes of sleep until his alarm, but he came. And, wonder of wonders, he wondered at the sight. In maybe two dozen times in his life that I have connived him to look skyward, including eclipses, two commets, meteor showers, and bright moments, this was the only time I ever got a "kew-el," and that's a quote. The pre-morning so clear, so stellar, it gave awe even to the naive young and normal ingrate. Even after we had missed the show!

    We stood quietly awhile under the garage basket 'n' backboard, he barefoot, me robed, gazing at stars, listening to birds, smelling the dew. And went inside to get ready for Monday and school.

    Over breakfast I discoursed, though he hates it anytime. "That red star beside Saturn and the Moon is Aldebaran. The old books say it signifies fires and explosions, although, when the books were written they didn't have the word 'explosion' because gunpowder wasn't invented yet; today we say it but they said fire, heat, temper. Today at school there might be a fire drill, that's one interpretation. If your red-haired temper starts to rise, remember to count ten and exhale and rethink things. If you see a fight starting, steer clear and go around. Be fire alert. There's supposed to be a big fire or explosion in the world, less likely than the lottery that it'll be at your school or around here, probably an oil refinery in Houston or something." I know I discourse long; he's in his rights to hate it.

    "Did anything happen at school today?," I asked when he came home, and heard his teenage "No." So, I think, I should remember to check the paper in the morning.

    The morning, 9/11, 5:40 am. Up alone, the house is quiet, reading the paper. At the same time listening on the radio, I hear Sarnoff say " ... something funny; a small plane has hit the Trade towers and there's smoke ..." and I'm reading the paper ... 2, 3, and I think 'Hey! World Trade tower. That's New York. They have TV cameras there, this'll be on TV.' And I get up and walk in and turn it on.

    After a minute I call down the hall toward my son's bedroom: "Come see." A grunt in the dark. "Come see." A second morning he is shorted ten minutes sleep. "Huh ... huh ... this better be good," I hear. along with his bare feet drag-slapping the wood floor, somehow, as he conflicted comes, too sleepy to walk, too alert to a tone in my voice not to.

    "It's not," I say. And we are standing watching when the second plane comes in. "Uh-oh," I said.

    We watched and took turns flipping the channels. He went to shower and when he came back I said "There's no school today, you don't have to go." "Wha'," he said. I said, "Yeah, they announced they were starting the draft and all 14-year-old boys are supposed to quit school and go sign for the military and might not get to finish high school." "Really?," he said, ready to believe it, and I saw too late I had said the wrong thing, and he didn't have it in a perspective to joke about it, and then he saw that I wanted my words back and that made him even more concerned. I was only trying to pull the events out of their TV abstraction, (where it seems too much of it has grown a lot of young people having a sort of brain-glaze and vacant-stare affect), trying to convey the scene's reality and bring it close to home in a way he could feel it mean something to him. I should have first respected the feelings he already had, and known he had them. A few minutes later in the kitchen, breakfast-dancing, he came up with a comment to be brave and show me his resilience and not to worry about him. "My pictures have some with the Twin Towers in them -- that ought to make them really worth something now," he said, referring to the photos he took the month before when he was back in Connecticut and New York, and at the World Trade towers, and on the cruise boat out to the Statue of Liberty, during two weeks visiting grandma. I played along and we got out some of them and appraised which ones we thought were saleable, never taking our eyes off the TV. And he went to school. Maybe we called his sister in college in Massachusetts before he left, or maybe the calls were later in the day. My memory is jumbled because we took turns using the phone.

    A month later the Moon came back around to Aldebaran, spelled 'Anthrax' -- got any? A month later the Moon came back around to Aldebaran, spelled 'Al Jazerah TV' -- too real, can't have any.

    My temper tore open the censoring thought-police. Pacing, ranting, waving my arms, my convulsion shocked my son. " ... forbidden to broadcast! because it might have secret messages! 'sleeper cells' could 'synchronize their watches'! There ARE no sleeper cells. The TV worshippers lie for their souls. THESE people don't WATCH TV! THESE people rode camels a thousand miles across the desert carrying gold and frankincense, watching the stars, and show up in town -- ON TIME! -- and say 'Where's the baby? We followed the searchlights in the sky and he's supposed to be around here someplace.' THESE are the people who NAMED al'Debaran! ..." He was staring at me, trying to understand.

    A month later the Moon came back around to Aldebaran. Pictured on the cover of 'Sky & Telescope' was the Moon occulting Saturn.

    A year later still in sleepless mornings, quiet house, reading the paper, at the same time listening to the radio reciting the TV. And at the same time using the phone. The usual. For as many mornings as I was synchronized with Sarnoff it was easy to hear his pattern changes. He had begun telling the War-Makes-Dollars stories and believing in them and reviewing what he watched on TV. I called and we had talked a couple times a week for years, about things about our lives, and then we began to differ. "W-M-D is all a big lie on TV, really there are none -- none, believe it, true to the music; why do you tell everybody there are?," I asked him one morning, in our goings-on. "I can't say that on the air," he said, "I'd lose my job." "Maybe lies get you money but truth gets you value," I said, and I have not called him since and the music died just about the time steamrollers went crushing piles of Dixie Chicks CD's -- it was probably all on TV.

    So Les, my son and I listen together to the young people's hip-hop station and there's one song, (I don't know who sings it but it's not Cat Stevens), and the lyrics are: They say we're at war agains' terrorism. / Sure we got terrorism / right here in the U.S.A.: / the Bloods and the Crips and the KKK / the big CIA.

    So Randy, you say you have really been in a lot of burning tall buildings and the only one you ever saw fall down was on TV and it made you to think the unthinkable. Some part in that don't ring true to my ear. I was watching TV on the internet (globalresearch.ca) last night -- you can show your fireman friends at the station if they got a computer there -- of a backside view from some tourist's camcorder or something, and a little white-smoke demolition puff comes out about halfway up the tower exactly before the second plane explodes a few floors higher around front. When intelligence chatter reportedly says they are arranging to strike again with 'really really big time' bigger W-M-D's, (although it's more logical to use the biggest weapon in inventory to throw a surprise first punch), it seems to me most important to find out which 'they' struck the first time -- more important than getting into an election where an unknown 'they' could be one of the choices on the ballot.

    So my son isn't old enough to vote in November but he turns draft age soon afterwards. His uncle has worked in the Coast Guard Admiral's Office for many years.

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