9/11 — An American 'duty' not to be forgotten

An ashy silhouette of the World Trade Center's north tower lingered in the air as the 110-story building plummeted to the ground 10 years ago, leaving behind skeletal walls and shattered souls. That smoky shadow looming in New York's sunny September sky is vividly etched in Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brady's memory. On Sept. 11, 2001, the Coast Guardsman watched the second tower rapidly descend from the top floor down, suffocating the city with pulverized concrete dust.
Kyle Moroney
Sep 10, 2011

“As it collapsed, the ashes were blowing up on each floor,” said Brady, who now lives in Grand Haven Township and commands the Coast Guard Sector Field Office Grand Haven. “After it went down, there was a silhouette of ashes where the tower used to be.”

Brady was near the North Cove Marina on Manhattan’s southwest side, about a couple blocks from the WTC. 

“I’ll never forget that silhouette of the building after it came down,” he said.

There were no sounds of explosions as the north tower fell; just the sound of a large building crumbling to its demise, Brady recalled.

“There were layers of concrete dust. Dust everywhere — and papers. Papers all over the ground,” said Brady, 36. “There was nothing except dust and papers, and the pile of rubble at ground zero.”

Brady was a Coast Guard marine inspector stationed at U.S. Coast Guard Activities New York on Staten Island —  about 2 miles from Manhattan — when that September day became the historical tragedy known as 9/11.

Just like any weekday morning, Brady went into work at 7 a.m. He and his co-workers were busy with their morning briefings when an officer came in and said he heard a radio news report of a small plane hitting one of the WTC towers.

The Coast Guard officers walked over to an office window and saw smoke billowing from the upper floors of the WTC north tower and a plane protruding from the tower’s north side. Brady said he watched in disbelief.

“You could tell it wasn’t a small plane,” he recalled. “We started working on a contingency plan and then the second plane came in. Then we realized it wasn’t an accident, and we shut down base and were sent to Manhattan.”

A terrorizing tragedy

At 9:03 a.m., 17 minutes after hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed in the north tower, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower. 

Brady boarded the Staten Island ferries with fellow Coast Guard officers to help with crowd control along the Manhattan waterfront and evacuate the city.

“Mobs of people were showing up at the waterfront,” he said.

Brady and other Coast Guard personnel helped board people on boats — any type of boat that was nearby, whether it was the nearly 300-foot Staten Island ferries that hold up to 4,400 passengers or smaller tug boats — anything to get the crowds out of Manhattan, he said.

“Everyone seemed very calm,” Brady said. “Some people looked normal and knew they had to get off the island. Most of the people were just getting on boats and leaving.”

The WTC south tower — the second one hit and the first to collapse — rapidly tumbled at around 10 a.m. — about an hour after it had been smoldering from the plane crash. Brady was on the Staten Island ferry at the time, and called his mom and a few friends to tell them he was OK.

Brady was in the marina on Manhattan’s southwest side when the north tower crumbled within seconds at about 10:30 a.m.

“All the concrete from the building was pulverized,” he said. “Everybody was covered with white powder — concrete powder. Nobody was saying anything. It was very quiet. 

“I think people’s survival skills took over,” he continued. “There was no screaming, no one was running, they were all walking, waiting for people to tell them what to do.”

Brady explained that the collapse of both towers knocked out cell phone and television satellite signals in New York City. While citizens throughout America became glued to their television and radio stations that day as they learned of the tragic events in NYC, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, Brady and those with him would get briefings of the day’s horrifying events.

The towers’ plunges dismantled the city’s concrete jungle, waterlines and subway system. Buildings near the World Trade Center had to be evacuated, Brady said, as windows shattered from the blazing heat and the buildings crumbled to the ground.

“It was hot enough to burn glass,” he said, explaining that people were getting overwhelmed from the falling ash and heat exhaustion. “It was hot down there.”

Heroes among heroes

For hours that day, Brady moved “twisted metal” and other fallen debris to the side of the streets. The filters on face masks worn by ash-covered rescue crews and many others would clog up with ash within 15 minutes, he recalled. 

“Ash would get caked up in your eyes,” he said. “...You poured whatever you could get to get the ash out of your eyes.”

In addition to the hundreds of firefighters, policemen, medics and other rescue crews walking the ashy streets helping people, Brady remembers a man with the word “doctor” written in a marker on the back of his T-shirt, offering his assistance.

“He was just a doctor in the area going from person to person to see if they were OK,” Brady said.

By 5 p.m., most of the people near ground zero had been evacuated. Brady and his fellow Coast Guard officers were relieved from the scene and recalled back to the Staten Island base, where they were “detoxed” before returning home. 

“The whole day in itself was a blur,” Brady said.

While the actual events of 9/11 lasted only a couple of hours, for those who lived the tragedy, 9/11 never really stopped, he said.

“There were funerals every day for months,” Brady said. “I would go past five funerals on my way to work. There was this aftermath of events that went on for months.”

As a member of the Coast Guard, Brady visited the area surrounding ground zero several times since 9/11, but has not returned to the spot where the towering WTC towers stood for so many years.

“There’s nothing to relive that you want to relive by going back there,” he said.

Brady left New York the following summer for graduate school at the University of Michigan.

A changing America

In the 10 years since that horrifying nightmare, the federal government has made a concentrated effort on national security with the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and several laws, such as the Patriot Act.

“Government as a whole took on more of a proactive approach,” Brady said. “We started working together on both the operational and intellectual side to protect our national security.”

Many forms of government — as well as other ways of life — underwent significant changes following 9/11. The U.S. Coast Guard now requires foreign vessels reaching American waters to give a 96-hour notice of arrival, instead of 24 hours. Government officials also require more detailed background and identification checks and security plans for any ports taking foreign vessels and certain commercial vessels as part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002. In addition, the Coast Guard Investigative Service beefed up its advance tactical training in various areas, Brady said.

“We have a much better understanding of potential threats to our local industry,” the Coast Guard commander said. “We’re taking a much closer look at security these days.”

Brady was born and raised in Long Island, N.Y.

Now married with 3-year-old twin boys, Brady said he will someday talk to his children about his efforts on that somber American day.

“I want them to know that I was with a group of people who helped people get out of danger that day,” he said.

"New York, the Pentagon, and an airline weren't just attacked, America was," Brady added. "And it's the duty of every American to never forget." 

Comments

bluestarr

Thank you for your story. 9/11 still chills my soul. Rest in Peace all those lost in this terrible tragedy.

D-fro

Our sincere thanks to Sean and to all the other first responders on 9/11. We are grateful to all who serve our country to keep it safe. God bless you and your families and all who suffered the tragedies of that day. We WILL remember.

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