Jacksonville — On a cloudless, blue-skied Tuesday morning at 8:45 a.m., an American Airlines Boeing 767 loaded with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The date was September, 11, 2001.
Eighteen minutes later, a second Boeing 767 United Airlines plane hit the South Tower of New York’s iconic Twin Towers.
At 9:37 a.m., yet another American Airlines flight crashed into the Pentagon. At 10:06, a second United Flight, Number 93, disintegrated deep into an empty field in Shanksville, PA.
Nicholas Langevin, newly minted in the Navy, was aboard the U.S.S. George Washington heading to port in Norfolk, VA, was sitting in the “CATSY” - the Carrier Air Traffic Control Center - when his Leading Petty Officer “barreled” through the door yelling that New York was on fire. No one at that point knew what was going. The second tower had not yet been hit.
As the 19-year old watched the North Tower burn on TV, the second plane flew into the South Tower.
“I grew up 10 years in the two seconds that the plane hit the building,” Langevin said. “Everything became surreal. I couldn’t comprehend the moment I was in, but I knew I was in a moment. Everything I had been taught in boot camp became real. We all knew that we were going to war.”
Langevin said that the U.S.S. George Washington went into hyper-speed. Steering north and “moving faster than I’ve ever felt an aircraft carrier move,” the Naval ship was in the New York harbor by September 12th.
“We had a mission,” he explained. “Because we were porting into Norfolk, we were all buttoned up with a crew that was at half capacity. We functioned with a two-thousand compliment rather than a four. Everyone chipped in. We turned everything on, picked up the air-wing and kept going.”
The sailors were not yet aware that Pentagon had been hit.
During the time the ship sped North, Langevin wasn’t allowed to communicate with family or friends. Operations Chaplains then solicited information for those on board to connect with loved ones. Information slowly tricked in and to Langevin’s relief, his family was safe. And alive.
“My family was in Boston but everyone traveled,” he said. “When we got the news of the Pentagon and saw the President’s speech, there was a lot of frustration and anger. We wanted to do more, especially for New York.”
For the next 10 days, the U.S.S. George Washington transported medical and humanitarian aid to ground zero, monitored the skies and provided air superiority. Operations were done via helicopter. No one left the ship. The ship ran flight operations moving from Manhattan to Connecticut and through Rhode Island before heading to Martha’s Vineyard to turn around and head back into Manhattan.
Langevin worked below on a windowless deck until the second week. When allowed on the flight deck, he saw a forever changed Manhattan skyline.
“We came topside from the skin of the ship,” he said. “It was nighttime and everything was black. I was used to seeing two huge towers and the financial district lit up, but there was nothing. It was gone. I could see through the soot and bellowing smoke. But there was nothing to see.”
Langevin admits that what he often describes as a movie-like scene is truly an injustice to the moment. Nothing felt real. He was sad, angry and sick to his stomach. The buildings he described as American Icons were gone.
“Just gone,” he said. “It was the single most significant event in my 21-year career. 9/11 was when the military became a service.”
Langevin was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan where things became different once again.
“I changed as a person,” he continued. “I felt called to serve. Everything that led with 9/11 made me enlist again because I never felt like I was done.”
Langevin explained that the ideology of terrorism is to threaten American democracy. To instill fear. No matter what the day. And regardless of the anniversary, terrorists are always a threat. The Senior Chief Petty Officer also noted that the people of the Middle East are “amazing.”
“What we were doing was as big as bringing those who caused 9/11 to justice,” he said. “These people deserve freedom, something we take for granted every day. I would do what we did all over again without a second thought.”
Langevin also admitted that seeing the images coming in from Afghanistan have left him sad, angry and confused.
He concluded with his thoughts on American Patriotism.
“I think it’s different for everyone,” he said. “There’s no wrong way to be patriotic. What may be patriotic for you may not be for me or anyone else. I believe that America has the ability to be the best version of the human race. America has the ability to be the best version of human kind. We’re going to mess up and make mistakes and not everyone will agree, but at the end of the day if we stand together like we did on 9/11, that’s patriotism.”
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