World Trade Center: an interview with National Guard Captain Christopher Daniels

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre today offers its readers the account of Christopher Daniels, Captain of the National Guard, who on the morning of 9/11 left his civilian job to join the rescuers. After working at Ground Zero, he was posted to Iraq in the military and for this reason his words are highly valuable in understanding the aspects of the consequences of 9/11.

We wish to thank Christopher Daniels for his kindness and willingness to share his experience.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember about 9/11 generally speaking? What do you recall about that day?

Christopher Daniels: Maybe I should give you a little background of what the National Guard is in the United States. In the United States we have the active army which serves all year long wearing military uniforms and that’s the only job that they have. And then we have the National Guard and the Reserves and they are part time soldiers and you have another job and you get called out in events like an emergency or a war such as in Iraq for an extended period of time but it’s a cost effective way of keeping soldiers even if they are not as trained as much as the active army.

I’m in the National Guard and my unit was stationed in New York City on 26th street and Lexington Avenue, just north of the Towers. I worked at a French company called Fimat, my office was in Rockefeller Plaza which is uptown. Normally I had meetings in the National Guard on Tuesday nights, so on Tuesdays of the weeks I used to drive to work so I could go to the meeting and then drive home; I would park my car in the armory which is 26th street but on that day there was a show, they rented the armory for a show. The armory is a huge building, a whole city block, so people might rent it for fashion shows or commercial purposes. So I couldn’t park my car in the armory on that day. Traffic was for some reason unusually bad and normally I used to drive in and go to the gym to work out and shower before going to work. I got to the gym just with enough time to shower but not to exercise, so I had to go right to work. I got to work, I was frustrated because I was late and my phone ringed and it was a coworker in Chicago and she said to me “Hey, a plane just hit the Twin Towers.” I responded “I don’t give a shit!” and hung up. Planes hit buildings all the time in New York City, small planes, it’s nothing to get alarmed about pre-9/11.

So I flipped on my internet and saw the news and said “Wow! It’s pretty scary!” because I saw the size of the plane and the smoke. And then the second plane hit and then the entire city was into panic and understood that there was something wrong. My car was parked two blocks from my office, I ran to my car and started driving downtown to my armory. As I was driving I watched the first tower fall; at that time I didn’t know what I was watching because you only saw the dust kick up and you couldn’t understand what exactly was happening, but it was the first tower falling. I couldn’t understand the first building was now on the ground because of the smoke.

I got to the armory that was pretty close to Ground Zero. People were walking up and the cloud of smoke was coming forward. I was a captain that was an O3. First in charge of the National Guard was a major who was an O4. By the time I got there, some soldiers had shown up they said “Captain, what do we do?” I said “Open the armory up.” I gave them ammunition and I put them on the four corners of the building and at the front and back doors. I said “You have to guard the building from a further attack.” because no one knew what was going to happen. So the major walked out and said “What are you doing? You are panicking.” I said “I don’t think I’m panicking, we have to secure the building.” He says “No, no. Chris, get these guys out, get the weapons off the streets.” I thought to myself “Maybe I am panicking. Maybe I’m taking this too far.” In my life nothing of this extent had ever happened. Then he went to his office, where he had a TV, and the second tower fell, so he came out white as a ghost and said to me “Chris, put the guards back out now!” This was the signal in my mind that something terrible was really happening.

Soldiers started showing up at the armory [pictured below] on their own without being called, they wore uniforms and getting trucks ready. I called to Long Island, which was about 45 minutes drive, to get more trucks, that’s where the main post was. I said “Bring every truck back to the city”

Prior to this, in 2000 we had the concern of the Millennium Bug and we, New York State and the National Guard, had a plan that if the computers crashed and the whole world goes panicking we are all going to meet at the end of Long Island and stage there with all our vehicles. So on 9/11 I was moving vehicles from Long Island to New York City and assembling troops into trucks and to Ground Zero. One of my drivers said “Sir, where do I go?” I said “Where do you go?! Asshole! You go where the buildings are! Don’t you see the smoke?!” He says “What do we do” I said “Help out anyway you can” My phone ringed and it was a Colonel, who’s higher than a Major, who controls Westhampton Airbase and Southampton which is about two hours away, and the Colonel told me “Captain, give me a situation update. Tell me what’s going on in New York City.” I said “Well Sir, we are sending soldiers to Ground Zero trying to assist in any way we can with wounded people, that’s our first priority.” He said “No, you have to stop doing that right away. We are acting the Y2K plan and you have to send all your vehicles to Westhampton Air Base right now.” I said “Colonel, how many dead bodies do you have in Westhampton right now?” He said “None.” I said “So what do you need my vehicles for in Westhampton?” He said “I don’t know, that’s the plan.” I said “I’ll tell you what. Don’t call me ever fucking again on this phone. My vehicles are not reporting to Westhampton. Go fuck yourself!” and I hung up and continued with the mission. I never heard from that guy again. It was chaos in the whole city.

As I said we had a show in the armory so we could not assemble out troops and react to the incident. The show normally takes two days to set up and two days to tear down. After hearing what happened they tore the entire show down within three hours and we set bunks to triage wounded people.

Everyone in the city was pulling together to try to do something, but nobody knew what to do, nobody was in charge at this point. My battalion commander, who is a Colonel, a O5, showed up and he said “What’s the situation?” I told him what we were doing and he said “Keep doing what you are doing. Me and Major Obregon, the O4, are going down there to assess the situation and we’ll call you back and tell you what we need down there.” So I was at the armory in charge of everything that was moving down and my Battalion Commander was going down to assess the situation. Then I got a call from a Full Colonel, who’s a O6 and was in Buffalo, and he said to me “What’s the situation and what are you doing?” I told him “Colonel Slack is at Ground Zero, I’m sending troops down there, I’m sending all the vehicles to further assist in the response we need.” He said “Captain, you are not authorized to assist civil authorities in any shape or form, how are you going to pay these soldiers? Send them all home now and stop doing what you are doing.” I said “Sir, I don’t think you understand the situation here in the City right now. I don’t think it’s about the pay.” He said “You have my direct orders.” I said “Roger, sir.” and I hung the phone on him and my colleague next to me said “What about it?” I said “Don’t worry about it, keep doing what you are doing.” And we kept going down to Ground Zero.

Colonel Slack came back that night and said “It’s mass chaos, the police are not in charge, fire department is not in charge, no one is in charge right now.” and he said “We are going to march down there tomorrow morning and we’ll encircle Ground Zero with the National Guard. First thing we are going to provide perimeter security to show the city that we have hold of the situation.”

So the next morning we marched down there and we secured the entire perimeter around Ground Zero. That was when we got involved in the bucket brigade, we did rooftop searches for body parts. At this point in time there were a lot of people coming to us from Battery Park where they lived and said “Hey, I have to get to my apartment because I have a dog or a pet.” we told them “We can’t take you to your apartment because we don’t know if the ground is safe, we don’t know if more buildings are going to collapse.” So we went in the buildings and pulled dogs and cats out and brought them to people.

Then as it got safer and we started letting people in buildings and we said “You have thirty minutes to get your essential belongings and get out.” And we did it for days to get at least their essentials out before they could finally get back their apartments for more permanent stay.

I remember in the first couple of days you saw this pile and you thought to yourself “There must be some one alive, we are going to find somebody.” So we were digging, digging and digging. We were there for a week straight and then we had a day off, and during the day off the top of the pile was taken down and when I come back the next day I could see the whole field and I just couldn’t believe it. It’s like being on a soccer field and being in one net, turning around and seeing the entire size of the field. It was massive, that was the moment when I realized there must have been thousands of dead people.

Undicisettembre: How long did you stay at Ground Zero after 9/11?

Christopher Daniels: I’ve been there from September 12th to December. Not full time, I went home on a day here and a day there.

Undicisettembre: What do you remember about that long period you stayed there? Did anything in particular strike you?

Christopher Daniels: The smell. The smell was unbelievable. I still have it in my nose to this day, it never leaves you. Smell of burnt flesh, rubber, electronics.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect the National Guard and your way of working?

Christopher Daniels: Before 9/11, it was July or August, with the same O4 Major I told you about we were having summer training and he said to me “Hey Chris, you need to have your equipment repaired as soon as possible.” I said “I cannot go this week, I’ll go next week. Besides, we are never going to go to war unless the Chinese are marching in downtown Brooklyn, so who’s kidding who, there’s no rush to have this stuff fixed.” I remember talking to him in November, after 9/11, and saying to him “The Chinese have just marched to Brooklyn.”

I’m still in the National Guard now, I joined in 1986. I joined for a hobby and for a pay for my education. Up to 2001 it was a hobby, it was something I enjoyed, you run through the woods, you have a gun, you are with a bunch of men, it’s very macho. It was fun. From 9/11 on it was real, 9/11 made it real. It changed for us all.

We had to go to Ground Zero and defend New York City for a couple of months and then go back to training, and training became much tougher. No one knew Iraq, no one knew Afghanistan, we just knew we were going somewhere.

Undicisettembre: How long did it take you to get your life back to normalcy?

Christopher Daniels: Well, the military isn’t paid that well as my civilian job. So I was in Ground Zero for three months, then I did defense of New York City for three more months guarding bridges and tunnels, then I got back to work and I got activated in April 2003 and I returned home in November 2005. In that time frame there was a big difference in my salary. I’m not complaining about it but I had the financial impact that took some time to recover. There is also the family impact that took me almost the same amount of time to recover: my son was born in April 2001 and I pretty much left home in September 2001 and got back home in November 2005. And when you are back from a war you don’t just walk to the door and say “Mom, I’m home, what’s for dinner?” It takes some time emotionally and I’m still dealing with some physical issues, I am constantly coughing. I have problems going up and down the stairs. There are some physical elements that people have after Ground Zero and going to Iraq. It’s something I’m probably going to fight for the rest of my life.

Undicisettembre: Since you also mentioned Iraq, I also would like to know what you recall about that period you spent there.

Christopher Daniels: Many people have questioned why we went to Iraq. There are a few reasons that I can tell you. You have to think back: what was the mood of our country? The United Stated had Pearl Harbor in 1941 and it was very easy to declare war on Japan. We had 9/11 and it was very easy to declare war on somebody, but who? We had bin Laden who claimed he did it, but he’s not a country. He’s a person with a small group. In 1941 we declared war on Japan, we mobilized the country, we invaded and the country was behind it. But 9/11 was like parking your car for a cup of coffee and you come back out and your taillight is busted; you are very angry but who do you yell at? That’s similar to the mood of 9/11. The country wanted action. We had bin Laden as the main man to blame but it wasn’t enough, and also the United States felt threatened from many angles: North Korea, Russia, Libya. So, Iraq was a foe of the United States, one time it was a friend, and one of the reasons Saddam Hussein, whom we defeated in the first Gulf War, stayed in power was he said he had weapons of mass destruction. And he also had issues with his own country, he used nerve gas on his own people in Iraq. So in order to keep his people suppressed he had to put fear in their hearts; and to do this and to keep his generals behind him he convinced them he had weapons of mass destruction even if he didn’t. He lied to his own people to scare them, not to scare the United States, he didn’t give a shit about the United States until that time. He didn’t care.

So if you have a criminal who has shot somebody with a gun and goes to jail, then when he comes out he says “Listen, I have a gun in my pocket, you can’t see it but I’m going to pull it out and shoot you if you don’t run away.” you are going to run away because it’s believable. So the moment when the United States made the decision to go to Iraq was when there was the belief there were no tricks, it was Saddam Hussein who pulled the tricks. So we were afraid he might use the weapons of mass destruction or sell them to bin Laden: that’s how the invasion happened.

Now everyone can say for a fact that invading Iraq and taking out Saddam Hussein was a mistake, because now the country has been unsettled. Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator but he kept the entire country in line so that they didn’t fight each other. In twenty years from now we can probably judge if it was the right thing or the wrong thing to do, we just don’t know. Right now it looks like it was the wrong thing to do based on the outcome that’s happening now. And the time the United States entered to Iraq, the military was not well equipped, we had no upper armor on our Humvees, we had no vest for our bodies, but we took out the Iraqi army very quickly. And we thought “Hey, this is easy, peace is declared, everything’s good, the Iraqis love us, this is going to be no problems”. And then the insurgency started and that’s when I got into Iraq. I crossed the Kuwaiti border on the same Humvee that I drove in the summer of 2001 and that I drove to Ground Zero and it had no armor at all, just a soft door. That’s unheard of today, but that’s what we had.

We first went into Baghdad and they said “We need your battalion to go to an area called Taji, where the United States Army never went into, we just bypassed it. There is an insurgency there, we have to go reinvade it and secure it.” We went there and we spent there three months, we finally secured it but we didn’t find out why it was so difficult. Taji was the first town in the outskirt of Fallujah, we got there just before the second battle of Fallujah so anyone who was an insurgent and wanted to fight the Americans in Fallujah went to Taji and fought us. We suffered a lot of casualties there, my entire battalion went with 650 soldiers, we had 19 killed and we had over 100 wounded.

Undicisettembre: How do you think Iraq is now? Better or worse than 2003?

Christopher Daniels: At the present time it’s worse. But I don’t know the answer to the final story. In three years from now if the Sunnis and the Shias and the Kurds can finally get along, secure the country and form a coalition government it might have been worth the pain.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?

Christopher Daniels: No way. It’s impossible. Say you go out with your friends and your girlfriend doesn’t come, you see a beautiful woman across the bar and you go kiss her, then you tell your friends “Don’t tell anyone.” Do you think all your friends are going to keep that secret? One of them is going to tell his girlfriend and this is going to be known.

No one has been able to provide any hard fact whatsoever that it was an inside job.

Was there some intelligence report saying the attack was arriving? Yes, probably. But if the intelligence community tells you there are going to be ten attacks in Washington DC that never materialize, you can’t act on all of the intelligence. There’s a rumor that Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, but did he believe it? Who would have believed that 9/11 could have actually happened?

If anyone had told you in August 2001 “Listen, you news reporter, in the first half of September two planes are going to crash into the Twin Towers.” Would you have bought a plane ticket to come to the US based on the best internet story?

If a guy from Saudi Arabia was coming in the States today and we get intelligence report that he’s a terrorist and we arrested him at the airport, what would happen next? That we are racist, that we’ve got the wrong guy, that he’s friendly, he hasn’t done anything wrong to us, his rights are being violated. It’s not that easy to prevent an attack.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Christopher Daniels: Well, I don’t like tall buildings anymore. I still fly. But I’m slowly getting past all that, it’s tough looking out of the window and seeing the new tower, I don’t think I’ll ever be going to that tower.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the country is still living in fear or has it regained its standing in the world?

Christopher Daniels: I don’t believe that necessarily we regained our standing in the World yet, but that’s from the inside looking out. But as far as, “do we live in fear?” I don’t think most of the Americans are living in fear. First, we are used to it now especially in New York, there was a pipe bomb some months ago, we are getting used to threats and apparent danger. Second, law enforcement in the United States have been very quick to respond and they captured these people before they got out of hand. If you look at events like the Boston bomber, this guy set up a bomb in the middle of the crowd and within days men were after him and he was captured. If you look at the pipe bomber in New York City and New Jersey the guy was captured within days. You cannot prevent a bombing from happening but it’s giving comfort to the people that these guys are being caught.

So people think we are safer, more attacks are coming but people are used to see army soldiers with machine-guns protecting them; before 9/11 it would have been very scary to see.

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