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Mon, Sep 12, 2005

Remembering That Terrible Day

Two Pilots Recall The Confusion, Tragedy Of 9/11

"It was like being in the middle of a bad movie. You're up there, you're flying over the city, the towers are on fire. It was just wrong, the whole thing."

That's how USAF Lt. Col. Mike Duffy remembers That Terrible Day, four years ago. You know which day. 9/11.

Duffy was flying CAP over Manhattan shortly after hijacked commercial aircraft slammed into the twin towers at the World Trade Center, along with wingman Maj. Daniel Nash. Both pilots were scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base shortly after the attacks began. Both were flying F-15s. 

"I was thinking they were going to save this building," Duffy told the Boston Globe on the fourth anniversary of the 2001 attacks. "As I was looking at the square of the roof, and all of a sudden it starts getting smaller. I didn't have a reference point to compare it to, so it really didn't make sense to me what I was looking at for a couple of seconds. Until I saw a plume coming out of the bottom and I realized it was imploding."

Could they have changed something? Could they have saved lives? It's a question that haunts both men to this day. "I know it changed something in me... I thought about it continuously for a long time," Nash said. "But I finally came to the realization that we probably wouldn't have done anything, definitely for the first plane."

"I've flown this thing a thousand times over in my mind, you know?" said Duffy. "What if we had done this? What if we had done that? I don't think I would have changed anything from what we did."

"We did what we could. It wasn't much," Nash said. "Nobody would be calling us heroes if we shot down four airliners on September 11. You can imagine the stuff that would have gone on if the military had done that. It was a lose-lose situation as soon as they took hold of the airplanes."

Duffy and Nash got their first inkling that something was going terribly wrong in the skies over America at 0834 EDT, when the FAA called from Boston to say an American Airlines flight had been hijacked. While they don't take their orders from the FAA, they took the cue and started making ready to fly. The donned their g-suits and headed for the flight line.

At 0846, as the first hijacked aircraft slammed into the World Trade Center, Duffy and Nash got the official order to start engines.

Seven minutes later, they were in the air and, although not cleared for supersonic flight over populated areas, they hit the afterburners. Soon, the two F-15s were screaming toward JFK at Mach 1.4.

By 0913, the second tower was hit. There was little more Duffy and Nash could do but establish a combat air patrol and tank up behind a KC-135 when needed. Eventually, they were relieved by two other aircraft from Otis.

"There was a lot of frustration," Nash told the Globe. "I maybe even felt guilty, even though logically I knew that we would have watched it happen. We're still supposed to be there to defend the country, and we were powerless because of the way they did it. It was a pretty emotional day."

Both men said they've struggled to put 9/11 behind them. Nash said he has yet to explain his role in the response to his children. Duffy mourned the loss of a close friend -- the copilot aboard UAL Flight 93, which was also hijacked and ended up crashing in a Pennsylvania meadow.

[Would they have done it? Would they have shot down a commercial aircraft full of passengers if ordered to do so? Civilians and those unfamiliar with military aviation might ask that -- they do, in fact -- often. But those of us who are familiar with the discipline and training it takes to drive an F-15 into mortal danger... we already know the answer.

Thank you Lt. Col. Duffy and Major Nash. Thanks for being there on That Terrible Day... and ever since. -- ed.]

FMI: www.af.mil

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