Through smoke, rubble -- How 9/11 affected Westover

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Amelia Leonard
  • 439th Airlift Wing
September 11, 2016, will mark the 15th anniversary of the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history. For those old enough to remember, that day and the events that followed will be forever etched in their mind, like Pearl Harbor was for those alive in 1941. Military members and their families recalled a certain anxiety, waiting to see what would happen next.

“I was on my first deployment to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, when I found out about the attacks on our nation,” said Tech Sgt. Andrea Wieciech, 439th Airlift Wing Command Support Staff member. “When the second plane hit, I went back to my room because I knew we were about to go into FPCON Delta and rest and sleep would soon be nonexistent.”

When the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan at 8:45 a.m. that Tuesday, first responders and those working in and around the building knew that tragedy had just struck, but they had no idea that a terrorist attack had taken place. As emergency responders began evacuating the first tower, they were hit with a second blow, literally. It had only been 18 minutes since the first plane flew into the 80th floor of the North Tower. The second plane flew into the 60th floor of the South Tower. An hour later, at 9:45 a.m., a third plane flew into the west side of the Pentagon. Twenty-five minutes after that, a fourth plane was brought down in a field in western Pennsylvania by passengers and airline crew members. Theories still abound as to where that jet was headed, whether the White House, Capitol building or the Camp David presidential retreat.

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the World Trade Centers that day, 189 at the Pentagon, and 45 onboard the aircraft that crashed in Pennsylvania. Of those, 343 were firefighters or paramedics, 125 were active-duty military personnel, 37 were Port Authority police officers, and 23 were New York police officers.

Military bases, including Westover, were immediately put on lockdown, and the Force Protection level was raised to Delta, the highest security posture, here and abroad.

Retired Maj. Gen. Martin Mazick, then commander, stood up Westover’s Crisis Action Team and closed the base to all visitors the moment he realized America was being attacked. “When I walked into my office that morning, my protocol officer and secretary told me that a plane had just hit the world trade center tower,” he said. Moments later, the second plane hit and he knew it was no accident.

Throughout the day, Westover and bases around the world continued to take increased security measures. “The Massachusetts State police and Chicopee Police Department arrived with working dogs to help support our security forces at the main gate and perimeter,” said Mazick. Volunteers from the 439th Maintenance Squadron stood guard at entry control points to the flight line, while other others checked IDs at building entrances. “I couldn’t have been more proud of how everyone came together.”

A Westover aircrew was in the air to help within hours of the attacks. The crew was at Travis AFB, California, on its first leg of a mission to Australia when they were re-tasked with transporting a rescue team and equipment to New York City. The aircrew delivered 72 search and rescue members --- including medical personnel, firefighters, chaplains and rescue dogs --- to McGuire AFB, N.J. They also transported their vehicles and nine pallets of equipment.

More than 30,000 reserve and guard members were called to active duty as part of a post-9/11 mobilization order. When air strikes began in Afghanistan on October 18, 2001 and Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, nearly 1,000 members of the 439th AW were activated. Many of those members were deployed in the following months. The maintainers began a steady 90-day rotation to bases overseas, such as those in Germany and Spain. Stateside, members were operating in support of Operation Noble Eagle, a homeland defense mission.

The 439th Security Forces Squadron was one of the hardest hit units within the wing. The squadron was tasked with diverse missions to support areas all over the world. “Nine-eleven initiated a chain of events that brought the 439th SFS into the forefront of world-wide Air Base Defense,” said CMSgt. Michael Grady, 439th SFS. Their officers, non-commissioned officers and airmen were presented with challenges and opportunities they never had to face before, he said.

Although the 9/11 attacks were an act of terror against the United States, several positive things that came from it. As former president George W. Bush said, “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

The city of Chicopee and surrounding communities rallied together to support our military members, here and abroad. The United Service Organizations helped bridge the outside community with the military members to provide them the support they needed. “The community remembered Desert Storm and Desert Shield,” said Mazick. “Everyone wanted to support our troops.” Friendly’s Ice Cream even donated freezers full of ice cream, he said.

It seemed like there wasn’t an overpass, yard or business window that didn’t have the American Flag proudly displayed. “It reignited our patriotism and showed us how vulnerable we were,” said TSgt. James Bitts, 439th Communication Squadron. It was a wake-up call as a nation. “They woke a sleeping giant,” he said.

There was an enormous shift in military culture and recruitment as well. People were going to the recruiter’s office in droves.

Every month, there were at least 20-25 prior service members who made the decision to re-enlist after being out for several years, said Mazick. “People were returning to do their jobs and anxious to perform because the cause was worthwhile."

“I think it drastically changed the military culture,” said Wieciech. “It felt like the bond got stronger and everyone pulled together more than they had before,” she said.

Since 9/11, Westover has deployed more than 2,000 reservists in support of OEF, ONE, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, Resolute Support, and Freedom’s Sentinel, according to base officials.

“Due to 9/11, increased Security and heightened vigilance is now part of our everyday life, whether it is increased physical security at our workplace, schools, highways, or airports,” said Grady.