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The Sky Was So Blue...

I’m admittedly a private person, however, with the arrival of the 10th Anniversary of the terrorist attack it seems appropriate to share a few thoughts. After all, I played a small role in that day’s news coverage as well as in other emergency-preparedness activities that took place in the following years.

I first learned of the attack just after 9:00 am when Fox News called me from New York City wanting to know if the plane crashes were accidental or an act of terrorism. At the time, I was enjoying a cup of coffee while doing some research outside on the patio.

I turned-on the television set to understand exactly what the news director was talking about. Based on my experience researching and writing about terrorism issues for nearly a decade, it only took me a second to reach my conclusion. And no, I wasn’t surprised. Not in the least.

As early as 1994 I had engaged in several private discussions with counter-terrorism experts in both the military and FBI about using aircraft as proverbial “flying bombs” to attack our nation. An airplane striking a notable landmark or, better yet, detonating over a congested, major city and then raining fire and bodies down on those below, were gory but effective ways to start a war and psychologically handicap the nation.

I knew that terrorist Ramsi Yousef had even developed a plan, “Bojinka,” to blow-up 12 U.S. passenger planes mid-ocean in the span of 48-hours. A test was conducted aboard a Philippines Airline Boeing 747 on December 11, 1994, resulting in an explosion that killed a 24-year-old Japanese passenger and injured 10 others. In spite of the damage, the aircraft landed safely at Okinawa.

And I also knew Usama bin Ladin had officially made a Declaration of War against the United States on August 23, 1996, and was behind a number of terrorist attacks on American assets in Africa and the Middle East in the years that followed. He received a Fatwa (religious ruling) in 1998 requiring the killing of Americans, both civilian and military.

I sensed it was only a matter of time before bin Ladin brought the war to our soil. He had no choice. He HAD to spill blood here in order to show the seriousness of his intent as well as to garner the support of other extremists behind him.

For the rest of the day on September 11th I spent hours conducting telephone interviews with the media from all over the country. The following morning Fox News sent a limousine to my home to drive me to the WMUR television studio for a live, national interview. It was there that I speculated United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was likely heading for the US Capitol or White House, or perhaps even to “Site R,” our country’s alternate national command center near Waynesboro, PA. In my opinion, bin Ladin was clearly looking to decapitate America’s ability to respond in a fast and coherent fashion.

On that cobalt blue September day more than 3,000 people died. Three were professional acquaintances of mine. Their deaths hurt, but the one that haunted me most was Sheila Hein. She worked at the Pentagon as a visual information specialist and we had established a wonderful rapport over the years while I was working on various book projects. She was an avid photographer, nature lover and travel enthusiast. In fact, she once took a coast-to-coast drive in her old, beat-up car to photograph the U.S. I admired her adventurous spirit, gentleness and quick wit.

The American Airlines Boeing 757 plowed though her office. And that is why it took the medical examiner’s office nearly a month to forensically identify her remains. During that time, I kept a close eye on the Pentagon’s “Fatality List” keeping my fingers crossed she and others I knew were safe. My heart broke when her name finally appeared at the bottom of the document. As I recall, she was the very last person to be identified.

By the way, for you conspiracy theorists, the Pentagon is a hardened military facility. It has to be because it houses the National Military Command Center, as well as a number of other crucial programs needed in time of war. As such, it is a prime target and is uniquely designed to survive an attack. (Exception given to nuclear bombs, of course.) I personally know firefighters who responded to the Pentagon after the attack. The building was hit by a plane, not a missile. What is not widely known is that the aircraft impacted that area of the Pentagon where the U.S. Navy’s Command Center was located. The hardening of that particular building structure had been recently upgraded with bomb-resistant materials. The forward section of the aircraft disintegrated, leaving behind very little debris.

In addition to the victims in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia we lost that tragic September day, we need to remember all the first responders who subsequently suffered medical ailments that CDC and OSHA still don’t understand. Many of them have since filed for social security disability and some have even died.

We also need to remember the thousands of brave, selfless military personnel who have been either wounded or killed during the course of the Global War on Terror. And we need to include those civilians, government workers and contractors who perform clandestine work in the field for agencies like the CIA, DIA and State Department. Similarly we need to remember all those individuals and special teams across America that constantly prepare to respond to emergencies.

To one and all, they deserve your heartfelt gratitude.

Without question, the events of 9/11 changed the way we live. That day and all the days since have been costly in terms of lives lost, innocence erased, personal freedoms sacrificed, and money spent.

And while I am encouraged by the unraveling of Al-Qaeda in recent months with the death of Usama bin Ladin and his operations chief Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, I am equally fearful of the proverbial last man standing: Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Whereas bin Ladin was careful to “play by the rules” (and by that I mean he generally adhered to Islamic protocol whereby he declared war on us and then gave us a chance to surrender before actually attacking us) al-Zawahiri is impatient and short-tempered. I’m certain he feels the noose tightening and knows time is running out. Hence, he is very likely to resort to using a Weapon of Mass Destruction against us here on American soil. After all, he has absolutely nothing to lose. He would like nothing better than to bring down his enemy the United States once and for all with a bold, bloody and destructive stroke, even if it means his death in the process.

I pray we are able to thwart such a horrific attack from happening. For I am deeply concerned that if we don’t, the United States may not be able to take the blow this time and recover. I sense people across the country are tired and overwhelmed from the years of recession, unemployment, partisan political bickering, high cost of living, socioeconomic disparity, wars overseas, and a seeming never-ending stream of natural disasters.

In the end, I am both a Patriot and an optimist. Always have been. Always will be. I know the American spirit is strong. I just hope we don’t have to prove it…

Semper subvenio!

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