September 11, 2001, by James Hilleshiem

                Everyone remembers exactly where they were on this day and what they were doing the moment they realized that the United States was under attack.  For most people, they watched like I did from their living rooms as everything unfolded like a nightmare.  Only this one, you could not wake up from.  This was happening whether you wanted to wish it away or not.

                At the time I was Aircraft Maintenance Controller for United Airlines at Chicago O’Hare.  I happened to be off that day because my wife and I had planned a trip to Washington D.C. that week.   She had never been there, and I had told her all about my experiences there as a child.  I told her how captivated I was with the sites of the city.  We planned to visit the White House and the Capital when we arrived.   The trip never happened as my wife had emergency surgery for gallstones only three days earlier, and she was in no shape to fly.

                About eight in the morning I had just come out of the shower and as usual, I turned on the news to see what was going on that morning.   The first thing I saw was a very tall building on fire which appeared to be from New York with the Breaking News icon on the bottom of the screen.  The news anchors were making commentary but I had the volume down to low to hear.   To me it looked like a typical room and contents fire that spread and now was wildly out of control.  It reminded me of the movie Towering Inferno with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

                My wife had just stepped out of the shower and I called back to her to tell her about the fire.   As I did my peripheral vision caught an object move onto the TV screen and smash into the building next to the one that was on fire.   I watched in utter disbelief at what I had seen.   A massive fireball erupted from the side of the building followed by thick black smoke.  I knew immediately what I had just witnessed.   I screamed to my wife to get in the living room right away.   When she arrived they had begun to replay what had just happened.   She nearly screamed when she saw the replay.   I said, “We are at war.” 

                A short while later we watched in horror as reports came in of the Pentagon being hit.  This felt so surreal.  This wasn’t supposed to happen I thought.   I ran through in my mind about who could have been orchestrated this.  I asked the same question most Americans were asking themselves, how could this have happened? 

As we watched further on the local stations, a Chicago station was reporting that a hijacked aircraft was inbound to the Chicago area.   “Your Dad,” Shouted my wife, reminding that my father was probably working that day in Illinois at Great Lakes Naval Base.   I was concerned if he might be sealed inside the base for the duration so I called him to make sure he was alright.   Thankfully, he was off work that day and he was home safe with my mother.  A wave of relief came over me when I talked to him.  

I was also a paid-on-call firefighter at that time, and I received a phone call from my Fire Chief wanting to know if I was ok.   He knew I worked for United and that I worked at O’Hare.  I told him that I was fine and off today but I asked him what the situation was at the firehouse.  He informed me that he was ordered by the village administrator to lock the firehouse down and close all window shades and that the police were going to escort us on every run today.   He placed me on standby because he nor did anyone else in America know what might be coming next.

As the day went on we found ourselves glued to the television and noticed how quiet it was outside.  There was hardly any traffic on the roads and it was quiet above the apartment.  Living in Kenosha, you are accustomed to hearing all the jest from Chicago fly over.  Today, everything was quiet.  I thought about calling into the Control office at O’Hare to see what was up, but I thought better of that.   The last thing they needed was me calling in and tying up a badly needed line.   I would be back in a few days anyway and we get the full story then.  It could wait.

We both witnessed the towers collapse, and my heart sank.  I knew that people had died, and were dying.  It was only later that it really tore at my gut when I found out three hundred and forty three fellow firefighters died in the towers.  To this day that still haunts me.   

When I returned to work a few days ago, I pieced together two more chilling events from September 11th.   The first was that if not for my wife’s gallbladder surgery, we would have been in Washington D.C. that morning waiting in line to go into the White house at 8:30 A.M. and then to the Capitol at 9:30 A.M.   If the fourth hijacked plane had made it through to Washington, it probably would have hit the White House or the Capital  and perhaps us with it. 

The second was that before I was a maintenance controller at O’Hare, I was a jet mechanic in Indianapolis where United had a major aircraft overhaul dock.   I worked on Boeing 767’s when I was there.    When I first worked there I kept a log of the aircraft numbers that had come in for overhaul.  I did it just to know which aircraft I had worked on.   When I was informed of the aircraft number that hit the second tower, I went white as a ghost.   That aircraft was the second aircraft I had ever worked on while at United.   My thoughts went to a picture that was taken of me sitting in one of the engine intakes of that aircraft.   That picture hangs on a wall in my father’s house.  Once that airplane had completed its overhaul, I flew back with it on a maintenance reposition flight.   I sat in the jump seat on the flight deck the entire way to Boston’s Logan airport.   This is where some years later that this plane began its flight toward the second tower.

When I tell this story, I cannot help but think to myself that this is all made up.  This could not have happened to any one person.  There are too many coincidences to be real.   I wish it were so.    

I still have trouble watching a lot of shows about that day, but it gets better as more years pass.   I just hope we never go through that again.

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