9/11 reflections

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kyla Gifford
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
For some, airport travel can be an extremely hectic and tedious experience. Checkpoints, long lines and bag searches can seem like an elaborate plan to make traveling more difficult. However, this hassle and frustration can easily blind people to the important reason for heightened security.

America's airports weren't always so secure. It wasn't until 14 years ago when a routine Tuesday turned into one of the most memorable days in American history - and traveling changed across the nation.

For then Lt. Col. Lee-Volker Cox that Tuesday started off like any other unremarkable week-day morning. As an executive officer to Lt. Gen. Lance Lord, assistant vice chief of staff of the Air Force, Cox had to be at the Pentagon bright and early to prepare for the day.

During the Chief of Staff's weekly meeting, Cox, accompanied various senior leaders in the Air Force council room, located in the basement of the Pentagon.

"The meetings always started out with an intelligence brief," said Cox. "Suddenly, in the middle of the brief that day, the briefers just stopped talking. On three big screens a TV network popped on and we saw one of the World Trade Center towers on fire."

Without any information as to what was going on in New York, discussions started around the room. Speculating as to if it was a freak accident or an attack, Cox and the others attempted to understand the situation.

"We were trying to understand what was going on," said Cox. "Then, we watched live as the second plane went into the south tower, and for a few seconds you could have heard a pin drop, it was just silent."

At this point it was apparent to those gathered that this was most likely an attack.

"That is when Gen. John Jumper, first full day in the office as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, stands up and says 'We better get back to our offices, New York is going to need us,'" said Cox.

Heading up to his office, Cox instinctively started closing blinds. As he was in the process of closing one of the blinds and looking out the window, he felt the whole building shake.

"The Pentagon is a big building, built for up to 50,000 people," Cox said. "Where the plane went in was on the other side, so for the entire building to shake I knew it had to have been a huge impact."

While smoke slowly seeped into every part of the building, Cox began to go through the evacuation process to make sure everyone in his section got out of the building safely and swiftly. Cox was fortunate enough to run into a fellow co-worker who owned a Blackberry, a rarity 14 years ago, and was able to contact his parents via email to let them know he was safe.

Unfortunately contacting his wife, Michelle, was out of the question since all the cell phone towers were down, and she was in Florida.

"She was supposed to be flying home that day," said Cox. "I was racking my brain trying to remember what her flight number was, and if she was in the air."

At that time survivors were being brought out of the building by medical personnel, but help was needed. Cox immediately started to assist with rescue and recovery.

"I was told to take off my shirt and get my t-shirt wet because there were no masks; then we were going back in," said Cox.

Soon it became apparent how unprepared they were for a disaster this immense. Low on medical supplies, food and water - calling for different resources became Cox's main priority.

"It's your core values: having integrity, putting service before self and being excellent in all you do that determines what you do during events of crisis like 9/11," said Cox.

Meanwhile in Florida, Michelle Cox was in panic mode.

"I was trying to call, but nothing was going through," said Michelle. "For the rest of the day I was stuck watching and waiting like the rest of the country."

It wasn't until late that night when Lee-Volker and Michelle were able to hear each other's voices.

"We were both so worried about the other, to finally hear him on the other end was a huge relief," said Michelle.

There were thousands of people that evening who were never able to speak to their loved ones again. Close to 3,000 families were drastically affected within a few hours, and it only took 19 individuals to carry out the attack. 

"Remember what happened," Cox said. "Take a moment to remember the people who died. Also remember all the people who have sacrificed and died since then, as we continue to fight terrorism around the world."

Following his memorable assignment at the Pentagon, Cox became the 30th Operation Support Squadron commander here at Vandenberg. After retirement, Cox continues to speak at schools and events, reminding younger generations about the importance of 9/11.

"I believe that there are four kinds of people in this world," said Cox. "There are the people who set the fires, people who run from the fires, people who watch the fires and people who run toward the fires. There were a lot of people that ran toward the fire on that day, putting their lives in danger to help other people."