Locals share 9/11 experiences

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

It is likely that every one of you over the age of 21 reading this can recall exactly where you were when you learned about the 9/11 attacks.

Participants hold American flags at a 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony held in 2011 in Locust Grove. File Photo

Here in this community, a couple of men with extraordinary ties to that awful day shared their experiences with the Times.

Jose Pina was a nine-year veteran of the New York Police Department working with a Bronx task force. He and his partner were working out in a gym filled with off-duty officers when the front desk manager called them over to tell them that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

As many people did during those initial moments, they thought it was an accident involving a small Cessna-type aircraft. Within minutes, however, all of them were called to report to duty at their respective precincts.

Pina was walking the few blocks from One Police Plaza to the site when he and his teammates saw the second plane strike. “We knew then it was no accident,” he said.

At that point they were ordered to help get as many people out as possible. They were about to set up and deploy from a department store across the street when someone ran to them shouting, “It’s coming down!” They got inside the store and down the stairs just as one of the towers crumbled to the ground, turning their entire world black.

It took the men about 14 hours to find a way out the back of that building. Pina recalled hearing constant beeping sounds that entire time. It was an automatic sound triggered by the bunker gear from the dozens of firefighters trapped, dead or alive, in the rubble that surrounded them.

The officers worked nonstop the next several days. The Salvation Army brought food for them, and one company delivered hundreds of pairs of boots. The officers changed boots every 6-8 hours because standing on the heaps of metal in the heat caused the soles to melt.

Pina said he personally witnessed seven or eight people hit the ground after jumping from one of the buildings. “It was terrible,” he said.

Once a young cop with a chip on his shoulder, he underwent a dramatic change because of 9/11. “After that day my whole outlook on life changed,” he said. “Now I’m always smiling because life is too short.”

He retired from the NYPD in 2003 and spent six years as a police officer in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., before moving to Henry County where his brother already lived. Having grown up in the Dominican Republic, Pina said he was never a city guy despite his years of work experience and he enjoys the suburban-rural atmosphere here much better. He works at a local business and is no longer in police work.

When you ask Bruce Wescott about his experience, his response without hesitation is this: “I’m a 9/11 survivor.”

A colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, he was inside the Pentagon when it was hit by the third plane used in the terrorist attack. He said he was probably 600-700 meters from the point of impact.

While they were already watching TV coverage of the World Trade Center attacks, “we were not at war so we were not expecting an attack,” he said.

The Pentagon is one of the largest buildings in the world, but it was not designed to withstand an assault from a commercial airliner used as a missile. The impact shook the entire building, followed quickly by the smell of jet fuel and the sound of the explosion.

Wescott pointed out that among the casualties that day were 12 people who worked directly for him. “It’s sad that the country forgets the sacrifices people make every day,” he said.

The death toll would have been larger had a portion of the target area not been closed for renovations. The local fire department arrived quickly along with the FBI, which picked up hundreds of pieces of the plane.

Having been a medic previously, Wescott helped with the evacuation. Many of the wounded and those helping them hid under a bridge on I-95 after hearing that a second plane was on the way. That plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to passengers who thwarted the hijackers.

“It was a combat situation,” said Wescott, who knew from personal experience exactly what that was like. “One of the sad things is that many of the casualties were not combatants. They were older men and women in civil service jobs. Many of them were never found because they were incinerated. It was a brutal, bloody mess.”

As with many of the military personnel at the Pentagon who were fairly senior in rank, he suspected the attack was the beginning of something much larger. That has been borne out through the past decade of the United States’ participation in the war on terror.

Wescott retired from the military in 2003 and now lives in the area. His wife runs a business in downtown McDonough.

“I was in the wrong place at exactly the right time,” Wescott said. “If I can be able to speak for the people who didn’t make it, I hope their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. It was truly a Pearl Harbor event.”