REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- A resounding chorus of "God Bless America" -- helped along by members of the Alabama A&M Choir -- could be heard in the halls around Bob Jones Auditorium on Sept. 11 as a Patriot Day audience reaffirmed its belief in America's strength, liberty and freedom against the threat of terrorism.
But before the Patriot Day audience sang that reaffirmation, they first stood witness as a victim of 9/11 told his story of surviving the attack on the World Trade Center.
Retired Lt. Col. John Mahony, who works as IBM's deputy program manager for the Logistics Support Activity's Information Technology Support Contract at Redstone, took the audience at Team Redstone's Patriot Day tribute back to the scene of the World Trade Center attack with vivid descriptions and observations of that horrific day in the nation's history.
The tribute, hosted by the Aviation and Missile Command, also included the ringing of the bell and the playing of Taps in remembrance of the civilians, emergency personnel and military who have died in the Global War on Terrorism on and since that fateful day in 2001. There was patriotic music provided by the wind ensemble from the Army Materiel Command Band, and by the voices of the Alabama A&M Choir and the Rocketeers. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by students from Endeavor and Heritage elementary schools. Several of Team Redstone's leadership, including Lt. Gen. Patricia McQuistion and Lt. Gen. David Mann, were in attendance and the auditorium was nearly full with employees from across the Arsenal.
When he was called to the podium, Mahony quickly began unfolding the events of 9/11 from his perspective. He was in a meeting with his work team on the 19th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center when an airplane crashed into the tower. He likened the effect of the impact to surviving an earthquake.
"The building jerked hard. I fell to the floor, trying to catch my balance," he recalled. "The building swayed back and forth as it registered the shock. The building was rolling like an earthquake, but the military part of my mind caught that it was an explosion. I thought, 'It's a bomb.'"
As Mahony directed his team to stay calm and remain within the center of the building, he could see out the windows the smoke coming down from the top floors. It was filled with glass and "thousands of bits of paper." Some of the windows were broken on the 19th floor and he could "hear the screams of a few hysterical people."
While Mahony wondered how terrorists were able to get a bomb to the higher floors of the north tower, others in his group were thinking the situation was not as bad as it looked. Then Mahony smelled an odor that he recognized as a combination of jet fuel and burned dust, an odor he realized was coming from the elevator shafts.
"It was unmistakenly a sign that it was time to evacuate," he said. The team left, joining the hundreds of others leaving down the stairwell. Mahony and another executive were the last people to leave the 19th floor.
In the stairwell, people were well-behaved and quiet. A few were hysterical, but they were supported by others. Some were praying. Mahony said that soon a rumor was going through the survivors that a plane had hit the building. Some joked that it must have been an "idiot pilot" who was so busy looking at the views of the Hudson River and New York City that they crashed their plane into the tower by mistake. Others speculated on a pilot who might have had a heart attack or another medical issue that caused the crash.
The crowd of survivors was taking about a minute per floor to exit the building, Mahony said. A fire door at the bottom of the stairwell was blocked for a time, slowing the progress. Soon drops of water from a broken water line started coming down the stairwell, quickly turning the stairwell into a small waterfall that the survivors had to walk through.
At the ninth floor, Mahony and others cheered and encouraged firefighters, wearing their full gear, who were heading up the stairwell to conduct rescue operations.
"They were people we recognized because they did drills at the World Trade Center about twice a week," he said.
As he reached the ground floor, Mahony expected to walk out into the tower's opulent and expansive lobby. Instead, he found a dark, cavernous expanse, filled with shattered glass and smoke, and with jet fuel coming out of the elevators. There were scorch marks and remnants of fires throughout the lobby.
Mahony walked through the glass and debris to get to an exit door only to be told by an emergency official that, "You can't get out this way. People are jumping from above and it's too dangerous."
He then went to the Marriott Hotel, which was connected to the two towers. Living in Chicago at the time, Mahony was staying in the hotel while at the World Trade Center.
It was a surreal image. While the World Trade Center lobby was badly damaged by fire and smoke, and injured people needing oxygen or suffering from severe burns were being cared for throughout the lobby, the Marriott lobby remained unscathed.
Mahony thought about going to his room at the Marriott, and perhaps making some phone calls or doing some work on his computer. Instead, he chose to go outside to find his co-workers, a choice that would later save his life.
As he went outside, he was warned to cover his head to protect himself from debris that was still falling from the building. As he made his way across the street, Mahony saw cars on fire, debris littering the street, chunks of things scattered everywhere and shoes.
"There were lots of shoes. They were the shoes of the people in the airplane. As the plane disintegrated, things were thrown with great force. I was to trying to make sense of things," he recalled.
That's when he saw the second plane heading toward the south tower. "It was absorbed into the building like some sort of weird magic trick," Mahony said. "The whole side of the building rippled and waved."
He ran away from the buildings and toward the first responder's station.
"I looked back at the tower. Now everything was starting to register," he said. "I saw a commercial pilot abandoning care of people on a plane and, for some reason I didn't understand, smacking into the building.
"I saw people in the building fighting for air, looking for a means of escape, trying to get out of the smoke. There were a few on the rooftop waiting for a rescue that was never going to come. But by far the worst thing was the jumpers."
Some jumpers fell gracefully. Some holding hands with others, "trying to get that last little bit of human companionship before they died," Mahony said. One fell head first, as if in defiance of the choice he was forced to make, he added.
Then, in 10 heartbeats, Mahony witnessed maybe 1,000 people die as the south tower fell.
"It was surreal. The south tower fell in slow motion. First, the top tipped to the left and the bottom tipped to the right. Then, the top fell on the Marriott," he said.
"Realizing the horror of that many deaths … our minds are not made to register that much death on that scale. Emotionally, I just shut down."
Those 110 stories of a building became 110 stories of rubble and a tremendous release of energy in a dust cloud.
"It was black and green, and it roiled and boiled, and moved with speed that was just incredible," Mahony said. "I thought, 'I can't outrun it.' I wondered if it was hot enough to burn. Then I was engulfed, and it was warm like a dry sauna."
It was also painful as the sharp particles of glass, metal and other materials coated his clothes and skin, collected in his nose and ears and mouth, and filled the area around his eyes. Mahony tried to wipe the particles away, but they scratched him. He could only see 10 feet in front of him. He saw an ambulance crash down a flight of stairs. He was queried by a teacher trying to find the students in her Biology 101 class.
Eventually, a breeze blew the dust cloud over the Hudson River. Then Mahony saw the north tower collapse, "gracefully, pretty much straight down. The sound was incredible, like a roaring waterfall, except instead of the sound of individual drops of water hitting other water or rocks, every note was the sound of smashing concrete or tearing steel or crashing glass."
Another dust cloud covered Mahony and others in the streets. When it dissipated, Mahony walked out of ankle deep dust and across a Staten Island bridge to take a train and then a car to a friend's house. He eventually made his way home to Chicago.
In the 13 years since those dust clouds, more than 1,400 people have died from the effects of the dust particles on their lungs, Mahony said. Someday, he, too, will die from the poisons he inhaled that day.
"Two or three years and the number of people who have died from a dust cloud will surpass the number who died that day. The asbestos, the particles, things in those clouds were all lethal," he said.
"But I imagine those who perished that day, those who chose death by falling or death by fire, would give everything for the option God gave me -- to live 13 more years with the wife I love, to see my children grow up into capable and loving adults with their own families, to experience my daughter's wedding and the joy of holding a grandchild."
From the tragedy of that day, Mahony is thankful that Americans have rediscovered the true heroes in their emergency responders and their military, that some of the nation's moral selfishness has given way to courage and honor, and that he has learned to forgive and love more deeply, and to have a closer "walk with God that has made me a better man, husband and father."
Mahony is steadfast in his commitment to not let every Sept. 11 anniversary be a reminder only of the ugliness and terror of that day.
"I choose on this anniversary of 9/11 to think of heroes not victims, of survivors not casualties, of love of patriotism not evil of terrorism, of friendships not of terrorists. I choose to spend this anniversary with you and each day I choose hope," he said.
Mahony urged his audience to make the most of living by serving others through volunteerism and by standing up for freedom.
"Resolve to give something back this year. Give something back for those 9/11 heroes who can give no more," he said. "Every tragedy creates opportunity for heroes to arise. Choose to use the memory of 9/11 to make our lives and our nation a stronger and better place."
Mahony's presentation was enhanced by images of 9/11 and the nation's patriotism that were shown to his audience on a large screen. The last image carried the words of Isaiah 40:31 -- "But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint."