LATHAM, N.Y. – Three New York National Guard leaders who were part of the state response to 9/11 said the terrorist attacks 20 years ago changed them, the National Guard and the world.
The headlines on Sept. 11, 2001, were supposed to be about anything other than terrorism.
Was Michael Jordan, at age 38, going to come out of retirement and back to the NBA? Was rain going to hamper voter turnout for the primary elections in New York City? Did a lightning strike on the World Trade Center towers the night before do any damage?
"Being in the military and serving overseas, I always knew that the U.S. was vulnerable to a terrorist attack," said Edward Keyrouze, who was then a major in the New York Army National Guard. "It was just a matter of where and when."
But he said he was still surprised and shocked when it did happen.
When the first and then the second of the Twin Towers were struck by aircraft, New York National Guard Soldiers began responding.
The New York Army National Guard "went to the sound of the guns," said Maj. Gen. Thomas Maguire, the adjutant general that day. Soldiers came into the armory before they could even be called.
The New York Air National Guard had already responded. The Northeast Air Defense Sector, a NORAD command staffed by Guard Airmen, was already working to get fighters in the air and directing them toward the hijacked jetliners.
The 174th Fighter Wing had two jets in the air trying to catch the aircraft that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania.
By the end of the day, more than 4,000 Guardsmen were on State Active Duty, with 1,500 in lower Manhattan assisting police.
Over 14,000 New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen were involved in the 9/11 response, which began Sept. 11 and lasted into 2002. Today, only 400 are still on duty with the New York National Guard.
Keyrouze is now a civilian employee of the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs — which administers the New York Guard, the state's volunteer defense force — and serves as a colonel in the New York Guard.
Lt. Col. Todd Summers, the surface maintenance manager for the New York National Guard, and Lt. Col. William Snyder, the commander of the 152nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, are two of those who responded on 9/11 who still serve.
Snyder was at work that morning in Buffalo.
"I was teaching in class and a fellow teacher told me to turn on the news to see that a plane had hit the World Trade Center," Snyder said. "At first, I thought it was an accident, but as I was watching the news, I saw the second plane hit the WTC and knew right there that it was an intentional attack."
Summers also learned about the attack from television.
The New Windsor, N.Y. resident had just been commissioned as 2nd lieutenant after enlisting in the 113rd Maintenance Company in 1989.
"I noticed a couple senior leaders of the directorate gathering and I joined in," Summers recalled.
Summers said he immediately knew he had to contact his unit, which was mobilized under the 369th Corps Support Battalion, and reported to the 5th Avenue armory later that afternoon.
"All of us, I was in shock of what occurred and was amazed at the devastation to the towers and the surrounding area," Keyrouze said. "The dust and debris was everywhere and lasted for weeks."
Keyrouze joined the Army Reserve in 1979 and after a stint on active duty made his way to the National Guard in 1987.
On 9/11 he was a major and the executive officer of the 531st Troop Command at Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill. His first assignment on 9/11 was to report to the 105th Airlift Wing at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y..
Stewart was the designated location for federal emergency supplies to be flown into downstate New York. Keyrouze was sent there to be a liaison with the Air Guard.
Eventually, he was sent to New York City. He did wellness checks for the military police companies that were assigned to Ground Zero, working out of the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue just miles away.
Snyder, from Buffalo, had joined the New York Army National Guard in 1996. He said he always wanted to serve his country while being a public school teacher, so the Guard was a way to have the best of both worlds.
At the time, Snyder was enlisted with the rank of specialist serving as a combat engineer.
"I had a feeling that I would eventually be called, but I got a phone call around 1300 from my unit telling me that I needed to leave work and head to the armory because we would be heading to the city," he recalled.
At Ground Zero, Snyder stood guard near the docks by Wall Street.
"I spent most of my time searching people that came off of the ferries into New York City for work," he said.
Summers also pulled guard duty in New York City.
"I served as a night shift [officer in charge] for a two-squad security team composed of members of my unit and the battalion," he remembered.
"We secured the southeast corner of Ground Zero where the New York Police Department command post was located in the vacated Burger King, next to where the South Tower stood," he said.
Summers, Snyder and Keyrouze all agreed the experience was overwhelming. As New Yorkers, they had grown up with the Twin Towers being a symbol of their home state. Now they were gone.
"I recalled the Twin Towers being erected when I was a boy and had visited the site many times over the years when in Manhattan," Summers said. "It literally took my breath away to see the destruction. But at the end of the day, I was a Soldier, an officer, with a duty to perform."
Even a day after the attack, there was dust across lower Manhattan. Vehicles had been crushed by falling debris, there was a pall of smoke rising from what was now called "the pile," and papers fluttered around.
A horn would sound when there was concern that another structure would fall so everybody could evacuate the area. There was silence when a body was found and escorted away.
For Guard Soldiers who had served in the 1990s in a peacetime Army, this was overwhelming. Later, the three said it was a glimpse of what was to come in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"At that point, I had not been to war, but looking at the devastation, it felt like a war zone," said Snyder. "Everything was covered in dust and we had to wear masks so we didn't breathe any of it in."
"I deployed three times," said Snyder. "Once to Afghanistan in 2008, again to Kuwait in 2012 and my last one was to Ukraine in 2018."
"I deployed with the 369th Corps Support Battalion as the battalion S4 in late 2003," said Summers. "We served two tours in Iraq and returned in early 2005. I later deployed again with the 642nd Aviation Support Battalion, along with the headquarters 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade in 2013 to 2014."
Michael Jordan did come out of retirement and the mayoral primary elections were indeed postponed. But most importantly, the world wouldn't be the same.
"The world changed on 9/11," Summers said. "The 10 years of my enlisted time prior to 9/11 is a faint memory overshadowed by my 20-plus years as an officer serving during our global war on terror."
Snyder uses his experiences when he teaches students about 9/11 and what followed.
"Every year, I teach about 9/11 and tell the kids about my experiences," said Snyder. "It is weird, but I am teaching kids now that were born after the attack and really do not have any concept of what we went through as a country. I try to do my part to make sure that the kids understand and that we never forget what happened."
The New York National Guard's domestic mission hasn't changed, though, the three said. While they deployed to combat, they also responded to other missions.
"I have been involved with every state activation since 2010, starting with Operation Irene and Lee through 2011, Operation Sandy 2012. … I have managed the New York Guard force for Operation Lake Ontario 2017, 2019, Operation Snowstorm and now COVID," Snyder said.
All said they were proud to have been part of the response on 9/11.
"I was honored to respond to the attack, and the sights that I saw will never be forgotten," Snyder said.
"I was once told by a friend, 'I'm glad we have people like you, Todd, I just couldn't do what you do.' That's all I needed to hear," Summers said.