By Sgt. Gaelen Lowers, 3rd Sustainment Brigade Public AffairsOctober 1, 2010
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - Looking up, Spc. John Castillo could feel the chunks of concrete falling all around him. He sprinted forward and dove underneath a fire truck just before the tower collapsed, encasing the truck and sealing him in a tomb of rubble for two and a half days.
"Everything was going in slow motion," he said. "I was scared to death."
Specialist Castillo, arms room clerk with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), survived the worst terrorist attack ever to happen on United States soil.
He was an officer in the 13th Precinct of the New York City Police Department during the attacks, Sept. 11, 2001. He was working the corner of 19th Street and 3rd Avenue when he and his partner noticed a plane that was flying low.
"So she's saying, 'Look at the plane,'" said Spc. Castillo. "And I say, 'Eh, it's probably going to LaGuardia.'"
The next thing they knew, the plane had hit the first tower of the World Trade Center.
"I thought it was an accident, truthfully," Spc. Castillo continued. "A bad accident, but I never thought it was what it was supposed to be, war or a terrorist attack."
Specialist Castillo said it seemed to take seconds to run to the site of the World Trade Center, their adrenaline pumping through them so hard that time seemed to stand still.
Almost immediately, Spc. Castillo, the New York City Fire Department and other NYPD officers moved floor by floor, evacuating the building, rescuing hundreds before receiving the call on their radios to evacuate themselves.
"When I was in the building, I heard the loud bang, but I didn't know it was a second plane that hit," he said. "I only knew because as we were running out, one of the firefighters had said that a second plane had hit the building."
The towers had already begun to crumble once they reached the lobby. Specialist Castillo was one of the few who made it out alive, but not before being trapped beneath hundreds of square feet of rubble, weighing down the fire truck that saved his life. He suffered a fractured skull and ribs, as well as a broken arm and leg.
"I was scared to death. I have to admit," he continued. "I had a lot of dreams and went in and out of consciousness. I said to myself that this is going to be a bad way to die."
Specialist Castillo said he thought of his son Carlito, who was one year old at the time, and his daughter Israil Kare, who was two. He thought he would never see them again. He thought of his mother and the rest of his Family and friends, but mainly, Spc. Castillo thought about water.
"All I could really think about is how thirsty I was," he said. "I thought I was going to die of thirst. I had a dream. I had a dream of me in the park drinking water out of a water fountain. What it was, in reality, was a German shepherd licking my mouth. It was the greatest feeling I have ever felt, getting that moisture in my mouth."
Rescue workers, volunteers and emergency responders worked around the clock to save as many as they could, but in the end, could only save a fraction of the people from the site.
"I lost all of my people," said Spc. Castillo. "I can think of more than 200 that I can personally name that I knew. We lost a lot of people."
There were a total of 2,996 deaths, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. A total of 411 emergency workers who responded to the scene died as they attempted to rescue people and fight fires. The FDNY lost 341 firefighters and two paramedics.
The NYPD and Port Authority lost more than 60 officers.
After being rescued, Spc. Castillo underwent six months of intense physical therapy and retired from the police force with a full pension, but the nightmares continued.
"The beginning was bad; I had dreams," he said. "There was a lot of hatred. I was angry."
Those events eventually led to him wanting to join the military.
"I called a recruiter just to see how things would be, just to talk," he recounted. "I remember his name was Sgt. Castillo, same last name as me. I think that's what helped make up my mind, like an omen or something."
On March 20, 2008, John Castillo became 39-year-old Pvt. John Castillo.
"I wanted to finish [the war]," he said. "I felt like I was there for its start, so I needed to see the end."
After Advanced Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he reported to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd STB, 3rd Sustainment Bde., at Fort Stewart, Ga., for his first duty station. He was later sent to armorer school for two weeks, where he learned the ins and outs of his company's armory and all the weapons located there. He started out as the company's assistant armorer, and eventually became the primary armorer once the unit deployed to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, in April of 2010.
Now as the company's only armorer, he is the lone hand receipt holder for more than $1 million worth of weaponry, ammunition, night scopes and other various pieces of equipment, said 1st Sgt. Paul R. Robinson, first sergeant for HHC, 3rd STB, and a Bennettsville, S.C., native.
Being an over-40-year-old specialist never phases Spc. Castillo. He said it's just one of those things you get used to.
"It's funny, I guess," he said jokingly. "I'm the old man."
His fellow Soldiers respect him and his knowledge of the arms room, said Spc. Florence Whitehead, supply clerk for HHC, 3rd STB.
"[Specialist] Castillo knows the arms room really well and wants you to know as much as he knows," said Spc. Whitehead. "He is very helpful and a great teacher."
First Sergeant Robinson said that he is an extraordinary Soldier and has the full trust and confidence of the entire brigade.
"We couldn't ask for anyone else better," said 1st Sgt. Robinson. "There's only one percent of Americans who are serving right now. I think it is the ultimate sacrifice and shows the true character of an individual."
For many, the events of Sept. 11 are a dream, the lasting memory of a tragedy long ago, but for Spc. John Castillo, those events will replay forever in his mind. Those events directly shaped the course of his life and will always remind him of the day that he stopped taking life for granted and really started living.
"It's like waking up from a dream," he said. "It was like a wave of relief. It was like a pain that you always had and it stopped hurting. I was living my life asleep, but on that day I woke up."