Remembering the day the planes fell from the sky

  • Published
  • By Ashley Snipes
  • 916th Air Refueling Wing

Every generation has their “where were you when” moment. The significance of the “where were you when” moment isn’t immediately felt, but hours, days, weeks or months later, the gravity of the moment becomes apparent when the discussion about returning to normal turns to a discussion about the new normal. For a few members of the 916th Air Refueling Wing, the trajectory of their military career changed the day two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, N.Y. 

Master Sgt. Riccardo Bonicelli, NCOIC 916 Mission Planning Cell Current Operations and a KC-46A in-flight refueler, was a KC-135R crew chief with the 916th on September 11, 2001.

As maintainers were preparing to head to the flightline to begin their day, the towers were struck. They happened to see the first plane hit the tower and were confused by the aviation incident. When the second plane hit, they knew it wasn’t an accident.  

“I remember someone saying we were under attack,” recalled Bonicelli. “Well, we were under attack, but it wasn’t like conventional forces, it was terrorism… but at that time, the mindset wasn’t that it was even a thing.”

He and his fellow Airmen continued to the flightline but were soon pulled and sent into a non-descript cinder block building where they hunkered down.

“Adrian Darby was my supervisor. He was in charge of all the crew chiefs. He looked around the room – there were probably about 35 or 45 of us in there – and anyone that had been in the Army or the Marine Corps he pointed at and said, ‘I need you guys to go outside and do a sweep of the area and look for anything out of the ordinary.’”

Bonicelli, a former Marine Corps infantryman, door gunner, and jet mechanic spent the day doing foot patrols with other prior service Airmen, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

At the end of the day, the domino effect of reactions the day’s events had created became clearer. Where base access was relatively open, and security forces Airmen only needed to see a Department of Defense decal on a vehicle, now traffic control barriers were in place, ID checks were required, and random vehicles were pulled to the side for secondary searches.

“When we came to work the next day, it took about two and half or three hours to get on base,” added Bonicelli.

Master Sgt. Marvin F. Davis, 916th ARW wing staff agencies unit deployment manager was in the United States Navy stationed aboard the USS Saipan in Portsmouth V.A. at that time. Although he was in a different service, in a different state, serving a different mission, the events from September 11 and the following days echoed Bonicelli’s experiences.

“Our ship had gone through a few things, and we were in the shipyards to get a lot of stuff fixed,” remembered Davis. “I peeked my head into the execs office to watch sports or something and that’s when I saw the planes…and I kept seeing the planes.”

Davis ran out to tell his superiors what he saw and they all gathered around the television to see what was going on. Like Bonicelli, Davis couldn’t make sense of the first aircraft gliding into the skyscraper.

 “At first I didn’t know what to think, you know? I thought it was just planes wrecking,” said Davis. “And after the second one hit, I was like, that looked pretty intentional.”

The Raeford, N.C. native admitted the events scared him.

“I had never gone through anything like that. Never saw anything like that. Never expected anything like that,” said Davis. “To see that was mind blowing. I didn’t think people could be so heartless.”

After watching the same news footage of the carnage on repeat, Davis understood there wouldn’t be a return to the normal he had once known. The magnitude hit home when he saw then President George W. Bush address the nation about the attacks

“He was talking and his lips were trembling,” remembered Davis. “I knew if he was willing to cry… I knew it was already serious, but I was like, yeah we’re about to go to war.”

In the days and weeks following the September 11 attacks, each man knew their deployment was coming.

Bonicelli deployed within a week of the attacks to a base in southern France where the initial 60-day orders gradually turned into a year.

Davis’ ship was delayed for repairs, but three months later it was released and the sailors started their deployment training in advance of sailing to the Persian Gulf. Although the deployment was expected, it was atypical and lasted eight to nine months instead of six to seven.

Bonicelli, a New Yorker at heart, visited the city after he returned. The city he grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s, was known to be loud and not very friendly.

“New York City is very resilient. They kind of take things on the chin and dare you for more,” boasted Bonicelli. “But the city was quiet after 9/11… everything was just a pile of rubble.”

From the day of the tragedy through the next year, each man also shared the same sentiments about how close everyone felt: how friends bonded together like family. And how the wave of patriotism brought the whole country together.

“Prior to 9/11, people weren’t always so keen on military. After? You couldn’t buy your own lunch out in town because someone would pay the bill for you,” said Bonicelli.

In the years that followed, the new normal became increased airport security, locked doors, a tighter grip on your child’s hand, and having to explain to the younger generation what it meant when two airplanes crashed into the twin towers, an airplane went down in rural Pennsylvania, and an aircraft slammed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

“My son was born the year after and when we finally did get the chance to sit down and talk about it, all he ever asked was why. Why would somebody do that? Why would they fly planes into the buildings? He just couldn’t wrap his head around it,” said Davis. “When Osama Bin Laden was killed, that was when I could make sense for him.”

These questions lead to tough answers that parents sometimes can’t answer, but try anyways. Ultimately, the “why” remains on the periphery associated with the “where were you when” moment. Previous generations asked why Pearl Harbor was bombed, why JFK was shot, why a wall was built in Berlin. And this generation will always ask why those airplanes flew into those buildings.