Local pilot recounts experience on 9/11

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Gracy: ‘We mourned, and we flew our flag together as a nation’

On Sept. 11, 2001, the entire nation morned the death of nearly 3,000 people during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and the Pentagon.

The United States of America stood together as the tragedy that unfolded hit over and over again, and each state sent crews and supplies to assist those in need.

Gas stations were packed and running low on supplies, grocery stores were full of people preparing for the worst, and flights were grounded for days to try and make sense of the events and keep the nation as safe as possible.

What was it like to be on an airplane that day? What was going through the minds of pilots across the nation?

Bill Gracy, retired Southwest pilot who lives in Barry County, started Sept. 11, 2001, flying out of Chicago’s Midway Airport, landing in Omaha, Neb., for a 30-minute layover.

“We were scheduled to head to Las Vegas and Salt lake City after that,” he said. “When we landed in Omaha, we had tried to get clearance and do weather checks, but we were denied clearance.”

Gracy said at that time, he knew something was wrong.

“This was such an in-your-face, violent and destructive attack on the entire nation,” he said. “There was no doubt about who was responsible for this.”

Gracy said he and his wife lived in the middle east for three years after he had gotten out of the Air Force.

“Even though where we were at was fairly conducive to having other people in their country, because we were training their pilots in the military, my wife had a completely different picture of the situation,” he said. “The way she was treated there was completely different than how a man gets treated.”

Gracy said he got word after they returned to the U.S., they wanted him back.

“Without missing a beat my wife said, ‘We’ll miss you,’” he said. “The attack itself was gut-wrenching, maddening and sent waves of anger through your body.”

Gracy said there are still so many questions about the events that are unanswered, even 18 years afterward.

“It is pushing two decades now, and we still don’t know a lot of the answers,” he said. “When we got into the gate, I was the first officer at the time and tried to get clearance.

“The gate agents came to the cockpit and told the captain that he needed to go see something. He left and came back up and told us we all needed to go see what’s going on.”

Gracy said that is when he was able to go down and personally see what was happening.

“At the time, I was there watching this unravel when the Pentagon was hit,” he said. “The World Trade Center had already been hit. Watching it in real time just enrages you.”

Gracy said obviously, safety was paramount, and nobody at that time truly knew the depth of the attack.

“We didn’t know what was going to be hit next or at what magnitude,” he said.

Gracy said as an adult, people have jobs they are supposed to do and families to take care of.

“When an attack like this hits, you feel totally powerless to do anything but watch television and see how much worse it is going to get,” he said. “You can’t help your family, and in my case, I was several hundreds of miles away from my family.”

Gracy said no airplanes moved for a few days, so he and other crew members were stranded in Omaha for three days.

“Passengers, therefore, couldn’t fly out, but they were able to leave and rent a car or something,” he said. “We as a crew were taken to a hotel, and that is where we stayed, watching what was going on and waiting for word about when we could leave and where we were going. We were all just waiting to see what the nation’s response to this attack was going to be.”

Gracy said getting back in the air for the first time after the attack was a strange feeling.

“It wasn’t a fear of flying and landing, but rather, wondering if any of our passengers had hate in their heart for us and were planning to do something,” he said. “The passengers were, of course, screened more heavily, and strangely, the pilots were more heavily screened, as well.”

Gracy said he wondered why they would think that he or other crew members could be a threat.

“But, everyone was,” he said. “At that time, anybody on an airplane could be considered a threat. The rates of flyers dropped significantly. If people could drive somewhere, they were going to drive.”

Gracy said everyone was thinking that a plane they were on could be hijacked and used as a weapon.

“If you didn’t think that, you should have been,” he said.

Gracy said he retired in November 2012, and he did become a captain.

“A big difference in flying in the years following the attack was security measures,” he said. “That was a part of the world now, and we had to live with it. For an attack that was that massive, it was strange to see people just bouncing right back as it were, but that should not have been the natural response.”

Gracy said people were wanting to make light of the situation in order to calm themselves down.

“Passengers would get on the plane and say the most ridiculous stuff,” he said. “[They said things like], ‘Are we going to crash today?’ [and laugh], and you never know why they are saying things like that.”

Gracy said crews were on alert every day, on every flight, looking for things that were different or out of the ordinary.

“We had different procedures on how crew was allowed into the cockpit and that sort of thing,” he said. “We tried to minimize the public access to the front.”

Gracy said it was heartbreaking to see places disrespect the U.S. Flag and say things like the country deserved what happened.

“Something so tragic happened, and that should not be wished on anybody, but we as a nation stood together after that,” he said. “We mourned, and we flew our flag together as a nation.”

Gracy said that is what it takes to survive anything.

“It doesn’t matter if it is a tragic car accident where one person died, those are the kinds of thing we do to stand as one,” he said. “Sept. 11, 2001, was the massive scale of that kind of tragedy.”

Gracy said he was happy that the nation was able to fairly quickly figure out who initiated that attack.

“There were red flags everywhere prior to the event,” he said. “We heard of stories where a man wanted to learn to fly but not to land. But, nobody said anything about them.

“I hope over the years that we don’t become so complacent that this could happen again.”

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