Byrd in Pentagon when struck by terrorists in 2001
GHS grad also speaks at vet’s day program.
Harry Byrd Jr. was in the U.S. Pentagon when a hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001.
The retired U.S. Army sergeant, who now works as a government civilian for the Headquarters Department of the Army, spoke at Gothenburg Public School’s annual Veteran’s Day program last Friday along with 2002 Gothenburg High graduate Heather (Yancy) Fornasier.Fornasier is now a captain in the U.S. Air Force.
Byrd said the experience was unsettling because the country had never experienced an attack on U.S. soil.
“There was a big jolt through the office which was similar to an earthquake but harder,” he told veterans, students, school officials and the public who were gathered in the north gymnasium.
At the time of the attack, Byrd was a non-commissioned officer in charge of administrative personnel for the headquarters department of the Army and other Army departments.
The initial point of impact was the heliport part of the Pentagon.
After telling soldiers to evacuate, Byrd ended up where the nose of the plane had rammed into the building.
There, he heard screaming and saw injured people.
He and others dug into the debris to try and save people despite concern about insulation from the wreckage igniting from leaking jet fuel.
Byrd said he was asked to hook up fire hoses in the building that was now black with smoke.
“I felt my way through and found the water supply and hooked it up,” he said. “If I laid on the floor, I could see more clearly because the smoke arose above the floor.”
Several times Byrd returned to his office to make phone calls and regroup.
At one point, he said he heard people were still missing and knew he needed to try and get them out of the burning building.
Byrd and a colonel found burned bodies in the hole, left by the plane which had its wings sheared off during the crash.
“Seats in the plane were melted off,” he said. “No one was alive, no one could have survived. We didn’t save anyone.”
Later he was told that 12 bodies had been found in the area.
Army Captain Clifford Patterson, who was killed when the plane crashed into the building, was promoted posthumously to major, Byrd said.
While Patterson was still alive, Byrd said the officer didn’t want to sacrifice his family for his career.
“He never went above captain (while he was alive) but he was a heckuva a dad,” Byrd said.
Fornasier recalls 9/11
During her talk, Fornasier said she was a junior at GHS and had just finished a chemistry quiz when teacher Terry McVay turned on the television and students saw smoke bellowing from the World Trade Center Towers.
“The innocence I had before watching the news broadcast is something I so dearly wish I could have preserved,” she said. “But as I watched the situation unfold before my eyes I couldn’t help but feel the disbelief and shock that my country, my United States of America and the safest place I had ever known, was under attack.”
Fornasier said she didn’t grow up wanting to join the military but, because she wanted to attend Doane College, she applied for Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) to help pay for school with scholarships.
Afterwards, when she told her parents, the news caught them off guard.
“My dad was extremely excited, but my mom looked at me like ‘Heather, do you really know what you’re doing?’ ” Fornasier said.
After passing a fitness test, with the help of high school teachers, and a medical physical and interview, Fornasier received a commander’s scholarship which paid up to $15,000 for four years at a Nebraska college.
When she shared the news with some of her male classmates, she said they laughed and told her she wasn’t the military type and wouldn’t make it.
Her first year of college was difficult, she said, as she juggled 18 credit hours, practiced golf and traveled to Lincoln for ROTC training.
At one point, she was ready to quit but talked to her dad who told her she needed to do what felt right.
“At that moment I knew I couldn’t quit on my own. I had worked so hard to get to this point,” Fornasier said.
Fornasier was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and assigned to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia where she was on the Security Forces Squadron as a section commander at age 23.
“I out ranked over 300 military members and was expected to be a leader and make decisions, even though I was leading people who were twice my age and had been in the military for years,” Fornasier said, noting that in corporate America, it’s not often people that young are entrusted with such responsibility. “That’s something that is unique to the military.”
A year later, in 2009, Fornasier was sent to Qatar, a small country on the border of Saudi Arabia.
There, she worked with the Qataris to process all the generals and world leaders when they flew into Qatar.
Hard work, brutal heat
Her schedule was gruesome, she said, as she worked 24/7 and grabbed sleep when she could.
Temperatures rose above 125 degrees and the air felt like the gust of hot air that escapes when opening an oven but it was everywhere and “you couldn’t close the oven,” she said.
Fornasier was promoted to 1st lieutenant and, despite the heat and having to wear heavy military clothing, the deployment was the best time she has experienced so far.
“It was hard being away from home but it was so fulfilling for me to see first hand what we were doing in the Middle East and feel like I was a part of the fight,” Fornasier said.
Last October, she was assigned to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha where she is executive officer for the Mission Support Group commander and responsible for 1,600 personnel and the support of more than 46,000 active duty and retired military and their families.
Fornasier was recently promoted to captain.
Deployed to Monrovia next
Next month, Fornasier will be deployed to Monrovia, Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, where she’ll work with the Marines, Navy and Army to train the Liberian Ministry of Defense.
Fornasier said she hopes students realize that each one of them has a unique talent that will be valuable to society.
“Whether you decide to join the work force, go to college or join the military, each of you has unlimited potential,” she said. “As you continue to grow and figure out what you want out of life, don’t ever lose sight of how great you really are.”
Despite challenging obstacles, Fornasier said the greatest accomplishments in life are usually realized after hard work and determination.
“ Always remember to believe in yourself and realize that whatever you put your mind to, you can accomplish, as long as you are willing to work incredibly hard for it,” she said. “Be true to yourself and follow your dreams.”
Fornasier ended her talk by asking the audience to respect the American flag and the national anthem and think about what they mean.
“I can’t see the flag or hear the national anthem without getting goose-bumps...I know the sacrifices that were made to keep this country free. I know people lost their lives and are still losing their lives today to keep that symbol of freedom flying high.”