By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2006 – Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers was visiting senators on Capitol Hill Sept. 11, 2001, when he first heard of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. The first reports called the strike a probable accident by a small plane, so Myers, now retired, went on with his appointments.
Myers was serving at the time as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was visiting senators in anticipation of his confirmation hearings as chairman.
Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on his way to NATO meetings in Europe on September 11, so Myers was acting chairman in his absence.
He was visiting with Georgia Sen. Max Cleland when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. "I was called out by Gen. (Ralph) Eberhart (the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command) and my executive assistant," he said.
Myers immediately got into his car and rushed back to the Pentagon. "Before we even got to the 14th Street Bridge, the Pentagon was hit," he said. "The scene coming across the bridge was the Pentagon with black smoke rolling out of it. It was like a very bad movie."
As he pulled up to the building he needed to get to a command and control point. "I asked if the National Military Command Center was up and running," he said. "They said it was so that's where I headed."
As he was moving in, thousands of Pentagon workers were evacuating the building. "We were like fish trying to swim upstream," Myers said.
He arrived at the command center and was joined there about 15 minutes later by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had been out helping triage wounded employees in the central courtyard of the building.
"In general, we were calm, but what was going through my mind was, 'What's next?'" Myers said. "We had the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and it wasn't too long after that that we heard of the crash in Pennsylvania. So the question in my mind was, 'Was this part of a larger operation?'"
The decision had been made to land all aircraft in U.S. airspace. "We were trying to think ahead about what was next, trying to prepare for anything," Myers said. "We knew very early ... that it was al Qaeda. So we knew who the threat was, now (the question was) how do we respond to this attack on United States soil."
Myers said the events of Sept. 11 defined his time as chairman. "The big lesson from 9/11 for me ... is the threat from violent extremism is a very serious threat," he said. "I say it is the most dangerous threat to our way of life since the Civil War. The power of September 11 on our economy and our psyche ... worldwide was terrific. The fear it generated causes us to think illogically."
Myers said there's one lesson all Americans need to remember from September 11. "We really are at war with a serious enemy," he said. "(That enemy) declared war on us and wants to do away with our way of life."
Life will never be the way it was before September 11, 2001, he said. "There are forces out there that want to do away with our way of life," Myers said. "If they could perpetrate an act bigger than 9/11, they would."