By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2006 – One result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was the establishment of U.S. Northern Command to deal with threats aimed at the United States, the organization's commander said here today. During an interview at the Pentagon's Radio Day event, Navy Admiral Timothy Keating spoke his personal experiences during the attack and about his command.
Keating, who is also the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, was the Navy's director of operations in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. "I was in the operations update when the news hit of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center," Keating said to Washington Post Radio. "We were quite bewildered. We couldn't understand how a pilot could make such a significant navigational error on a day when the skies were crystal clear blue."
He said he left the update and went to his office and saw the second airplane hit the World Trade Center. Understanding now that it was an attack, Keating made some phone calls and was headed back to the operations center when he felt the Pentagon shake. "Flight 77 came into the west wall right next to the helicopter pad," he said.
The flames and smoke came through the passageways of the Pentagon. Keating said he tried to get to the operations center via another entrance, but it soon became apparent that the Navy Operations Center was one of the areas hit by the plane. "There were 26 young men and women who had given me that ops update just that morning who perished on watch in our command center," he said.
The fact that the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed, were combat zones that day spurred the creation of U.S. Northern Command.
Then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen originally suggested a "homeland defense-type command" in 1998. But it wasn't until the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, that all saw the need for the command. U.S. Northern Command stood up Oct. 1, 2002, and its area of operations includes air, land and sea approaches and covers the continental United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico and the surrounding water out to approximately 500 nautical miles. It also covers the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida.
Keating said the command now plans for the unthinkable. On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of planes were in the air when the four were hijacked. NORAD officials could not scramble military jets fast enough to intercept and possibly shoot down the airliners before they were used as weapons. "To be able to sort through all those normal flights that are being conducted was a tough order for us that morning," Keating said. "We're much better at it today than we were five years ago, and we're much better prepared to handle a situation like that today."