Thursday, September 8, 2011

Remembering 9/11: Chief Musician Leon Alexander and Senior Chief Musician Karl Hovey

Chief Musician Leon Alexander: During 9/11 I was stationed at the Armed Forces School of Music. I was percussion branch head during this period and it just so happened I was on auxiliary security force duty that day. After the attacks, I did a 24-hour duty guarding the base, locked and loaded with an M-16 on my shoulder. I spent about four hours that day on a security boat riding around the moored Navy ships making sure all was secure. The rest of that evening I was assigned at the gate standing on a Humvee behind a loaded machine gun pointed at every vehicle that came through the gate. I ended up being away from my musical and instructor duties for a month.

Alexander is the leader of the Cruisers popular music ensemble.

Senior Chief Musician Karl Hovey: Sept. 11, 2001 was a day my family had looked forward to with excitement and a little uneasiness. For the first time in their lives, our children would be away from us, sent to a half-day pre-school one block from our home. After some initial nervousness, the kids jumped into their new environment, and my wife went home to relax in the peace and quiet. She did something she hadn’t done in years: sat down with a cup of coffee and turned on the television.

Almost immediately her show was interrupted for the news of the tragedy unfolding in New York. She was glued to the set until she received the news about another plane hitting the Pentagon. Fear for the safety of her children hit her for the first time, and she made a dash for the pre-school. The school’s administration was aware of the horrific events, and made a wise decision to not release any of the children. Many of the children’s parents were military members and/or worked at the Pentagon, so until all the parents were contacted, no one was released. Tragically, one of the parents of a small child died in the Pentagon conflagration.

My wife couldn’t get to her kids, and she couldn’t reach me on the phone. But she realized that one of our neighbor’s husbands worked at the Pentagon. She went to the neighbor’s house (their TV and radio were off) and had to tell her good friend Kim that the building where her husband worked had been struck by an airplane. Kim immediately dialed her husband’s phone at his desk and got no answer. Her face glazed over as the reality of the situation sank in.

Kim’s husband Dave had been working at his desk in the Pentagon. The news from New York had spread instantly throughout the building. Dave was to attend a previously scheduled meeting, and decided he needed a little air to try to get a grip on his feelings beforehand. He and his immediate supervisor walked to the center of the facility (the area unfortunately named Ground Zero) when a huge explosion nearly knocked him down. He saw a huge fireball flow over the top of the building from the direction of his office. The two men tried to get back into the building, but the destruction and flames made it impossible.

Every other worker in his office died.

Dave wasn’t the same for quite some time afterwards. He spent nearly a month not seeing anyone, not going to work, trying hard not to think or feel at all. The first time I saw him was one month later at the memorial service for the relatives of those killed. Performing while sitting within arm’s reach of families whose lives had been ripped apart was the most difficult playing I have ever had to do.

One of my collateral duties on 9/11 was as an administrative assistant. It was my job to access and process the Navy’s flash message traffic system, a way the Navy can instantly communicate with any command anywhere in the world. I was in rehearsal at the moment the twin towers were hit, and I immediately went into the admin office and accessed flash messages. Most of what came in merely confirmed what I knew and contained instructions regarding an instant heightened state of alert. But there was also a message that sent a chill through my heart. There was a fourth plane under foreign control, inbound towards Washington, D.C., with an estimated time of arrival of 20 minutes. There was very little I could do. I couldn’t contact my wife as the phones were out, I couldn’t just spread the word amongst my shipmates… all I could do, as I watched the smoke from the Pentagon rise into what had been a beautiful sky, was report the message to my commanding officer.

I had never felt so helpless and alone.

Fortunately there were heroes aboard United Flight 93. They were the epitome of the American spirit, giving their lives in defense of the freedoms we so often take for granted. Without their noble sacrifice the horror that was Sept. 11, 2001 would have been much worse.

Hovey plays tuba in the Concert Band.

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