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One Hero's Fight On Two Fronts-Abroad and Within
By NATE SELF A TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2008 Nathan E. Self
All right reserved.
That's what it takes to be a hero, a little gem of innocence inside you that makes you want to believe that there still exists a right and wrong, that decency will somehow triumph in the end. :: LISE HAND
FEBRUARY 14, 1993 CHINA SPRING, TEXAS
I was eager for church to conclude so I could grab lunch and run a few errands. I still needed to buy a Valentine's Day gift and card for my new girlfriend, Julie Wenzel. We had been dating for a couple of months. She was a year younger at age fifteen-a skinny blonde as tall as me, with a captivating presence and sparkling blue gray eyes as inviting as a dip in the pool. We had planned an early dinner for Valentine's, and I looked forward to seeing her as soon as I could.
The pastor closed with a benediction, and I bolted to my baby blue '65 Chevy pickup in the back of the gravel parking lot. I loved shifting through that three-speed-in-the-floor V8 305 engine with the Eagles in the tape deck, and on the way home I imagined Julie sitting next to me with the gears at her feet, holding my arm through the bends in the road to keep herself from sliding across the vinyl bench seat.
Stop signs were optional alongthe empty country roads to our house in China Spring, Texas-population fifteen hundred. As I pulled into our gravel driveway at home, I stopped to pick up yesterday's mail, which included the normal bevy of postcards and mailers from universities wooing high school juniors like me. A heavy, full-color catalog was wrapped around it all, a catalog that I had ordered from the most intriguing school on my list: West Point.
I went inside to the table with my sister and parents. But I had trouble paying attention to them as I thumbed through the literature.
"You seem to be into that," my mother said.
"Did you see this place?" I asked. I turned the catalog around for her to see the cover photo of massive gray granite buildings in front of an emerald parade field.
"Looks like a pretty place," she said. "Is that a school?"
"Well, yeah, it's a school, but in the military," I said. "West Point. It's the college for the Army."
"I thought you said you weren't interested in the Army."
"I said I wasn't interested in joining the Army through a recruiter. This is different."
"Whatever happened to being an eye doctor?" she asked. I didn't reply, continuing to flip through the pages.
"I'm fine with you dressing up and playing army as a kid, but not as a man."
"What's wrong with the military?" I asked.
"I just don't like it," she said. "You could get hurt."
"Being in the Army doesn't mean someone's shooting at you. They have doctors, too," I said. "Think about how much money it takes to get through medical school and set up a practice."
"Well, some things aren't worth the money," she said.
"Momma, I'm just looking into it. The Army seems like a boring life, anyway."
I left the table, went to my room, and placed the West Point catalog on my dresser. Growing up during the cold war, I really had seen the Army as boring. But what interested me about West Point wasn't the free education, or the free ticket to becoming a doctor, or even really the Army. West Point drew me in a romantic sort of way.
Maybe part of me wanted to try something I wasn't sure I could do. Maybe part of me wanted to be a part of that history, to walk the same path as Eisenhower and Bradley and so many others. Maybe part of me wanted to find out why I felt connected to the men in that tattered black book, why my chest got hot when I read their story.
FEBRUARY 26, 1993 NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Six months ago, Ramzi Yousef departed a mujahideen training camp in eastern Afghanistan en route to New York City. He had devised a plot to attack the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan-to strike at the roots of one of the Twin Towers, to send one weakened tower crashing into the other, to kill 250,000 Americans in one day. At last, that day had come.
Airborne snowflakes drifted under the shadows of the towers as Yousef slithered away-down Church Street or Liberty Street, or maybe somewhere to the east. Perhaps he took the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River to his New Jersey home. Perhaps he crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to the Al-Farooq Mosque two miles away, where mujahideen leaders had raised funds and recruited jihadists in cooperation with the CIA over the past decade. Perhaps he drove to the airport to leave the United States. His direction of travel was less important than where he had been and what he had left behind, parked two levels below grade of the World Trade Center in garage B2: a yellow Ryder Econoline van filled with fifteen hundred pounds of urea nitrate explosives, built and fused by men trained for war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Across Liberty Street from the World Trade Center, two companies of New York firefighters prepared lunch in a discreet gray brick firehouse known as Ten House. This red-doored corner garage held the men of Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10-men who were responsible for Lower Manhattan's Twin Towers, men whose logo emblem depicted a caricatured firefighter standing atop the Twin Towers engulfed in flames. These men came to work at Ten House knowing they were always "a ladder rung from death" as they protected the epicenter of the world's financial markets, the symbol of American economic strength.
At eighteen minutes past noon, the men at Ten House felt a rumble as the yellow Ryder van exploded in the belly of the World Trade Center. The blast jawed a crater through seven foundational layers. The firefighters rushed into the street, where thick black smoke pumped into the frigid winter air from the tower's crumpled basement garage doors.
The blast cut electrical power in the complex, leaving more than fifty thousand people in the dark, in suspended elevator cars, and in crowded stairwells as smoke billowed inside the towers, now 110-story chimneys.
The men of Ten House were the first to the scene, and they performed heroically in the basement of the complex, sawing through doors and picking through flames and rubble to reach people trapped, dead and alive, in the bomb crater. Over the next several hours, more than 45 percent of the city's firefighters joined Ten House to evacuate both towers. It was the largest incident in the department's 128-year history.
Six Americans died in the attack, and more than a thousand were injured. But despite the relatively low number of casualties-the bombers intended to kill a quarter-million people that day-all was not well. One survivor's description of the bomb blast would seem eerily prophetic eight and a half years later: "It felt like an airplane hit the building."
Excerpted from TWO WARS by NATE SELF Copyright © 2008 by Nathan E. Self. Excerpted by permission.
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