By Muriel J. Smith
SANDY HOOK – They were sailors on Sept. 11, 2001, one an officer heading a reserve unit, one a senior chief, the second highest rank among enlisted sailors in the US Navy. Both now teach naval science at MAST, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology of the Monmouth County Vocational School District, where every one of its close to 300 students is enrolled in the NJROTC program.
He was a World War II veteran who had seen combat in the Philippines with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and now, at 90, lives in Highlands where he has lived for half a century.
All have their own memories, from vastly different viewpoints of that horrible morning 14 years ago when not one but two hijacked passenger airliners crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center and brought them down. As part of the same coordinated attack, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth one headed toward Washington, and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Mike Vaccarella of Matawan was a senior chief stationed at the waterfront side of NWS Earle in Leonardo 14 years ago, attached to staff duty for Commander Combat Logistics Two’s commanding officer, Capt. William Elliot. Vaccarella recalls, “It was a normal morning for that time of year, most of the chiefs had just come back from fitness training and were getting the day rolling. The Command Duty Officer yelled from the breakroom that television photos showed a plane had just crashed into the first tower. Within minutes most of the senior staff was huddled around the TV set and saw the second plane hit the south tower. Many of our senior staff had worked on the TWA flight 800 that crashed off Long Island several years prior. Within minutes, several staff members were headed down the pier to the one ship in-port; she was scheduled to depart for deployment in a few days and they had to make preparations for the ship to get under way and head out to sea.”
Tracie Smith-Yeoman, a Highlands native, and now senior Naval instructor at MAST, was a commander on active duty in command of a Reserve Unit at Fort Dix in 2001 and was at the McGuire Air Force Base dental clinic waiting for an appointment. “One of my sailors called and screamed at me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought he was overreacting – that it was just a small plane that had gotten too close trying to take pictures. We turned on the news on the TV in the waiting room, and once I saw what was happening, I immediately returned to my office on Fort Dix.”
Smith-Yeoman said, “We began a telephone recall of our reservists to ensure everyone was accounted for.” It wasn’t long before her team realized they couldn’t account for Gunners Mate Third Class Thomas Butler, a New York City firefighter in his civilian life. “I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said, “Petty Officer Butler was a member of Squad 1 out of Brooklyn, one of seven squads in FDNY’s Special Operations Command. He was last seen entering the South Tower. He and 11 of his squadmates died, and Petty Officer Butler’s body was never recovered. He left behind a wife and three children, the youngest of who was six months old. I still pray for him and his family every night.”
Tony Bucco, a former councilman in Highlands heard the news and immediately went to the VFW post not far from his home. Sea Streak ferries were bringing in survivors from the blast to their dock at Conners Hotel, and Bucco knew he could help with the dazed and confused civilians that Sea Streak had scooped from the disaster area to take to a safe distance away from Manhattan. He was there to help, Bucco said, but added, “my first thought was where was our defense… how did our enemies get control of our planes? How could this have been allowed to happen?”
That same disbelief was echoed by both Vaccarella and Smith-Yeoman.
Terrorism was not my first thought, she said. “I thought it must have been some sort of mistake – a technical error. I couldn’t, and still can’t, comprehend how someone could target innocent people – men and women just going about their normal day, trying to make a living to support their families. It’s one thing to target enemy combatants and another to target innocent civilians.” Vaccarella asked himself: “How could this happen to the United States, what would be next? What was the likelihood of more planes hitting more intended targets.”
The two Naval instructors teaching at MAST know that while the US Navy does not recruit students to serve through the ROTC program, they also realize many of the students choose to enter one of the military academies or enlist in the service after graduation. Vaccarella has been instructing at MAST for six years and sees a difference in the students he first taught in 2009 and those who are entering MAST as freshman this year. “This year’s freshmen were barely even born at the time of the attack. (It is) unlike Dec. 7, 1941, when the United States was directly and immediately cast into WWII, and so many were affected for so long. Today’s teenagers only know a country at war, yet they do not realize, as those alive during World War II knew, that we are at war, because they are not impacted in the same way or by the same degree. The painful memory of 9/11 for the older generations will remain vividly etched in our minds as was Dec. 7, but will inevitably be a lesson each year with each next generation.”
Bucco says there is no comparison between the sneak attacks of 9/11 and the battles of the war in which he served where “we were fighting against enemies we knew and were prepared to defend ourselves and fight back.”
But all three believe that so long as we as a nation stay vigilant, we will be safe in the future. “Our country needs to build up our military, Army, Navy, Air Force and all other units so we will be prepared to defend our country and preserve freedom for future generations,” they agree.
Vaccarella thinks the possibility of another sneak attack is “moderate” but the system of intelligence gathering and analysis are keys to success in thwarting attacks. “Our nation is more vigilant as a result of 9/11 and “see something, say something” has real meaning to people, especially in the Northeast where they witnessed these horrific events. We will do what it takes to stop another attack, as witnessed recently on a train in France with three United States citizens seeing something and doing something.”
Smith-Yeoman thinks future attacks are “absolutely possible. America must always stand guard, because these fanatics will not go away. We can’t negotiate with them. We can only help to take out their leaders and expose them to the truth – that their twisted idea of religion is not accurate. No God wants innocent people killed in His name.”
All three have special thoughts on the upcoming 14th anniversary of the attacks that rocked a nation. All will be in close proximity to Mount Mitchill in Atlantic Highlands, across the river from MAST and up the hill from Bucco’s home, when Monmouth County holds special memorial services beginning at 8 a.m. Friday morning at the site where hundreds stood in shock 14 years ago watching the towers fall.
Vaccarella said “we should all take a few minutes to remember not only the fallen from that day, but also the thousands of military members who have given their lives to fight with the war on terror to keep us safe at here at home. God Bless the United States of America.”
Bucco echoed those sentiments and reiterated that the country needs to keep a strong defense with a strong military. Smith-Yeoman said she thinks of 9/11 ever y day and says prayers for each victim and ever y family impacted by the disaster. “Sometimes, when it’s a clear day and the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that morning. And sometimes, when I’m out on Sandy Hook and commercial planes are coming in low to fly to the Newark or New York airports, I have a moment of fear. Could it happen again?”
Many towns will hold ceremonies and events to commemorate 9/11 on Friday. Here are a few:
- Monmouth Reform Temple will remember 9/11 through a special visual Shabbat service, Freedom, at 7 p.m. at 322 Hance Ave., Tinton Falls. The entire community is invited to reflect and remember; the contemplative service may not be appropri- ate for children under 13. Services, led by Rabbi Marc Kline, Red Bank, and Cantor Gabrielle Clissod, Manalapan, is part of the temple’s ritual offering, Seeds of Spirituality: A Visual Approach to Prayer.
- A 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony will be held at Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook in Atlantic Highlands at 8 a.m.
- A silent tribute will be paid to Middletown’s residents who died in the World Trade Center tragedy with a wreath-laying at the Middletown WTC Memorial Gardens on at 8:46 a.m.
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