Robins Airman shares 9/11 aftermath account: ‘I had to walk toward the chaos’

  • Published
  • By Kisha Foster Johnson
  • Robins Public Affairs

This day in history is ever present for Master Sgt. Brittany Taliaferro.

Though two decades have passed, the sights and sounds from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York City remain fresh in her mind.

Taliaferro is now the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 413th Flight Test Group Commander’s Support Staff at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. When the 9/11 attacks happened, she was just 15 years old.

“I can still see the cakey-thick smoke and hear the panic of people crying,” she said. “All of the emotions, chaos and trauma of that day haven’t left me. What I was feeling, how I saw others reacting, it was scary.”

The Bronx native was in high school when she experienced her beloved city and its people crumble – physically and emotionally.

“I was at school when the attack happened. I remember teachers telling us we couldn’t go home unless a parent or a family friend came to pick you up,” she recalled. “My parents were at work, and I eventually made contact with my mom. She told me to meet her at First Avenue and 39th Street.”

Taliaferro and her mother both had to walk about 30 minutes to reunite. Taliaferro walked from her school in Manhattan, while her mom trekked from her office building located at Union Square, which was two miles from the World Trade Center.

“The bridges and tunnels were shutdown. No one could come in the city that way,” she said. “I’m walking and going through a large crowd of so many people walking on 56th Street.

“This four-lane road is usually packed with cars. But, on this day, it’s packed with hundreds of people heading away from the city,” she continued. “I’m in my school uniform heading toward the chaos. It was so hot and confusing. This gentleman grabs me. He said, ‘Sweetheart you are walking the wrong way.’ I told him I’ve got to get to my mother.”

Once together, they returned to her mother’s office and watched the news. It was then they learned who caused the chaos they were experiencing.  

On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 members of an Islamic extremist group orchestrated four separate attacks by hijacking commercial airliners in the United States. Both World Trade Center towers were struck by airplanes, along with the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Investigators believe the hijackers were targeting the nation’s capitol, either to strike the U.S. Capitol building or the White House.

Nearly 3,000 victims lost their lives, and many more have died or are suffering from health related issues linked to the toxic aftermath in New York City.

“While listening to news, I also heard people making calls and trying to check on the whereabouts of their family. There was lots of crying and hysteria,” she said. “I remember my mom holding me really tight, telling me we are going to be alright. We were also trying to get in touch with my father who worked in town for a department store. Cell phones weren’t that prevalent back then and the land lines weren’t working great either.”

According to Taliaferro, emergency officials opened the subway for travel uptown only to the Bronx and Yonkers. She said a man in a military uniform guided them and others to the train station.

“Something about him just stood out to me because he was helpful, and that was my first time seeing a person in uniform trying to get people to safety,” she recalled. “We made it to the station, but were stuck there for five hours, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.”

During their wait, they still wondered if her dad was alright.

“My father finally got home that night at 11:39 p.m.,” she said with a tearful and grateful smile.

That brief relief was overshadowed by the painful reality that other parents, sons and daughters, or even couples wouldn’t make it home to their families, Taliaferro noted. She said smoke loomed over the area, now known as Ground Zero, for at least seven months after that infamous day.

There was a mental cloud to bear as well.

“We were out of school for about a month and half. There was no virtual option back then,” she said. “My mom and dad were concerned whether it was safe for my mother to return to work.”

Several years later, after completing two years of college in Virginia, Taliaferro found herself at a crossroads in life.

“This was in 2006 and I felt I wanted to do something else,” she added. “Then my mind flashed back to the first responders on September 11th. I thought to myself, I can give back like them.”

Taliaferro later learned that the men and women navigating pedestrians to the subway on 9/11 were members of the New York Army National Guard.

“I’ve been in the Air Force Reserves 12 years. It’s been great, and I have learned a lot and seen a lot. I’ve come to see and understand the value of what we do as a military force, regardless of branch. We all matter in protecting this country.”