Air patrolmen recall post-9/11 mission
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From 1,000 feet above lower Manhattan, Lt. Col. Warren Ratis looked down on the smoldering rubble and twisted steel of the World Trade Center. The devastation was everywhere and the pain, one day after the nation was rocked by the terrorist attack, still raw.
An airborne photographer in the Civil Air Patrol assigned to document the destruction, Ratis didn't have time to mourn the victims, including 18 former co-workers. He had instructions from the highest reaches of government.
Ratis picked up his camera and began shooting.
Nearly a decade later, he and Lt. Col. Jacques Heinrich, the mission's pilot, are talking publicly for the first time about the aerial mission.
After the attack, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded every commercial and private airline in the country. But the Bush administration and its intelligence agencies didn't know the full extent of the damage.
"They needed a vertical shot," said Ratis, 56, of Lake Grove, who has spent 17 years with the patrol. "They wanted to see the damage from above."
The mission had special significance for Ratis, who worked on the 79th floor of the north tower for 10 years. A systems engineer, he left the job nine months before the attacks. None of his former colleagues made it out alive.
As the Air Force's official auxiliary, the patrol performs search and rescue and training missions, and mentors cadets. Its members are volunteers and are unpaid.
Heinrich, Ratis and Lt. Col. Andrew Feldman, now retired, took off from MacArthur at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 in a Cessna 172. As the single-engine, four-seat plane passed Kennedy Airport, they knew this was no ordinary mission.
"There was not a thing moving on the ground at JFK," Ratis said.
Traffic over the radio, usually a constant chatter, was silent, Heinrich said. With the exception of Air Force fighters patrolling high overhead, the Long Island crew was the only plane in the sky.
The crew finished the job in two hours, snapping about a hundred pictures, but the flight wasn't without a few hiccups. An NYPD helicopter, unaware of the mission, ordered them out of the area -- a decree later overruled by the FAA. Once back on the ground, they were surrounded by FBI agents, who also didn't know about the mission.
The crew's photos were eventually sent to the White House, where they were used to identify parts of the destroyed airliners, Ratis said.
But as the 10-year anniversary approaches, Ratis, now a Customs and Border Protection agent at Kennedy, says he thinks about the attacks frequently. He hopes most Americans will remember, too.
"We forget real fast and move on the next thing," he said.