‘We have the watch’: Stories from inside NORAD on 9/11

Here is how the attacks are remembered by U.S. military personnel who worked at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station or with the North American Aerospace Defense Command

By: - Wednesday September 8, 2021 5:00 am

‘We have the watch’: Stories from inside NORAD on 9/11

Here is how the attacks are remembered by U.S. military personnel who worked at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station or with the North American Aerospace Defense Command

By: - 5:00 am

American and Canadian members, working in the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s center inside of Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, keep an eye on the sky looking for threats aimed at North America. (MSGT Val Gempis/Image from January 1996 issue of Airman Magazine/Public domain)

American and Canadian members, working in the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s center inside of Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, keep an eye on the sky looking for threats aimed at North America. (MSGT Val Gempis/Image from January 1996 issue of Airman Magazine/Public domain)

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supervised the excavation of Cheyenne Mountain, a peak pimpled with rocky outcrops and shaded by evergreen trees southwest of Colorado Springs. They pulled out the mountain’s innards and paved over the gravelly cavern, dividing the space into high-tech offices for U.S. military personnel.

The project — creating a hardened, protected command and control center that could withstand direct attacks — was a response to threats of long-range Soviet missiles. By 1966, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station was fully operational as the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Combat Operations Center.

These were the chambers where decisions would be made if an attack came to North American soil.

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But for nearly 40 years, no major attacks came. The Cold War faded, the turn of the century came and went, and NORAD began to downsize its alert bases — outposts around the nation that collected and reported information to the combat operations center. NORAD’s remaining sensors were all pointed outwards, focused on intercepting threats from across the oceans. No one anticipated an attack would come from the inside. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men associated with the Afghanistan-based terrorist group al-Qaida hijacked four commercial airplanes, flying two into the World Trade Center of New York, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and another into a Pennsylvania field. According to “The 9/11 Commission Report,” then-President George Bush called the vice president after the Pentagon was hit, but before the crash in Pennsylvania: “We’re at war,” he said. “Somebody’s going to pay.” 

We’re at war ... Somebody’s going to pay.

– President George W. Bush

What ensued was a scramble for information and a call to action. While military personnel launched a mission for retribution and reconstruction that stretched into 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, NORAD redesigned the defense plan for North America. But across the globe, countless lives have been and continue to be affected by events unfolding after 9/11. In Colorado, the presence of U.S. military installations grew, as did the importance of NORAD and its eventual operations mate, U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), established in 2002 — together now known as “the epicenter of Homeland Defense.” 

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we asked those who during the attack were serving in the U.S. military and working with NORAD or at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station to share their stories.

Senior Airman Ricardo Collie, a 721st Security Forces member, patrols the north gate of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex at the then-Cheyenne Air Force Station, now known as the Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station, in Colorado. (Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/U.S. Air Force photo/Public domain)

Steven Armstrong was NORAD’s chief of plans and forces. He is now vice director of NORAD Operations and chief of NORAD Strategic Engagements.

We were in Cheyenne Mountain that morning actually doing an exercise. Vigilant Guardian was the name of the exercise back then, where it’s basically an escalation of Russian activities and U.S. activities that ultimately results in a nuclear exchange — we would do that exercise every year. 

Tanya Hurwitz was a captain. She now serves in the U.S. military personnel exchange program, reporting for duty as a lieutenant colonel to the Royal Australian Air Force in Canberra, Australia.

I had been on the midnight shift participating in an upgrade training. After going through all our normal procedures that were assigned to us, and it looked like things were going to be quiet, my instructor sent me home around 2 a.m. 

Steven Armstrong: Each day of the exercise, I’d come in and do a handoff with the guy that was on the night shift, and he’d basically say, “Hey, here’s what we’ve done over the night shift, and here’s where we’re at with acquiring additional forces, and how we’re going to posture those forces, and how we were going to respond to any potential inputs into the exercise scenario.” So we did our handoff. It was early in the morning out here, and I started working the exercise issues of the day. Then we got word via CNN — literally CNN is where we were drawing all of our information, at least initially. We were getting indications that there was something going significantly wrong in the national airspace system.

Tanya Hurwitz: I lived by myself and went to bed. I think I woke up at like 6 in the morning, and at the time I had a TV in my bedroom, so I turned on the TV to check the news … I was keeping it low, I was trying to go back to sleep again, because I was supposed to go back to the Mountain for another shift that night. I was watching the “Today” show and then I saw it happen live on TV, just like 99% of Americans who were watching TV at the time. 

Tanya Hurwitz circa 1997. (Courtesy of Tanya Hurwitz)

James Austin was a second lieutenant. Now a lieutenant colonel, he serves on Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, as Branch Chief for Theater Integration for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa. His remarks came via email.

I rode the bus into the mountain that morning and overheard a couple of folks talking about a plane flying into a building in New York City. In my mind, I imagined a fogged-in New York and a small Cessna aircraft stuck in a building 50-60 stories up. As I walked into my office I asked if anyone had heard about a plane flying into the World Trade Center and my entire work center looked back and said, “You just missed the second one flying in real time.”

John Nerwinski was an airman first class. As a major, he now serves at Schriever Space Force Base near Colorado Springs. 

I was in the space analysis center looking up at the TV. At those times, the TVs sat on something mounted to the wall, because TVs were still boxes back then, and I remember seeing the towers. I think they were both standing at that time, just kind of burning there. We knew it was going to mean something big for the military, not exactly sure what that would mean, but we definitely knew it’s gonna be something big. 

Victor Cordero was a senior airman. Now, a chief master sergeant at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling outside Washington, D.C, he manages the U.S. Air Force’s cyberspace support career field.  

That day, I was not supposed to work. It was my day off. And I remember my family was like, “Look at the TV! Look at the TV!” And I’m just waking up, I’m looking at the TV, and it was just surreal … I thought I was watching a movie. Like in my mind, I was like, is this a movie? I had to check down on the lower screen to make sure it was a news outlet. 

Victor Cordero, seen here at left at the entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in the early 2000s, was a senior airman. He now serves the U.S. Air Force as a chief master sergeant at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling outside Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Victor Cordero)

Jonathan Kelley was an airman deployed to Saudi Arabia from Colorado. He now serves the U.S. Air Force as a senior master sergeant at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. 

I was in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, in Eskan Village. I was getting prepared for one of our final meetings before we were supposed to leave for our return back to Colorado. I had my bags packed. And I remember looking at somebody’s TV, thinking it was like an action movie, like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” Then someone says, “Hey, this is real life.” And you’re like, “No way, you’re pulling my leg.” And he’s like, “No, this is actually happening.” So you’re just watching this, like, “Wow, never in a million years did you ever think something like that would actually happen.”

Thomas Cucchi was a flight commander providing air defense as directed by NORAD for the southeastern United States. Now, as a major general, he serves as mobilization assistant to the NORAD commander.

I was down in Miami waiting to do a flight when I got a call from the detachment down at Homestead Air Force Base. They were asking me where I was. “Obviously,” they said, “you saw the airplanes go into the World Trade Center.” And so they asked me to get down to Homestead as quickly as I could, they said that this was not over yet. And so I got into my car and during that hour drive, both of those buildings collapsed.

Victor Cordero: All of a sudden I hear the news anchor on TV saying, “Breaking news, there’s another plane that’s hitting the Pentagon.” And then, “There’s another plane we haven’t identified in Pennsylvania.” So I was just thinking, “What is going on? Is Colorado Springs next? Are we being impacted by this?” At that point I started thinking, from my training, that this is an orchestrated attack. We don’t know who’s coming or anything. And then even without receiving a phone call, I started getting ready.

So I was just thinking, 'What is going on? Is Colorado Springs next?'

– Chief Master Sgt. Victor Cordero

Steven Armstrong: As we saw that second aircraft hit the tower, that’s when we kind of got over the numbness of watching the events. Basically we had to start thinking about how we were going to defend the air space. 

James Austin: At that moment, I knew we were under attack, but I was not sure from who or what else to expect. I went to my squadron and group leadership and started preparing to stand up the Crisis Action Team area where key leadership would gather to analyze and decide what actions were required to take. 

The tunnel entrance to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex as seen in 1999. (U.S. National Archives/Public domain)

The last time a hijacking had required coordination between military management and the Federal Aviation Administration had been in 1993. The FAA regulates the safety and security of civil aviation (commercial and personal airplanes and flight schedules). In 2001, the organization wasn’t equipped with direct communication channels to the U.S. military — if it needed assistance it first had to work through a long chain of command. Also, the FAA’s decentralized structure at the time segregated information by region that had to be manually disseminated. 

“On the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen,” states the “9/11 Commision Report.” As a result, NORAD had about 9 minutes of advance notice on the first hijacked plane, and no advance notice on the following three planes.

In New York, One World Trade Center was hit at 8:46 a.m. (6:46 a.m. in Colorado Springs). Two World Trade Center was hit at 9:03 a.m. Eastern time. The first collapsed at 10:28 a.m., the second at 9:59 a.m. All 157 people aboard the two planes perished, along with more than 2,700 people in New York City. 

Hijackers en route to the Pentagon hit the building at 9:37 a.m. Eastern time, killing 59 aboard the airplane and 125 military and civilian personnel inside the building.

In Pennsylvania, the plane’s passengers interfered with the hijackers’ mission and forced the plane to crash into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m. All 44 people on board died.

Thomas Cucchi on Sept. 11, 2001, was a flight commander providing air defense as directed by NORAD for the southeastern United States. Now, as a major general, he serves as mobilization assistant to the NORAD commander. (U.S. Air Force)

Thomas Cucchi: All of NORAD’s sensors basically looked (outward); we never thought a threat would come from the inside. We always thought we’d have enough time to react because we thought the hijack attempt would come from overseas to the U.S., not necessarily starting from, in this case, Boston, Newark, and Washington. 

Steven Armstrong: We tried to reach out to the FAA, but as you can imagine, they were significantly busy trying to figure out exactly what was going on as well, given the fact that they had other indications that other aircrafts may have been hijacked or maybe missing in the airspace. We immediately started trying to figure out how to get additional forces, not for the exercise, but for the real world. Within a matter of hours, we had a couple hundred fighters available at our disposal to be able to put in air patrols up above the United States. And we started coordinating with the FAA to be able to get all the other air traffic down that was still flying. It took us literally hours to get all those civilian aircraft on the ground so that we could sanitize the airspace to be able to figure out if there were any bad guys still flying. 

Thomas Cucchi: When I got to Homestead Air Force base, they basically said, “Suit up. You’re going to go fly, because we don’t know if it’s over or not. So I got my uniform flak gear on and about an hour later, around noon, I was airborne with another wingman, going up and down from Orlando to Miami, waiting for something else to happen. The FAA had grounded all air traffic in the U.S. It was eerie in the fact that I had flown no-fly enforcement zones in Iraq, and no airplanes were airborne after the first Desert Storm, so it was like flying over there, except everything was green in Florida. 

James Austin: The Department of Defense instructed all bases to increase to force protection condition delta (reserved for “attack imminent” or “actual attack occurring”) — that was a trigger for me to report to the 721st Security Forces Squadron and begin my role as a security forces augmentee. My duty was to guard part of the perimeter of Cheyenne Mountain. From there I heard multiple fighter aircraft buzzing across the sky as the Air Force scrambled military jets and instructed all commercial aircraft to land.

Victor Cordero: I kissed my wife, kissed my son who was about a year and a half at that point — he was playing right in front of the TV while I was looking at this, and I was just numb at that point. I got all my equipment. I worked law enforcement and security at Cheyenne Mountain, so I got my gear, my belt, any other protective equipment that I needed. And I took my “A bag,” which is a green bag that we have to take for any contingency responses, because we didn’t know when we’d be going back home. 

Jonathan Kelley was an airman deployed to Saudi Arabia from Colorado. He now serves the U.S. Air Force as a senior master sergeant at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.  (Courtesy of Jonathan Kelley)

Jonathan Kelley: The communication between our home unit (in Colorado) and our base (in Saudi Arabia) was limited, if you will, because at that point in time, it was just a lot of unknowns and we were taking things hourly. As the information would come through, our leadership personnel would make decisions, and so we stood by and waited for what our next direction was. 

Steven Armstrong: At the operational and strategic level, we were trying to get additional forces from the other services and additional capability and capacity. But I remember even after the aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania, we had indications that there were one or two more aircraft that were likely out there, which we were going to have to try and find. 

Victor Cordero: We were living at Peterson Air Force Base in base housing. You could just see everybody from base housing moving with a sense of urgency. They had a quick step and you could see everybody outside going somewhere or doing something in response to those events that were occurring at that point. As I depart, or I try to depart, Peterson Air Force Base, there was a large amount of traffic going in and out. Force protection level measures were applied on Peterson Air Force Base so it took me a while to just get out of the base. 

John Nerwinski: Coming up onto NORAD Road, it’s windy and it’s wooded off to the sides. Back then anyway, and probably still to this day, sometimes you’d have to stop because there’d be like a flock of turkeys walking across the road. 

Tanya Hurwitz: The entrance that they show in the TV show and movie “Stargate” — the entrance to the hidden place, where they have the star gate, where they can travel through wormholes to other worlds — the entrance that they show on TV is the actual entrance to Cheyenne Mountain.

Victor Cordero: I saw a line of cars as we got closer to the entrance. They checked my vehicle, did a search, and then I went up and I started getting ready, putting on the helmet, the body vest, and instead of just carrying one weapon, we had two weapons, a long rifle and a small arms. 

People arrive for the Cheyenne Mountain anniversary in 2016.
Members of the community and military attend the 50th Anniversary Rededication Ceremony at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station April 15, 2016. After nearly five years of construction, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station was declared fully operational April 20, 1966. After decades of operation by the 21st Space Wing and 721st Mission Support Group at Peterson Air Force Base, in July 2021 the installation was renamed Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Base and is now operated by Space Delta 2 at Peterson Space Force Base. (Staff Sgt. Tiffany DeNault/U.S. Air Force/Public domain)

Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station housed other tenants in addition to NORAD personnel that supported the mission of aerospace warning and aerospace control, including the U.S. Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command. 

As national security information criss-crossed the country that morning — with the president in Florida, the vice president in Washington, D.C., NORAD in Colorado, FAA centers in multiple states, and rescue crews in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania — additional potential threats were identified in Colorado. 

Steven Armstrong: We really didn’t get a whole lot of information, to be quite honest with you, from an operational level. On the intel and the law enforcement side, we were starting to get indications of more threats. As a precautionary measure, the most prudent thing that we could do was shut the doors and clamp down on who had access and who didn’t. We put Cheyenne Mountain into war fighting mode. 

James Austin: About one or two hours into my new role as a Security Forces member, I was asked to look for any inbound aircraft, as rumor was a plane was unaccounted for and possibly headed for Colorado Springs, with Cheyenne Mountain as the target. 

I was asked to look for any inbound aircraft, as rumor was a plane was unaccounted for and possibly headed for Colorado Springs, with Cheyenne Mountain as the target.

– Lt. Col. James Austin

Victor Cordero: On that day, all boots were for defending the mission and the base. So as I went to the armory and received my weapons, we received our briefing. I ended up going down to the main gate with my fellow defenders. Each vehicle, before they entered, we checked their credentials to make sure they were valid and a need to enter the installation, and we searched the vehicles. There was a line like I’ve never seen before at the installation — it was just hours and hours of a heightened sense of awareness. Each one of us looked at each other, saying, “Hey, we gotta take care of each other. We gotta protect whatever occurs here.”

John Nerwinski: Some folks were definitely in shock and trying to process what was happening. And the other folks, probably myself included, were, I won’t say excited, but a little bit more like we’re gonna be ready for something, and we don’t know what that something is. ‘Cause I had only been in the Air Force for two years at that point, and so I had a long career still to go — it was definitely going to mean something for me for the rest of that time. 

The ‘Tribute in Light’ memorial lights up lower Manhattan near One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2018, in New York City. The tribute at the site of the World Trade Center towers has been an annual event in New York since March 11, 2002. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The threats against Cheyenne Mountain did not come to fruition. 

Victor Cordero: I didn’t get off that day until 11 p.m. or so. Then I had to wait in line to get back on Peterson Air Force Base, and I think I had to show up at about 4:30 a.m. the next day to go work at Cheyenne Mountain again. So waiting there, it gave me an opportunity to just wait and digest everything, my mixed emotions. I remember that I was crying, because it’s like, you see people falling out of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, just thinking … America has been hit and we didn’t know where it was coming from. We don’t know what it was. And it just totally shaped the way we were looking at terrorism at that point. So there were plenty of mixed emotions.

Steven Armstrong: I think I was there for almost 24 hours that first day. It was a very, very, very long day. By the time I went home that next morning, my wife and kids were there and met me and, you know, the looks on their faces, those are some of the things you don’t forget as well. 

John Nerwinski: I remember hearing on the news that it was going to probably start gouging the gas prices. So I remember going home and getting gas on the way home.

Jonathan Kelley: We already had our bags packed up for the most part, ready to go home, and we just literally picked everything up, went back, and unpacked it all because it was like, “Well, obviously knowing what we’re seeing now, whatever you need from us, just tell us, and we’re here to make sure the job gets done.”

Thomas Cucchi: Throughout the following weeks, we had brought a lot of airplanes, F-15s, down to Homestead, and basically we were doing 24-hour combat air patrols with all the pilots that were there at the time.

James Austin: In the ensuing days and months, those of us with the Security Forces Squadron rotated on 13-plus-hour shifts.

Steven Armstrong: Over Colorado Springs and over Denver, we had air patrols going 24/7 for several days. And in Washington, D.C., and New York City, we flew 24/7 air patrols over the top of those two cities well into December. 

Jonathan Kelley: I’d just hit or was approaching my one-year mark. You’re talking, like, baby for the Air Force, but you know, it was exciting. I was nervous at first, but I was excited to experience something different. 

John Nerwinski: I think it got back to normal for me pretty quick. The satellites still had to be tracked.

William Glover was the N2C2 Operations Support director for the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was an Air Force lieutenant colonel in charge of NORAD Air Defense Operations and was in the Cheyenne Mountain operations center on that day. (Tech. Sgt. Thomas Doscher/NORAD/Public domain)

9/11 brought the threat of civilian airliners being used as weapons to the U.S. military’s attention. This new threat required a new set of procedures and exposed more assets requiring defense. “While our mission did not change, our responsibilities had increased,” William Glover, the Air Force lieutenant colonel in charge of NORAD Air Defense Operations on 9/11, told NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs on 9/11’s 10th anniversary. 

In response to 9/11, a new defense playbook was written for North America, named Operation Noble Eagle. Operation Noble Eagle gives NORAD commanders more authority to investigate civilian aircrafts in the U.S. and Canada, and it outlines new force structures for times of peace and war. In 2002, USNORTHCOM (U.S. Northern Command) was created, becoming the 11th combatant command in the U.S. Department of Defense (and the only one tasked with detering, detecting, and defeating threats to U.S. soil). USNORTHCOM headquarters was placed inside Cheyenne Mountain alongside NORAD. 

Steven Armstrong: Within two or three days, I actually was sent by Gen. (Ralph) Eberhart to Washington, D.C., to write the plan on how we would array forces — in other words, Operation Noble Eagle, which is still in effect today. We’ve made some tweaks and some adjustments, predicated on force structure and requirements over the years, but by and large, it’s still the same apparatus that we stood up after 9/11. 

Thomas Cucchi: For the FAA to ask for assistance prior to 9/11, it would take like an hour to go through the national military command center and then get to NORAD. Now the FAA, all they have to do is ask us and we will provide them, at a moment’s notice, with military assistance. We also have the Domestic Event Network now; a lot of agencies collaborate on that, from the FAA to NORAD to the major airlines, so information is shared. If an airliner is not talking to anybody, I know right away, and if that goes on for 10 to 15 minutes and the FAA needs assistance, I know right away that we’re going to be scrambling to help the FAA out. What took an hour now takes seconds, and we have immediate situational awareness thanks to the Domestic Event Network.

To fill the roles outlined in Operation Noble Eagle, a total of 35,000 military men and women were called in to participate. Fort Carson, an Army base just east of Cheyenne Mountain, became a training and deployment hub for those serving global anti-terror missions. It remains so to this day. In July 2021, 1,800 soldiers from Fort Carson were deployed to Iraq.

Tanya Hurwitz: 9/11 ultimately shaped everyone’s careers after that point. With all the deployments and everything else, it changed the trajectory of what everyone is going to do. For the longest time, even after I’d moved on to different jobs, I kept the number from my desk and I always had my phone nearby if I was on a plane, thinking if something happened, I’d call them. 

Tanya Hurwitz in 2020. (Tanya Hurwitz)

Victor Cordero: Our deployments quadrupled, they surged, and with that came … many bad things, because we lost people, whether it be at deployed locations, serving our country and serving those people that needed us in other places, or people coming back that weren’t the same. Some of the impacts — whether it be psychological, physical, TBI, PTSD — that’s the cost. But if you asked each one of us, it’s well worth it because of what we believed in our service, and why we chose to be in the military and serve our country and help people around the world. 

John Nerwinski: 9/11 probably made me a little bit more conservative, gave me a little bit more love for the country, I suppose. I probably had it back then, but I was still young, I was only in my very early 20s, and so I was still finding myself as an adult. 

In 2008, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex was redesignated as NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s Alternate Command Center, used as a training site for crew qualifications. Daily crew operations for the two missions moved and now take place at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Steven Armstrong: Colorado does and will continue to play a very significant role in the defense of our nation, given the fact that it’s the epicenter of Homeland Defense with NORAD and USNORTHCOM headquartered here. 

Thomas Cucchi: The bigger picture is that Colorado is where the defense of the U.S. basically goes from cradle to grave, as far as concepts and implementation. It’s not like Colorado is the focal point of it, it just happens to be where the headquarters is and where all the massive brain power that comes up with the defense plans comes together.

Steven Armstrong: About 10 years ago, we instituted a slogan in our command center where the daily execution and running of NORAD and USNORTHCOM operations occur: “We have the watch.” What that means is we have the watch for North America. We’re responsible for the homeland defense of North America, and that includes our mission partners up in Canada. It’s a significant thing that we’re doing for this nation.

These oral dictations were lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Emma Athena
Emma Athena

Emma Athena is a freelance journalist based in Colorado. She investigates the intersection of policy, place and people.

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