Like most everyone else, Gary Sakuma can recall just where he was when he heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
The Bainbridge Island resident has a unique perspective on that day.
“I was in the shower when my wife called me,” said Sakuma, who was a pilot for United Airlines at the time. “I’d just flown an all-nighter from Hawaii to San Francisco. I was staying in an apartment that United pilots share for overnight layovers.
“My wife said to me, ‘Turn on the television.’ ”
That was when he learned that American Airlines Flight 11 had just crashed into the North Tower. He and another pilot who was staying over watched as United Flight 175 crashed into the other tower.
“We couldn’t believe what was happening,” Sakuma said. “Those planes went right into the towers and those 767s carry so much fuel.”
By 11 a.m., he called the crew desk and offered to do whatever he could to help. He’d been a combat fighter pilot for 21 years in the U.S. Air Force.
“Most of the pilots I worked with at the time were much younger and if they had been military, hadn’t flown in combat,” he said. “At the time, I really didn’t know what might happen next and my thought was they might need combat pilots.”
But it wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon that he got a call asking him to fly United pilots and crew in the San Francisco area back to their base in New York.
“They wanted me to take them back to New York so they could get home,” he said. “They didn’t want any of them to have to fly a plane.”
Because the government had grounded all flights on Tuesday after the acts of terror, no one went anywhere for hours. But by Thursday morning, Sakuma was allowed to board a plane, along with about 60 or 70 other United employees who wanted to get to New York.
“My first officer didn’t want to make the flight,” he said. “So at the last minute, I asked the other captains who were going back if any of them wanted to fly the plane and one of them did. So I sat as co-pilot.”
The trip was an eerie one, he said.
“There were no other planes in the sky. Usually, there is so much communication on the radio between all the pilots and air traffic control, but it was just very quiet because there were no other planes taking off or landing. We didn’t have to wait in line to take off and when we landed at JFK, there was no line to taxi to the gates.”
Sakuma said he’d been told that he’d have a night layover and be able to fly his crew back to San Francisco the following day.
He stayed overnight at a Manhattan hotel. They tried to walk down to the World Trade Center site, but weren’t able to get close. No one was going past Canal Street, he said. So they ate dinner and went back to the hotel.
When he arrived back at the airport the following morning, everything was dark.
“I went to file my flight papers and they said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’”
He and the crew had to remain in New York until the following Tuesday, a week after the terrorist attack.
Sakuma knew both United pilots who were killed in the attacks. He also knew other crew members who were killed.
“I knew the captains because I flew with them as a flight check officer,” he said. “It made it all very hard.”
He said he never had any fear of flying before or after that because he’s always felt that when it’s his time, it’s his time.
Once he returned to San Francisco, where he was based, he then flew home to Las Vegas. He retired from United in 2004 and moved back to Bainbridge Island where he was raised.
He did visit the World Trade Center site before the memorial was built.
“It reminded me of what people saw during World War II in London and Germany and Japan,” he said. “There was so much destruction and so much to clean up.”
As a member of the American Legion, Sakuma has participated in 9/11 observances on Bainbridge Island.
However, this year, he went before the Bainbridge Island City Council asking that more residents of the area get involved in remembering those lost in the crashes of the skyjacked planes in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon — those on the planes, and the first responders who were killed while trying to help.
“We need to honor those who lost their lives that day on all four flights,” he said. “And we need to make this a day of remembrance for the first responders who were killed. There were 343 firefighters and 71 police officers killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11.”
Sakuma has been actively seeking out local first responders to be at this year’s Sept. 11 ceremony. A commemoration will begin at 8:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 11 at the American Legion Hall, 7880 NE Bucklin Hill Road on Bainbridge. Mayor Val Tollefsen will sign a proclamation, and Police Chief Matthew Hamner and Fire Chief Hank Teran will be attending. All Bainbridge Island residents and first responders are invited to attend.
Sakuma hopes to see a large crowd.
“Some of us on the island get so busy that we lose sight of what it really means to be an American,” he said. “We’ve lost sight of what America should be. This is a time when we can all join together and pay tribute to our nation.”
The Sept. 11 attacks were a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda on the United States on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks killed 2,996 people, injured more than 6,000 others, and caused at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage.
Four passenger airliners operated by two major U.S. passenger air carriers (United Airlines and American Airlines) — all of which departed from airports in the northeastern United States bound for California — were hijacked by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. Two of the planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were crashed into the North and South towers, respectively, of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.
Within an hour and 42 minutes, both 110-story towers collapsed, with debris and the resulting fires causing partial or complete collapse of all other buildings in the World Trade Center complex.
A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, leading to a partial collapse of the building’s western side.
The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, initially was steered toward Washington, D.C., but crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its passengers tried to overcome the hijackers.