Every American has a different memory of the Sept. 11 attacks. Ten years later, the events of that day remain burned into America’s psyche and remembrance often begins with the sobering question, “Where were you when the towers fell?” Some sat before their televisions, frozen in disbelief. Others were in Lower Manhattan, working their way through panic and smoke blanketing the city in search of safety. As the city reeled in the immediate aftermath of the attack, hundreds made their way towards the danger to do their duty.
New York City’s first responders became national heroes on that fateful day. One of those responders was Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Perez, a boatswain’s mate at Station New York. As a newly qualified coxswain, Perez was patrolling the harbor when he and his boat crew responded to the first plane crash. It was Perez’ first search and rescue case as a coxswain.
“That morning, our crew responded to the first crash, treating it as if it were an accident,” recalls Perez. “As we approached lower Manhattan just south of Governors Island, the second plane made its way in and crashed into the second tower right above our heads.”
As the World Trade Center collapsed, he radioed back to the station. Despite multiple radio calls, he couldn’t reach his supervisors. Perez came to the realization that he was now on his own – responsible for making decisions that would not only keep his crew safe but also impacted the thousands of New Yorkers attempting to evacuate by water.
Perez shouldered responsibility far beyond his age or experience, and took charge of his boat and crew as they transported civilians and wounded out of harm’s way. Following the initial evacuation, Perez’ boat assumed security duties and helped transfer police officers, firefighters and emergency service workers.
With every sound and every smell, a cache of memories was built.
“All of my senses received a permanent carbon copy,” said Perez “The smell around a construction site, the feel of concrete cinder blocks, sometimes planes that fly near the area of Lower Manhattan serve as a reminder of the event.”
Perez can describe precisely what it was like to be in New York on Sept. 11, but also recalls the resilience of the people around him and the overwhelming sense of support he felt from those he responded with. To this day, he is reminded of a moment just a day after the attacks, when Coast Guard first responders came together in a call to arms.
“A huge muster of Coasties reminds me of the following morning. I was standing amid a crowd of Coasties that reported to Station New York after a massive recall, answering the call and ready to secure and restore order to our city,” said Perez.
While responding to crises is something Coast Guardsmen at stations around the country do every day, the city’s devastation meant each responder had to dig deep and ensure they focused on what they knew.
“In hindsight, the one thing that I know we did right was reverting to our training,” said Perez. “This allowed us to remain calm, especially with me being a newly qualified coxswain. We were able to evacuate the area in a calm and orderly manner. All in all, I think that everyone served honorably and did all that was required of them to restore order and safety. For what it’s worth, and what we faced, we did it right that day.”
In the years since, Perez has steadily risen through the ranks, not as a coxswain but as a Coast Guard maritime enforcement specialist, a job specialty, or rating, borne of the events of Sept. 11. Motivated by his passion for keeping others out of harm’s way, he has become a part of the very changes that are making our country more secure.
“There were many things that changed following the event; new operating procedures, gear and missions. Even a new rate was established, one that I am very proud to be a part of today, the maritime enforcement specialist,” said Perez. “Members were put though the learning curve and adjusted to new operational demands. It was extraordinary the way the service adjusted to meet these requirements, especially when we are considered the smallest force in the military.”
A decade later, Perez finds himself stationed back in New York City – with a different mission. As a member of Maritime Safety and Security Team New York, his primary missions are port safety and security, anti-terrorism, force protection and maritime law enforcement operations both at sea and on land.
From first responder on the day of the attacks to first line of defense for our nation today, Perez represents the strong sense of commitment every Coast Guardsman bears in keeping our nation stronger and more secure.