PLYMOUTH — It’s been nine years since the north tower of the World Trade Center was hit by the first of the hijacked airliners, American Flight 11, but Mike Bergman, 63, a graduate of Plymouth High School, class of 1965, thinks about it every single day.
“America will never be the same,” he said.
Mike Bergman will never be the same either. The threat of another high-profile terrorism attack is constantly on his mind.
Bergman, a 27-year Army Air Force veteran who retired in 1995, was a U.S. Census Bureau employee at the time. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in New York on a business trip and was staying on the ninth floor of the Marriott Hotel.
The Marriott was situated in between the two World Towers.
It was 8:45 a.m. Mike was about to take a shower to get ready for the day when he heard an ominous crash.
He rushed to the window and saw flaming debris falling.
He pulled on some clothes and raced barefooted out the door and down the steps of the hotel out onto Liberty Street.
People milling around were speculating that it was a small commuter plane. An accident.
Mike knew better.
The stench of jet fuel was in the air.
He saw the second plane coming.
Even now he replays in his mind the second plane hitting. “I can still see the bluish underbelly of the plane flying over. I actually heard the crunch of the metal on metal even before the explosion.”
He knew from his Air Force experience that it was coming in at a very high rate of speed.
“I saw the fire ball and heard the explosion,” Mike said, “and I saw how at the very last minute the pilot banked his wings so as to take out as many people as he could.”
Out on the street, a policeman told Bergman, “Don’t look back! Run!”
Mike said he saw the huge wall of smoke coming toward them. He literally ran for his life toward Battery Park on the Hudson River.
“We had no idea what was in the roiling cloud. It could have been solid debris, missiles, anything.
“For the second time that day,” he said, “I thought I was going to die.”
The vast cloud was enveloping every thing around. He pulled his shirt over his head, trying not to breathe in the acrid smoke and ran, barefooted, as fast as he could.
Reaching the shores of the park, Mike waited as all kinds of boats came in to pick up the survivors.
Finally safely stashed on one of the boats headed for the Jersey City side of the Hudson River, he remembers cringing when a jet flew over.
“When I saw it was one of our own F-15’s, I relaxed a little.”
On the New Jersey side, Mike and the other evacuees were hosed down from the soot and ashes that covered them. Mike’s feet, bleeding from several cuts, were taped with towels by a paramedic, and he was transported with others to a nearby hotel.
Shirley, Mike’s wife, had already been contacted by a Marriott employee to let her know that her husband was safe.
Mike gratefully wore a pair of flip-flops issued to him. He said he never did get any shoes until he got home to Fairfax, Va., the next day.
He sought professional counseling after he returned home and it was six months before he had the gumption to fly again. He also talked with a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing.
“Sharing experiences helps to personalize the tragedy of those days.”
Now retired after a heart bypass in 2007, and Mike and Shirley make their home in the Pretty View Condominiums on the Plymouth Country Club golf course.
With the increased media attention to Ground Zero in recent weeks because a Muslim mosque is threatening to build on the site, Mike Bergman, surprisingly, has no opinion on the issue.
“I am part of a network of 9-11 families and survivors and many of them are on both sides of the debate. There are more than 1,100 families who have no trace of their loved ones,” he said.
“A Christian, I have lived in a Muslim country (Turkey). Over the past 40 years, Shirley and I have lived with neighbors who were Muslim, Hindu, Buddhists and probably many atheists. Our best friends are a Jewish couple in Israel.
“What I do object to is the use of any religion to make a political statement. What I abhor is the use of religion to commit acts of violence. I think the 9-11 attacks were acts of hate against America, not an attack of Muslims against Christians and Jewish people: many Muslims were also innocent victims that day.”
Mike and Shirley went back to Ground Zero on the first anniversary of the attack.
“It was a healing experience for both of us,” he said.