Veterans share 9/11 memories at Gary Pinkel's 'Heroes Hangout'

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 | 6:45 p.m. CDT; updated 11:26 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 11, 2013

COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel was getting ready to begin a staff meeting on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

A game against Nebraska loomed in Pinkel’s first year as head football coach at the MU, and the Tigers coaches were focused on preparing for Cornhuskers quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch.

Then, a phone call made football an afterthought.

“Our whole world changed,” Pinkel said. “You start calling your kids. You start calling your mom, your dad, your relatives. It was just so frightening for everybody.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Pinkel sat down for a Google Plus “Heroes Hangout” with Columbia’s Veterans United. Host Sarah Hill joined the coach, and the pair connected with defensive coordinator Dave Steckel and five veterans via online video chat. They were all eager to share their stories from 9/11.

Jack Tilley, an Army veteran with 36 years of service to his name, was driving back to his office at the Pentagon when he encountered the destruction that morning.

“I went back to the Pentagon, made sure everybody was out of the office and then came around to the front,” said Tilley, who logged into Wednesday’s video chat from Florida. “I went back into the Pentagon when it was burning, trying to get people out.”

Rob Smith, a retired Air Force member from Baltimore, was actually inside the building when the plane hit.

“We weren’t sure what it was at that point,” Smith said. “There was construction going on nearby, and we thought a construction cart within the corridors of the Pentagon had run into the wall until the evacuation notice came on.”

Jim Herdt was in an airplane about to leave the runway near the Pentagon when the plane’s pilot got word that the crash had occurred. The ninth master chief petty officer of the Navy couldn’t believe his eyes when he turned toward the government facility.

“I looked out the window, and I saw the plume coming up from the Pentagon,” said Herdt, who logged into the Hangout from Hawaii. “The memory that will be emblazed in my mind forever is fire leaping out of the Pentagon."

The Heroes Hangout lasted a little more than 28 minutes, and Pinkel didn’t speak much compared to the veterans. A short question-and-answer session about training, coaching techniques and leadership followed the 9/11 memories.

Pinkel did mention his late father — George, a Marine who passed away in 2010 — a couple times and shared an anecdote with the group:

At some point during his tenure at Toledo (1991-2000), Gary Pinkel rose early for his Sunday morning TV show the day after a tough loss. Devastated by the previous day’s events, he was heading out to his car, but his father stopped him.

“Go fix it,” George Pinkel said.

The coach did not want to hear those words, but he’s carried them with him for the rest of his career. On Wednesday, Herdt offered some clarity to the phrase.

“Chief petty officers in the Navy are actually the ones that execute the plan each day,” Herdt said. “They are the team that goes and fixes things on a day-to-day basis.”

Gary Pinkel was giddy with intellectual closure.

“That makes more sense than it’s ever made,” he said to Herdt. “That’s something I didn’t want to hear, but it was the best thing he could’ve ever said to me.”

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