“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
The inscription, surrounded by shimmering blue tiles and carefully memorialized debris, hangs on a wall in the heart of the National September 11 Museum. This saying rings true for Americans around the globe; though 20 years have passed, that fateful day in mid-September 2001 left a mark that cannot be hidden.
When the commercial jets flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Aggieland lost three of its own: Jimmy Nevill Storey ’65, Lee Adler ’84 and Lt. Col. Jerry Don Dickerson Jr. ’92. In 2008, the Freedom From Terrorism Memorial was erected next to the Corps of Cadets Quad in remembrance of the three Aggies who never came home on 9/11 and all the soldiers who lost their lives defending the nation in the aftermath.
Today, eight Aggies recount how they did their part in a time of crisis, whether by rescuing another through fiery debris, scouting the skies or promoting togetherness in a frightening world.
Ret. Cdr. Brian “Lucky” Riley ’95
Fighter pilot at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach
“My wife was nine months pregnant with our first child, who was due on Sept. 10, 2001. My squadron was in a standard aircraft carrier briefing at Virginia Beach on Sept. 11 when our duty officer announced that an airplane had just flown into the World Trade Center. We were all watching his TV screen as the second one hit.
We knew instantly that we were probably under attack. We look around, and I was the most experienced guy in the room. Even though our commanding officer tried to get on base, the entire complex was in lockdown. So, we made the decision. We told our maintenance guys to get the jets ready.
By the time I put on my flight suit and four planes were ready to go, my commanding officer was running up the stairs. As I descended, he said something that is burned in my brain forever: ‘Here are the rules of engagement for shooting down a civilian airliner.’
When I got out to the combat armament loading area, maintenance was still trying to put live warheads on the planes, but I knew we had to get airborne as fast as possible. We had no idea how many planes might be involved or how quickly we’d need to intercept them, so getting in a strategic air position was paramount. We launched entirely unarmed, which sparked a lot of conversation about what we would do if faced with certain scenarios. Air traffic control wouldn’t let us take off until they had verified our identities, asking for our names and Social Security numbers. My flight that day was surreal, because normally, from the time you take off to the time you shut down, there are people talking on all different frequencies. But on Sept. 11, it was silent. Eerily silent.
When I hear people’s experiences about that day and how shocked, angry and frustrated they were, I’m thankful I had an outlet for it. I wasn’t just sitting there staring at news reports. I ran out the door and got a chance to try and do something about it.”
Riley’s first son was born on Sept. 20, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, Riley, a Texas A&M philosophy graduate, flew five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy Top Gun pilot before retiring at the rank of commander in 2015. After returning to Texas with his wife and four sons, Riley created a fishing rod business called Old 18 and began hosting speaking engagements with his Navy SEAL business partner.
Melinda Murphy ’86
WB 11 Morning News helicopter reporter in New York City
“I was a helicopter reporter on Sept. 11, 2001. In the helicopter with me that day were me, army-trained pilot Ray Rivera, photography trainee Brenda Bannon, and photographer Chet Wilson. It was Brenda’s first day on call. We flew the regular morning show, and the towers that morning were bathed in this beautiful crimson light. Chet was coming with me to do a public appearance after the show, so Brenda was manning the camera for the first time if there was breaking news. She was visibly nervous. As we got in the helicopter, I swear Chet reassured her, ‘It’s not like the World Trade Center is going to fall down or anything.’
After our segment ended, we were in our post-show meeting at our news studio, surrounded by televisions. We saw a video feed from the Empire State building, showing one of the towers on fire. Chet and I jumped in a cab to meet the helicopter as the story was too big for Brenda to handle. I called my husband, Tom, who worked one block from the World Trade Center. He said, ‘We felt it. It was not a small plane. I’m going to go outside and check it out.’
I got in the helicopter and as we took off, there was this huge fireball coming out of the South Tower: the second plane had just hit. That’s when we knew it wasn't an accident; it was an attack. Immediately, I was live, describing what I saw.
When the first tower fell, a huge cloud of dust rolled outward and, from our vantage point, it looked like lower Manhattan was gone. Even though I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t really believe what happened. I was sure 10,000 people had died, including my husband and all my co-workers who were on the scene. I gave report after report, crying in between. I couldn’t call my husband from the chopper so my ground producer, Daniella Carollo, kept trying to call him for me. Over and over, she’d say, ‘I’m so sorry, Melinda. I just can’t get through.’ There was nothing I could do so I kept working, grateful to have a purpose.
We landed for field twice, the first time around noon. I tried to call my husband myself with no luck, but as I was getting back into the helicopter, my phone rang. It was my sister-in-law, Nathalie. She said, ‘Sis?’ and started to cry. My heart dropped, thinking she was going to tell me that my husband was dead. And then Tom’s voice is in my ear, saying, ‘Hi, Honey.’ I fell to my knees and sobbed. My sister-in-law worked a block away from my husband and the two of them were together the whole time, covered in dust, but safe.
Because of my crew’s background in firefighting and the military, we were allowed to stay up until 4:45 p.m., sharing our commentary. All other commercial aircraft in the country was grounded at 9:48 a.m. On Thanksgiving, we got permission to fly over Manhattan to film the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Suddenly, while we were in the air, my pilot looked at me and said, ‘They're routing us over Ground Zero.’ None of us were prepared for that emotionally. The rubble was still smoldering, still smoking. It was just awful to see, even months later. Covering 9/11 changed me, but it was just what journalists do. Journalists run to things when everybody else runs away.”
Murphy graduated from Texas A&M with a journalism degree in 1986. In the years since 9/11, Murphy continued broadcasting, working as a network correspondent for CBS News until she decided to take a break and start a family. Now living in Singapore with her husband and two children, the journalist works as the general manager for the American Association of Singapore and offers media coaching services.