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Bill Milne, retired Coast Guard captain, recounts the horrible day Sept. 11, 2001 during a service in Woodbridge, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, as a relic of the World Trade Center stand behind him. Milne's ship was in New York harbor that day, and for 18 months afterward.

Before Bill Milne was chair of the Prince William Planning Commission, he was a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was commanding a ship in New York harbor, with sunny skies and a light breeze.

“We all viewed it as normal and routine,” Milne recounted. He was drinking coffee in the wardroom when he was told by an officer that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. As the morning unwound, and a second crash in New York was followed by the attack on the Pentagon, Milne and his crew steamed to the Ambrose Anchorage, just south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

Milne was among speakers who shared memories of that day at the county’s remembrance on Sept. 10 at the memorial fountain at the Government Complex in Woodbridge.

“It was eerily quiet,” Milne recalled. “There were just fire boats and water taxis transporting first responders from New Jersey, the Bronx, Connecticut, and Staten Island. Never had we experienced terrorism at this level in our homeland, and we were unprepared. We learned how porous our borders were; how vulnerable our intelligence had become, and how incompatible our communication systems were across local, state and federal governments.”

After four decades in the Coast Guard, and after months supporting harbor security after the attack, Milne wondered what he was supposed to learn from this. “It struck me that I was seeing the beginning of a new day, a new day that promised hope and strength – hope that would guide us to a better future, and strength that would cement ourselves and our resolve as a nation.”

The Rev. Jeff Carter served as Prince William County’s Fire and Rescue chaplain for 10 years after 9/11. In his prayer, he said that the morning, 20 years ago, feels like yesterday.

“We remember these last 20 years like a shattered glass put back together,” Carter said. “Pieces assembled imperfectly, some as if they were never separated, and others still missing.”

Standing silently, across the street from the fountain, are four pieces of steel from the remains of the World Trade Center, arranged to represent how they might have fallen on that day. They reached up into a bright blue sky, as Milne urged everyone to set their gaze on the horizon.

“Remember the past,” he said, “but I want you all to live for the future.”

Paul Lara covers the military beat. Reach him at plara@insidenova.com

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