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Profile: Donna Nicholas
Donna Nicholas was a participant or observer in the following events:
Matt Swanson. [Source: Iowa State University]The Air Force’s Crisis Action Team (CAT) at the Pentagon is activated and will go on to play a key role in the Air Force’s response to the terrorist attacks. [Dover Post, 9/19/2001; Prospectus, 9/2006, pp. 3-6 ] The CAT, which is under the command of the Air Force chief of staff, is a “disaster response group,” which, according to the Dover Post, “coordinates Air Force reaction to anything that might be a threat to the United States.” [Dover Post, 9/19/2001; Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2011] It carries out its activities in the Air Force Operations Center, in the basement of the Pentagon’s C Ring. [Syracuse University Magazine, 12/2001; Air Force Print News, 9/11/2003] Its usual first in charge is away today and so Lieutenant Colonel Matt Swanson, its second in command, has to take their place supervising emergency operations for the Air Force. [Prospectus, 9/2006, pp. 3-6 ]
Crisis Team Becomes 'Eyes and Ears' of the Air Force - Prior to the Pentagon being hit at 9:37 a.m. (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001), according to the Defense Department’s book about the Pentagon attack, “Members of the Air Force Crisis Action Team [have] already begun to assemble [in the Operations Center] for a 10:00 a.m. briefing.” This is because “one of their responsibilities [is] to work with the Army to provide assistance to civil authorities in New York.” [Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 136] Major Donna Nicholas arrives in the Operations Center to assist the CAT at some time after 9:03 a.m., when the second hijacked plane crashes into the World Trade Center (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). When she gets there, someone tells her, “Just so you know, we’re considering that we’re under attack.” After arriving at her station and pulling out emergency checklists, she will later recall, Nicholas finds the area around her is “a flurry of activity as Air Force officials worked to gather information, both from the media and from their own intelligence sources.” [Dover Post, 9/19/2001] The CAT becomes “the eyes and ears of the Air Force” as it responds to the terrorist attacks, according to Major Harry Brosofsky, who will go to the Operations Center to assist the CAT after the Pentagon is attacked. [Syracuse University Magazine, 12/2001]
Air Force Leaders Only Join Crisis Team after Pentagon Attack - It is unclear when exactly the CAT is activated. Nicholas is told it has been activated at “about 9 a.m.,” according to the Dover Post. [Dover Post, 9/19/2001] Tim Green, assistant executive to the Air Force chief of staff, will say that after senior Air Force officials who are together in a staff meeting (see (9:00 a.m.-9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001) see the second crash at the WTC at 9:03 a.m., they “set up a Crisis Action Team down in our Operations Center and they began working immediately.” [Midland Reporter-Telegram, 4/2/2002] However, senior officials such as General John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, and James Roche, the secretary of the Air Force, will only head to the Operations Center to assist the response from there after 9:37 a.m., when the Pentagon is hit (see Shortly After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Air Force Print News, 9/11/2003; Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 ] Swanson—the man in charge of the CAT today—will say he receives a phone call in his office at the Pentagon at some time after the second WTC tower is hit, in which he is told he has to go and join the CAT. However, he will apparently only reach the Operations Center to do so after the Pentagon is attacked: He will say that when he arrives, he is greeted by Jumper and Roche, and these two men only get there after the Pentagon is hit (see After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Prospectus, 9/2006, pp. 3-6 ]
Harry Brosofsky. [Source: Syracuse University]General John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, and James Roche, the secretary of the Air Force, as well as other senior Air Force officials, arrive at the Air Force Operations Center in the basement of the Pentagon’s C Ring, where they assist the Air Force’s response to the terrorist attacks. [CNN, 10/10/2001; Lompoc Record, 9/11/2003; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 136]
Operations Center Personnel Did Not Realize a Plane Had Hit the Pentagon - Jumper and Roche were in Roche’s office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon when the Pentagon was hit, at 9:37 a.m. (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001), and were then promptly escorted down to the Operations Center (see Shortly After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Air Force Print News, 9/11/2003; Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 ] They were unclear what had happened when the Pentagon was attacked, but when they arrive at the Operations Center, they find out that an aircraft hit the building. [CNN, 10/10/2001; Midland Reporter-Telegram, 4/2/2002] Those in the Operations Center had not initially realized a plane had hit the Pentagon either. The center is deep underground on the opposite site of the building to where it was hit and so they did not feel the impact when the attack occurred. But, according to the Dover Post, “Suddenly, sirens started to go off,” and “[r]eports from the television news and from outside the building confirmed the worst.” [Dover Post, 9/19/2001; Prospectus, 9/2006, pp. 3-6 ]
Operations Center Is Quickly Going from 'Zero to Crisis Mode' - When Roche and Jumper arrive at the Operations Center, they find Air Force personnel there are “already starting to try to get the intel picture together; they were trying to get the air picture up on the walls,” according to Colonel Philip Breedlove, Roche’s senior military assistant, who has come down to the center with the two men. The center is “going from zero to crisis mode very quickly and very smoothly,” Breedlove will add. [Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 ] Personnel in the center have been answering calls coming in on multiple lines. “We didn’t know who was still out there or what their hostile intention might be,” Major Harry Brosofsky, who arrived at the center shortly after the Pentagon was hit, will later recall. However, Brosofsky will say, “at times we had information overload and had to decide quickly what to do with all the information that was pouring in.” But the atmosphere is still noticeably professional, according to Major Donna Nicholas, who arrived at the center before the Pentagon was hit. “I was amazed at the calm,” she will comment.
Crisis Team Is at Work in Operations Center - Furthermore, the Air Force’s Crisis Action Team (CAT), which, according to the Dover Post, “coordinates Air Force reaction to anything that might be a threat to the United States,” was activated earlier on and is now carrying out its activities in the Operations Center (see (9:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Dover Post, 9/19/2001; Syracuse University Magazine, 12/2001] Members of the CAT have also begun to assemble in the center for a 10:00 a.m. briefing, due to the fact that one of their responsibilities is to work with the Army to provide assistance to civil authorities in New York, in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center. [Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 136]
Roche and Jumper Try to Contact NORAD - The first thing Roche and Jumper do when they reach the Operations Center is try and locate Air Force personnel, to make sure they are safe, and safely out of the Pentagon. [CNN, 10/10/2001] CAT members work to obtain a head count of Air Force personnel who have evacuated from the building. [Syracuse University Magazine, 12/2001] Roche and Jumper then try to contact NORAD. [CNN, 10/10/2001] The Air Force leaders are “not the command authority” at the moment, according to Air Force Magazine, and, instead, NORAD is primarily responsible for operational control of the situation. Air Force officials, however, still need to “do what they could to inform and support the operational units.” [Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 ] The CAT also coordinates with NORAD to put fighter jets on alert in Alaska and Hawaii. [Syracuse University Magazine, 12/2001] Roche will recall that after contacting NORAD, he and Jumper “stand by and start to think of how we, the Air Force, could support any casualties or any other things that might develop during the day.” [CNN, 10/10/2001] The CAT also works with the FAA to monitor flight activity over the continental United States. [Syracuse University Magazine, 12/2001] And CAT members activate a team to focus on “continuity of operations,” which is the effort to ensure that the Air Force is able to continue its essential functions in an emergency. [US Department of Defense, 5/26/1995; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 136; US Air Force, 10/16/2013 ]
Air Force Personnel Affected by Communication Problems - The ability of those in the Operations Center to respond to the crisis, however, is impaired when, at some point after Jumper and Roche arrive, communications go down. “There was a short period where literally the only [communications] we had was the BlackBerry device, because it communicates differently across the lines,” Breedlove will recall. The reason for the problem, according to Air Force Magazine, is that networks have become overloaded by people at the Pentagon and around Washington, DC, all trying to call their relatives to let them know they are okay. As the morning goes on, Air Force officials also begin experiencing problems with smoke from the burning building coming into the center. The decision will therefore be made to establish a temporary Air Force Operations Center at Bolling Air Force Base, just across the Potomac River from the Pentagon. At 12:20 p.m., Air Force leaders and assistants will be flown by helicopter to the base. The new Operations Center there will be up and functioning by 1:00 p.m. (see 1:00 p.m. September 11, 2001). [Prospectus, 9/2006, pp. 3-6 ; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 136; Air Force Magazine, 9/2011 ]
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