By Dave Rogers
Originally published Sunday, September 11, 2011
Stories. Undoubtedly, retired U.S. Army two-star general Gene LaCoste of Alvord has more than a few about many of the 184 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon since many were his friends and coworkers.
But 10 years later, the man who most certainly would have been another victim of the Flight 77 hijackers had he been in his office that morning, couldn’t bring himself to single out one or two of the remarkable people he worked alongside.
“Most of the ones (that died) were majors, colonels and generals,” he said recently. “Almost all of them had wives and children.
“The tragedy wasn’t that they were killed. The tragedy was that they (wives and children) were left without a father.
“The lesson you should learn from it is how important people are. And the thing you should never forget about it is there are still people out there trying to destroy our life.”
That’s why LaCoste continues to grant interviews and, when possible, attend 9/11 tributes.
Like the good soldier he was, an Army Ranger whose 33-year military career began during the Vietnam War and included such titles as assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, director of Army safety and the job – assistant director of personnel – that took him to work at the Pentagon, LaCoste is ever on guard.
We all should be, he said. Now and forever.
“I think the thing on the stories that are trying to be told about this event is for the young kids of today that were too young to even remember what this was all about, it should be a constant reminder that freedom’s not free,” he said.
“There’s a cost. And there’s people out there paying the cost every day.”
A total of 2,977 people were killed by 19 al-Qaida terrorists who hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed them. The largest loss of life occurred in New York City, where two jets crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, killing 2,606.
In Arlington, Va., American Airlines Flight 77, bound from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 8:37 a.m. Central Daylight Time. All 64 people on board the aircraft, including five hijackers, were killed, as were 125 people in the building.
The plane crashed into the Army’s Personnel Department offices, killing LaCoste’s boss, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude.
“It came in between my office and my boss’ office,” said the 64-year-old LaCoste. “The nose went in both our offices.”
LaCoste, a speaker at past 9/11 remembrances in Decatur, planned to be out of Wise County on business for the 10th anniversary of the awful day.
When the hijacked plane hit the Pentagon, LaCoste was on assignment in Kansas.
“We were back in two-and-a-half hours and assisting in the recovery that lasted for 30 days,” he said. “We were trying to save the people that were burned. We had over 100 people severely burned. Some of them stayed in the hospital for over a year.
“We had people that were instantly killed, people that were buried for over 30 days. You found parts of them.”
Was the Wichita Falls native surprised that terrorists targeted the Pentagon?
“At the time, you really don’t have time to think about that. You’re trained to do something, you know what needs to be done, and you do it,” he said.
“The immediate reaction was to try to help the people who were injured and the families of those who died.”
Since 9/11, LaCoste retired from the military and has spent much of his time operating a helicopter flight school located in Denton. He recently opened Star-L Helicopters in Alvord.
“The most important thing,” he said, looking back on 9/11, “is that it makes you understand how important family and friends are and how life can be unexpectedly snuffed out pretty easily.”
Look for more of WCMessenger.com’s special 9/11 tribute at www.wcmessenger.com/911.