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Department of Defense Documents

Air Force Reserve Senior Master Sgt. Noel Sepulveda: Hero Recalls Experiences

"For a brief moment, you could see the body of the plane sticking out from the side of the building. Then a ball of fire came from behind it."
-- Sept. 11 hero Air Force Reserve Senior Master Sgt. Noel Sepulveda

September 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc.. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2003 - Many courageous military and civilian men and women have been honored for their actions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But only one member of the Air Force received the Airman's Medal, the nation's highest award for heroism not involving combat with an enemy. He also received the Purple Heart for his injuries.

Senior Master Sgt. Noel Sepulveda, 53, a Hispanic-American member of the Air Force Reserve, was a medical inspector at the Air Force Inspection Agency, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. But on Sept. 11, 2001, he was working at the Pentagon as a reserve program manager in the Air Force Strategies and Policies Office.

On that Tuesday morning, Sepulveda -- who was the office's first sergeant as an additional duty -- went to nearby Washington's Bolling Air Force Base, just as he did every Tuesday morning, for a first sergeant's meeting. He needed to be back at the Pentagon to take a test at 9: 30 a.m., so he left the meeting early, revved up his motorcycle, and headed back to the Pentagon.

Heavy traffic delayed his arrival until about 9: 25 a.m. Since he was running late, he didn't have time to cruise the huge Pentagon parking lot looking for a parking space, so he asked a DoD police officer for permission to park closer to the building. The officer told him to park by a light pole in an open area near Route 27 that parallels the Pentagon.

Rushing toward the building, Sepulveda called the testing center on his cell phone to let instructors know he was en route so they wouldn't lock him out. To his surprise, he was told that all testing was cancelled for the day.

The woman who answered the phone said, "Haven't you heard? The World Trade Center in New York has been hit!" He told her a radio report he'd heard made it sound like a small aircraft hit one of the twin towers by accident.

"No, no, no!" the woman exclaimed. She told Sepulveda it was a passenger jet, it was no accident, and now both towers had been hit. "We think we're under a terrorist attack," she said.

When the startled sergeant reached the door to the second corridor, he was told the Pentagon had gone on alert. "As I started running back towards my motorcycle, I could see the plane -- another plane -- coming down," said Sepulveda, who is now noncommissioned officer in charge of the Fit to Win/Wellness Clinic at the Pentagon's Dilorenzo Tricare Health Clinic.

As he reached his motorcycle, Sepulveda noticed the aircraft wasn't following the normal flight path down the Potomac River for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Instead, it was coming over a distant hotel, headed in the direction of the Pentagon.

"It seemed like the pilot was scrambling to keep control, and I watched as he dropped lower and lower," Sepulveda said. "Then he dropped his landing gear and started coming down even faster and lower.

As it came down, the plane was hitting light poles, the sergeant said. "Then the right wheel hit a light pole and the plane popped into a 45-degree angle. The pilot tried to recover -- go back vertical - but he hit some more light poles.

"He dipped the plane's nose slightly, and then smashed into the building," said Sepulveda, who was presented the Airman's Medal and Purple Heart by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper at the Pentagon April 15, 2002.

Sepulveda said the wings disintegrated, and then disappeared. "For a brief second, you could see the fuselage sticking out of the side of the Pentagon," Sepulveda recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, this ball of fire comes out from inside. It looked like it was just coming from inside the building, engulfing the fuselage. And then the fuselage was all gone."

Sepulveda said the sweltering heat felt like it was engulfing his body. "Then, suddenly, it felt like somebody grabbed me, put their hands on his chest, picked me up and threw me back against the light pole I was standing by," he said.

"The back of my head, my back, and all that hit the pole," he said. "Small pieces of shrapnel from the airplane hit my motorcycle."

When he managed to get up a few minutes later, he ran to the impact site to try to help people trapped inside the building.

"I went up to one of the windows that had been blasted out and started screaming, 'Is everybody out? Is there anybody in here?'" Sepulveda said.

He saw a man, his hands and chest badly burned, staggering toward him. That man was the first of about eight people, including a 2-month-old baby, the sergeant pulled out of the burning building.

A man wearing a torn, blue shirt with bloody sleeves was walking around outside, seemingly in a daze. Sepulveda asked him if he was OK and the man said, "Yes. We just needed to get people out of there," Sepulveda recalled. "So, I went back in and started pulling people out. He would take them from that point out to the side."

While inside, he met up with Pentagon police officer George Coldfelter near Corridor 5, and they started working together getting people out of the devastated area. Coldfelter handed Sepulveda what he thought was a bundle of rags, but what turned out to be a baby.

"When I opened the bundle, the baby was limp -- didn't have any life at all," he recalled sadly. "So I started doing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) as I'm running out towards the window to hand him to paramedics.

"I slapped the baby on the back one last time, and suddenly, he started crying," Sepulveda continued. "That made me feel a helluva lot better, because I was handing out a boy (who) was alive and crying. Apparently, one of the young ladies had come in that day to register her baby for the daycare, and had brought him into the office so that her friends could see him. She was just coming back from maternity leave, and she wanted folks to see her baby."

He waded back through the debris to pull the baby's mother to safety. "We kept pulling people out until the fire department arrived and told us to get out because the building was unstable," Sepulveda said.

As he and other rescuers were coming out of the burning building, a fuel bladder near the heliport exploded. Shortly after that, a fire engine was aflame. Sepulveda speculates that the gasoline tank exploded, shaking the building even more, which made that area collapse about 30 minutes after the airplane slammed into it.

Told to stay out of the building, Sepulveda ran to another section of the damaged area where he'd heard that people were coughing and screaming, and couldn't get out. "So we made like a human chain -- me, a couple of state police officers, and several Army and Navy folks over there," he explained. "We made a human chain by grabbing onto each other, walked up the stairs and led people out.

"Then they told us we had to leave that area because there's another plane possibly inbound," he said.

Sepulveda and other rescuers rushed to a nearby tunnel and set up a triage area for potential victims in case of another terrorist attack. Meanwhile, people kept telling them another plane was 20 minutes out, 10 minutes out.

"By about noon, I was on U.S. Route 27 above the tunnel with a bullhorn, trying to get everybody organized," the sergeant said. "Everybody wanted to help, but nobody had taken time to organize anything."

With his voice amplified by the bullhorn, he asked how many doctors, nurses and people with medical experience were in the crowd. "I told the first person in line to get the names of every person with medical experience and tell me how many people we had," Sepulveda said.

Suddenly, he heard a voice saying, "Sergeant, get over here," said Sepulveda, who turned in the voice's direction and saw Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Paul K. Carlton.

"I said to myself, 'Oh my Lord!' I'm in deep trouble now," the sergeant said. "The general says, 'Sergeant, will you tell me what the hell you're doing?'"

Sepulveda explained that he'd set up red, green, blue and yellow areas, each color representing the severity of injuries. For example, the red area meant people were seriously injured and needed treatment and to be transported as quickly as possible. Yellow meant the injured people could wait a bit for treatment.

"The general asked me, 'Where the hell did you learn that?'" Sepulveda said. "I said, well, sir, I was a medic in Vietnam and during Operation Desert Storm, so I have a little bit of experience in this area."

The general said, "Great!" and called over the civilian healthcare director and told him, "Here's my on-site medical commander," according to Sepulveda. Then, the general told Sepulveda, "Sergeant, you're going to be my on-site medical commander and coordinator with the civilian forces with everything that goes on here."

From that point on, Sepulveda said, he coordinated all the medical assets at the site from the 11th to about the 22nd of September, when the building was turned back to the building engineers and the FBI closed everything down.

Everything was happening so fast, and his adrenaline was pumping so strongly, Sepulveda said, that he didn't realize he was injured. That afternoon, he told a Navy doctor, "I've got this wicked headache, and I'm having problems from time to time focusing." The doctor told him he should get checked out after they finished helping people injured in the terror attack.

"I had a knot on the back of my head and everything else," Sepulveda noted. "Apparently I had what's called a subdural hematoma, which is pooling of blood in the head," he explained. "It wasn't something that happened quickly. They told me I had probably had a pinched vein, and just a little bit of blood was dripping out at a time. That was about a month later when I went to the flight surgeon's office and he discovered that I'd had a subdural hematoma."

Sepulveda said he doesn't remember passing out, but medical professionals told him he had to have lost consciousness, at least briefly. "They said with the wallop I received, there's no way that I wouldn't have at least lost consciousness for a brief moment," he said.

Sepulveda was born in Sangerman, Puerto Rico. When he was 9 and his mother came to New Jersey, he went to Spain to spend time with his grandparents. He joined the Air Force on April 12, 1969, when he was 19 and living in Passaic, N.J.

Arriving in Vietnam in February 1970, the sergeant returned to the United States on a litter in July 1972. He was wounded while serving as a medic with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division. "The Army didn't have enough medics to put on their Huey helicopters," he noted.

The Huey he was assigned to was hit while hovering about 50 feet over what the crew thought was a wounded American soldier. "It bothered me when I looked down and saw people putting the patient on the litter face down," Sepulveda said. "Secondly, they scurried back under the canopy, and that wasn't right. Usually, you put a patient on a litter on his back and one person looks up at the winch operator, so they can signal the operator if the litter starts spinning."

He told the pilot, "I don't like what I'm seeing here, something just doesn't wash right." The pilot asked him what he wanted to do, so Sepulveda opened the winch mechanism and let the litter drop a little bit.

"When the litter dropped, the person on the litter rolled and looked up at me," he said. "That's when I saw that the man was laying on a weapon. He was trying to come up to the helicopter with a weapon.

"I said, no he ain't, and dropped him," the sergeant said.

That's when the enemy started firing mortar rounds at the helicopter, and one hit the tail rudder. "Since I was at the door and didn't have my safety harness on, I fell out of the helicopter," Sepulveda said.

"I was hitting tree branches on the way down and broke my right hand, busted the lower part of my left leg and some ribs," he said. "I was in pretty much of a mess."

Falling out of the helicopter actually saved his life. "Because I fell out of the helicopter, I was the only one that survived," he said. "When the helicopter was hit, it exploded, and no one aboard survived. So, if I had taken the time to be safe that day, I wouldn't be here talking with you right now. I guess God wasn't ready for me."

The other helicopters in the formation opened fire and cleaned the area. "I guess somebody dropped down and brought me back up, and then we took off," he said.

Sepulveda spent about five months in the hospital at Yokota Air Base, Japan, before being flown to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu and later to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. It took him about a year to fully recover.

During Operation Desert Storm, Sepulveda served with the 822nd Aero-medical Staging Squadron, now called the 920th Rescue Wing, at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

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