The events of Sept. 11 and the Coast Guard’s role as a first responder in New York Harbor are folded into the Patriot Day mantra of “never forget.” Yet, an increasing number of our newest shipmates were too young to remember, or not yet alive.
Our service’s memory of 9/11 is formed around the first-person experiences like that of Capt. Michael Day as well as the conversations and commemorations we hold with our colleagues. Both assigned to the Commandant’s staff, Lt. Kiley Relf sat down with Day to reflect on what 9/11 means to them and to share their respective experiences as lieutenants in New York, more than a decade apart.
DAY: What’s your first memory of that day?
RELF: I was in fourth grade living in Chicago. I remember my teacher turning on the classroom’s TV in a frenzy. This was back when the TVs used to be on the carts and you pulled them from the back. She pulled the TV out and turned on the news and I just saw smoke and fire everywhere. I didn’t really know what was going on. My teacher explained what happened. That America had been attacked. That was all we really knew in that moment. Originally we thought it was an accident because at that time only one tower had fallen. Maybe an hour or so later my mom came to pick up my brother and [me] from school – she was crying hysterically. She thought my dad was going to go to New York since he was a police officer, and first responders were being deployed, shipped off to help. That was my first memory. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I was really confused.
DAY: You went on to be stationed in New York City. What were your thoughts driving down the West Side Highway, being where the towers once stood, passing the 9/11 Memorial site? What were your thoughts being stationed there 15 years after the 9/11 you experienced as a fourth grader?
RELF: I was very moved. I know that those events on September 11, 2001, changed my life more as an adult than it did at the actual time that it happened. Being in New York, you’re actually there: you see it, you witness it, and you still feel the impact of September of 2001. Even 19 years later, you feel that impact. While I was stationed in New York, we participated in the Tunnels to Towers run and just seeing that, running through the Brooklyn Battery tunnel, I can only imagine how New York Firefighter Steven Siller felt when he ran through the tunnel to respond.
DAY: You worked with a lot of people at Sector New York that were working at the Sector on September 11th. Did you every talk to those guys about their experiences?
RELF: I spoke with the warrant officers that were actually present at Sector New York at the time of the attack and were also stationed there years later, when I was there. It was very interesting to hear their perspective and hear how everything happened physically, on that day. One of the warrants would tell me his story and he would get very emotional. He could never tell the story start to finish without crying. It was very hard for him to speak on it - he physically saw the plane hitting the second tower.
DAY: Do you think we’re prepared to respond to a similar event?
RELF: It will always hurt us and impact us whether you’re one or 100. I don’t think we’re ever prepared for something like what happened, emotionally. As a service, yes. I think we’re equipped with the people and the training we need to have.
DAY: Never forget.
RELF: Exactly. You were a lieutenant stationed in New York on September 11, 2001. How do you feel the maritime community has changed since that time?
DAY: I think the maritime community would respond in a similar fashion in similar circumstances. I think it’s in their DNA to help one another - that’s a common bonds amongst people in the maritime community. It was years later that the Tom Hanks video came out that called attention to the efforts. It felt good to know we helped people along the way but the enormity of the situation didn’t lend itself to talking about it.
RELF: People sometimes ask what a hero looks like. But in that situation on that specific day how did the community, how did the Coast Guard interact together to help save lives.
DAY: I think the relationships the Coast Guard has fostered with the maritime community, there’s a high level of trust. They were willing to listen to some direction from the Coast Guard as an authority on the water, and we took a proactive response. Everyone was moving in the right direction.
RELF: When you returned to New York as the Captain of the Port and when you participated in remembrance ceremonies, did your feelings about that day come back or change over time?
DAY: I think they come back even stronger as time goes by. It’s a combination of being there seeing things but also learning more of what happened. Having more of an appreciation of how people’s lives have been impacted. I knew people in the tower that died that day – three people – and how their families’ lives have to go on without them. Seeing that gives you perspective.
Capt. Michael Day currently serves as the Executive Assistant to the Commandant. He previously served as commander, Sector New York and deputy commander, U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco. Day served at Coast Guard Activities New York during Sept. 11, coordinating one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history.
Lt. Kiley Relf currently serves as the Protocol Officer to the Commandant. She previously served as the Waterways Management Division Chief at Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia and as an Apprentice Marine Inspector at Sector New York.
NEW YORK – Capt. Michael Day, commander, Coast Guard Sector New York, gives remarks during a 9/11 observance ceremony held at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, New York, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. Sector New York personnel stood in formation for morning colors and the ceremony, which honored the fallen on that fateful day. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ali Flockerzi.)
|NEW YORK - Ens. Kelly Relf stands on the back of a 45-foot medium response boat in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, October 16, 2014. Now Lt. Relf took time Sept. 9, 2020, to interview Capt. Michael Day, who coordinated the Coast Guard's response during 9/11. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)