Truck driver Tim Philmon, along with millions of Americans, marked the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on Friday by remembering the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.
Philmon says he recalls exactly where he was on Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard the news that planes had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth aircraft had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
“I was with several drivers, who were staged in Miami waiting to get loaded with bags of cement, when another truck driver told us a plane had flown into one of the twin towers,” Philmon told FreightWaves. “One of the drivers said he had a TV in his truck, so we ran over there and watched as another plane hit the second tower.”
Immediately after the attacks, Philmon said he and other drivers “just left their loads on the dock and went home.”
“We called dispatch and said we needed to get home to our families,” Philmon said. “At the time, we didn’t know if we were at war or not. We only had flip phones back then so we didn’t know who had done this.”
After deadheading 365 miles home, Philmon, who lived in Jacksonville, Florida, at the time, spent the rest of the week glued to the TV with his family.
A chance to give back
The events of 9/11 haunted Philmon. On the anniversary of the attacks every year, he replayed over and over again in his head the media clips and photos of those who had lost their lives.
But several years later, Philmon’s profession gave him an unusual opportunity to work through some of the painful memories of the attacks.
In early April 2010, nearly nine years after the attacks, Philmon’s wife, Becky, saw a post by one of Landstar’s agents about needing flatbed trailers to haul a convoy of loads out of New York City.
By then, Philmon was no longer driving local routes and was a flatbedder leased to Jacksonville-based Landstar Systems Inc.
“I called the agent, who said he was looking for truckers to haul some material that was at Ground Zero and had been housed in a storage hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport all of this time,” Philmon told FreightWaves. “I immediately told the agent to sign me up. I didn’t even ask what it was paying or if it was a volunteer load. I knew I was going to be part of that convoy.”
He later found out that the mile-long 28-truck convoy was going to return 500 tons of assorted steel pieces, known as “trees” or “tridents” because of their three-pronged branches, to Lukens Steel Co. in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where they had been forged 41 years earlier.
In the late 1960s, Lukens produced more than 150 of the beams used to build the twin towers, including 19 on each side of both buildings that extended to the ninth floors.
After the attack, portions of the north and east walls of the north tower, constructed with Lukens’ steel trees, refused to fall.
Coatesville leaders worked with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to bring the steel trees back to the National Iron and Heritage Museum where they now honor fallen Lukens workers.
The convoy of 28 flatbed tractor-trailers rolled out from JFK early April 14, 2010, with police escorts.
As the truck drivers crossed the George Washington Bridge, a news helicopter hovered overhead, inquiring about the mile-long convoy of trucks draped with American flags that were holding up traffic.
Philmon, who was listening to AM/FM radio, said the news crew quickly came back with an update that the truck drivers, who were slowing traffic, were hauling a “bunch of World Trade Center steel back to Pennsylvania.”
That’s when everything changed because the convoy hadn’t been publicized beforehand, he said.
“I was listening to a country music station and they were playing ‘Only in America’ by Brooks and Dunn and I called them and told them about our convoy and our route to Coatesville, Pennsylvania,” he said. “Once it hit the airwaves, it started getting out in front of us.”
It wasn’t long before overpasses were crowded with thousands of people, waving American flags, cheering on the truckers as they made their way toward Coatesville, he said.
In one country town, the truck drivers stopped to stretch their legs and get coffee but noticed the town had “emptied out” and was walking around their trucks.
“Some were praying, some were crying because they had lost a family member on 9/11,” he said. “As we were leaving one country town, the fire station had all of its fire trucks pulled out of the bays. Their ladder truck had an American flag raised to half-mast, and all of the firefighters saluted us as we drove by. I still get chills when I think about that moment.”
The 150-mile trip took the truckers nearly 14 hours as they stopped in those small towns along the way from New York City to Pennsylvania.
“As bad as everybody wants to say this country is, when something like that happens to our country, I believe we still honor each other and we reunite,” Philmon said. “No matter our political differences, no matter our backgrounds, 9/11 is the kind of thing that brings people together.”
A photographer captured the moment Philmon picked up a piece of steel lodged in his flatbed trailer from the World Trade Center.
It’s a moment he will never forget.
“All of these memories flashed through my mind of all the people who had died on 9/11,” Philmon said. “I couldn’t let them down.”
He has a box of photos and the piece of steel he collected from the WTC that he hopes to pass along to his grandchildren someday.
“It’s a humbling experience for me to be a part of something that was such a tragedy, but it’s such a major part of our country’s history,” Philmon said. “As a truck driver, I don’t think anything has greater meaning than this convoy because I will forever cherish this memory.”
More than ten years later, Philmon said he still gets emotional thinking back to 9/11 and to the convoy back to Coatesville.
“If I ever lose the feeling captured in that picture of me holding that piece of steel, I have lost my soul,” he said. “I hope that never happens.”