BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Every month, Chief Master Sgt. Leonard Werner treks more than 1,300 miles from his home in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, to serve as the 307th Bomb Wing command chief here.
With more than two decades of service in the Air Force Reserve, Werner could have retired long ago. But he continues to serve because of one day that's seared into his memory: Sept. 12, 2001.
It’s the day he spent at Ground Zero.
A wake-up call
Werner was sleeping soundly in his Mount Laurel home on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He’d worked the night shift as a policeman for the township and was finally resting.
It would not last long.
He was yanked from his slumber by his wife, insisting he get up to see a news story on television. Werner immediately knew something was wrong.
“She normally would not wake me up for anything, and she knows I don’t watch TV very much,” he said.
He stumbled to the TV and watched in bleary-eyed disbelief as one World Trade Center tower, then another, burst into flames.
Werner exudes a quiet humility, and he is quick to dispel any illusions of heroism. But it is hard to deny he is prone to action. Even now, as command chief, he seems uncomfortable behind a desk, preferring to be out working and helping his fellow Airmen.
So, his first reaction was to call his Air Force Reserve unit at the time, the 514th Airlift Wing, and offer to help. But the smoke was still pluming from the towers, and all the unit could do was standby for orders.
Werner spent the day watching helplessly as the towers crumbled to the ground, a desire to take action gnawing at his core. By the time he went back to work that night, he was consumed by the idea of going to New York City and doing something, anything.
“I spoke to my field training officer (FTO)that night, and we just talked about how crazy the situation was and how we ought to get out there,” he said.
New Jersey had set up a staging area for first responders, but the call for volunteers had not reached Mount Laurel’s police department. For Werner and his FTO, Scott Johnson, the response pace was maddeningly slow. The two cops hatched their plan.
They would go to New York as civilians.
Onto ground zero
So, early on Sept. 12, Leonard and Johnson took off for the hour-long ride to New York. They told no one from the Mount Laurel Police Department of their plan, a move entirely out of character for the two policemen.
“It may not have been the right thing to do necessarily, but our brother and sister first-responders were down there, and we needed to see what we could do,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Johnson and Werner worried they might not be allowed into the city. That expectation seemed real as they approached a checkpoint at the George Washington Bridge, coming face-to-face with a tired and frazzled NYPD officer.
He glared at the two, wearing their civilian clothes and sitting in a personal vehicle.
“Whadda you guys want?” he asked, the words coming out more like a bark than a question.
Leonard showed his police badge and explained they wanted to help any way they could. The officer sized them up and then pointed.
“He said, ‘Go down this ramp’ and then gave us some rudimentary directions, and we took off,” said Leonard.
What they found was utter chaos. Pedestrians clambered around aimlessly, some looking for missing loved ones, others just walking with a blank expression. A haze of dust still hung in the air. The smell of burnt concrete filled Werner’s nose and sank into his chest.
Werner and Johnson were issued safety equipment and assigned to the bucket brigade, a long line of volunteers moving rubble by hand so search and rescue teams could look for survivors. Werner remembers being right where he wanted to be.
“I didn’t even think about safety, my adrenaline was pumping, and I was amped up and ready to make an impact,” he said
But he was not ready for the scene that greeted him at the worksite. Rescue dogs scoured a massive pile of rubble that dwarfed Leonard, even though he is a towering figure, standing well over six feet tall. His usual calm demeanor betrayed him as he watched search dogs work, trying to find survivors under the twisted metal and shattered concrete.
The long line of volunteers in the bucket brigade seemed to stretch endlessly through the wreckage.
“I just remember it was very chaotic with everyone yelling directions, and then it would go completely silent,” he said. “Someone would send a message from the top of the line that the search dogs had heard something and needed silence to try and find a person under the rubble.”
In Harm’s way
Hours passed, and Werner kept working. Suddenly the bucket brigade began to disintegrate. Volunteers began to start running, a mass of humanity retreating from the top of the pile.
Confused, Leonard and Johnson stood in shock as the crowd made their way toward them. Then clarity struck.
“We realized they must know something we don’t, so we started running, too,” he said.
Werner didn’t realize a warning had gone out that a nearby building might collapse and crush the volunteers. Still, they raced blindly forward, not sure what was happening or where safety might be.
They hadn’t gone far when they came across a fellow volunteer who had collapsed trying to escape. Werner and Johnson picked the man up and carried him until they reached safety.
After the close call, Leonard realized he needed to call his superiors at the Mt. Laurel Police Department and ask for permission to stay and help through the night.
The answer was no. Mount Laurel had 9/11 problems of its own.
“People in Mount Laurel will take the Greyhound into New York for work, but the parking lot is always empty at night after everyone returns,” said Leonard.
Now the lot was still full of cars after sunset, and Leonard was assigned the task of finding who they belonged to, victims of 9/11 who would never drive them again.
Werner never returned to Ground Zero, but his bias toward action would not let him rest. He served in other ways, deploying with the 514th AW on operations spawned by the terrorist attack.
But he doesn't view any of his actions as special, preferring to highlight the accomplishments of others.
“I just felt I needed to help, but the real heroes are the first-responders that went into the building and people who risked their lives to tunnel into the rubble and pulled out survivors,” he said.
Twenty years later, Werner said the memories of those heroes still fuel him. His service these days is in honor of their efforts, a living testament to what he saw on his day at Ground Zero.