In the shadow of two towers

Amid the rubble, a Craig native stood tall

Five years ago.

The day the world changed before our horrified eyes.

We'd seen other days like it -- Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the day the levees broke -- but not many.

Sept. 11, 2001.

Before then, words like threat matrix, al-Qaida, anthrax, Osama bin Laden ... ground zero, they weren't in our vocabulary.

Then it happened.

In an instant, the World Trade Center was destroyed, the Pentagon crippled.

Innocent souls -- 2,973 of them -- were murdered.

The images shocked us.

Planes turned into guided missiles. Once proud pillars collapsed like toy blocks. Smoke and rubble blanketed the streets. People with a glazed-over look of terror on their faces ran for safety.

Sept. 11, 2001.

A day we don't want to remember. A day we can't forget.

'Concrete, dust

and blood'

Marc Juarez, a Craig resident, 1997 graduate of Moffat County High School and former Marine Corps sergeant, was there.

The images we saw on television -- the destruction and the chaos -- he experienced up close and personal.

"That scent," he said, "of concrete, dust and blood ... I'll never ever get rid of it."

Like most of America, Juarez woke up on Sept. 11 to unimaginable destruction. The towers had already been struck. An hour later, the Pentagon was hit.

Just hours after the attacks, Juarez was a on a plane heading to New York City. His Marine Corps unit was charged with guarding the twin towers site. When his helicopter hovered over ground zero, Juarez says he witnessed a scene beyond description. He said New York City was covered in the charcoal color of burnt ash.

"It was chaos," he said. "Nobody knew what happened. ... It was just shocking. It was hard to describe ... hard to grasp what had just taken place."

For a week-and-a-half, Juarez and his fellow Marines bounced between ground zero, the Pentagon and the White House. He spent the majority of his time in New York City, alternating between guarding the site, nearby buildings and escorting bomb squads.

"Emotions were running high," he said. "People were in shock. Whatever you could do to help, you did it and people were grateful for it."

After a few days at the site, Juarez began sifting through the rubble, searching for survivors.

By the fifth day, he and the other Marines began another job.

They started pulling bodies, and body parts, from the ruins.

The president's man

Working round the clock, and volunteering to work more after their shifts had ended, Juarez and his Marines were running on fumes by the third day. They hadn't had a chance to shower, and had eaten little food.

They were working on the premise that people needed help and a job needed to get done. They didn't have time to be tired. They didn't have time to be personally affected by the attacks.

Juarez said he tried to keep emotions compartmentalized.

"We just had to finish our job," he said. "I think everybody kind of dealt with it their own way."

In a New York minute, his circumstances changed. A black limousine pulled up to the tower site. Inside the vehicle: President George W. Bush and NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The politicos surveyed the damage. Later, they invited Juarez and two other Marines to dinner at the mayor's mansion.

Breaking bread just a seat down from Bush, the commander-in-chief asked Juarez his opinion of the situation.

He leaned into the president and gave a gung-ho answer that would make any Marine proud.

"I said, 'Mr. President, if you say the word, we'll go (to war),'" he said. "We're ready."

The hunt for bin Laden

Afghanistan. Operation Mountain Lion.

Juarez and his unit arrived two to three weeks before larger military operations in the region began.

Their mission: locate and capture the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks -- bin Laden.

Scouring caves and trails in some of the most desolate places in the country, Juarez and his unit came close several times to finding the al-Qaida mastermind, but could never quite catch up to him.

Someday, the former Marine said, U.S. forces will bring bin Laden to justice and he'll have to answer to the murders he caused five years ago.

Although apprehending bin Laden would be a huge blow against terrorism, and monumental step toward keeping America safe from another attack, Juarez cautions that the world will never be completely rid of enemies.

"The reality is you can't stop terrorism," he said. "It's next to impossible to pinpoint when and where something is going to happen."

But, people can strike a blow against enemies like bin Laden, Juarez said, by not letting it influence their everyday lives.

"I just feel people need to focus on their jobs, spend time with their families, try to achieve something," he said. "If you go to bed scared, you're letting terror into your life. (By scaring you) the terrorists have done their job."

Total recall

Today, Juarez -- a general contractor and youth adviser at the Apostolic Lighthouse Church in Craig -- thinks back often to those traumatic days five years ago.

When he's working alone, in the solitude of his own thoughts, the events from Sept. 11 run like a movie reel. Juarez said he can recall every minute of the events following the attacks.

"I think a lot about it then," he said. "I just remember everything that happened. It's something that's hard to swallow."

Through the things he's seen, from the carnage of Sept. 11 to the conflicts in the Middle East, Juarez said he's learned to put things into perspective.

"Some things just aren't worth arguing about," he said.

Juarez said he's proud of the Marines and the soldiers a world away fighting on behalf of Americans at home. When asked how often he thinks of the brave men and women fighting the war against terrorism, his answer is blunt and straightforward.

"Every day," he said.

He said he'll spend today, the fifth anniversary of the attacks, making the most of his day. However, memories of the post-9/11 fallout won't be far from his mind.

"When it was all said and done ... I sat back and got teary-eyed," he said. "You take time out for a minute and realize what happened and everything just starts to catch up on you."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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