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Local veteran remembers how 9/11 changed his life

Most Americans look back on Sept. 11, 2001, and remember where they were and how they heard about the terrorist attack.

Niagara Falls resident and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Onesi, 64, was closer than most – much closer. He was at the Pentagon, in the part of the building that was hit, just one floor above where his friends and co-workers were killed.

“I think about 9/11 at least once a day, every day. I lost 13 friends and co-workers and every day something will happen that will make me think of them and that experience,” said Onesi. “Especially being that close. The plane went underneath where I was standing. If it had bounced 10 feet it would have taken our floor out, too.”

A total of 125 people were killed in the Pentagon and an additional 64 died aboard the plane that crashed into the west side of the building.

Onesi said the plane did not hit the building from above, but rather hit a helipad and then crashed into the first and second floor of the building at about 300 mph. Onesi was on the third floor.

He said the area where the plane hit had been recently remodeled and reinforced.

“That saved our lives. If it had not have been remodeled it would have completely collapsed,” he added. “They designed it to sustain a hit.”

Onesi will be the keynote speaker at 2 p.m. Sunday at North Tonawanda’s Healing Field, a weekend memorial that will install 3,000 U.S. flags, each one tagged with the name of a person who lost their life in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the crash of Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania.

Organizers want each flag to have a local sponsor, who can be the name of a loved one, a first responder, a veteran, a volunteer, a community servant, or another deserving person, and their name will also be tagged on the American-made 3-by-5 cloth flag. When the event is over, sponsors can keep their flags and the eight-foot poles.

The sponsorship cost is $25 and every penny raised will benefit local veterans’ groups, organizers said.

Onesi has two adult children and two grandchildren and works as a civilian in academic admissions and student services.

How long were you in the Army?

I got married and had kids and then I decided to join the Army for three years. I ended up staying 23½ years. I retired 14 years ago. I just enjoyed it. I was enlisted first and then went to officers school and got a commission.

Right after Sept. 11?

I retired a year later. But it wasn’t because of that. I was actually supposed to retire on Aug. 31, 2001, and I pulled my retirement and stayed in the Army another year. I had learned to love it and knew I would miss it. I pulled my paperwork and it almost killed me. If I had retired on the day I was supposed to, I would have been in Niagara Falls on Sept. 11.

You served quite a long time.

I like the security of the job and the service to my country. It was important when I joined and it became more important as I saw what we did and why we did it. I think you either fall in love with it or you hate it. I loved it and I thought it was important to be combat-ready to defend the nation, but I never got to go to war. I didn’t get to deploy overseas. I was never in a place where I could do that. I spent a year in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division in the 1980s.

Did you grow up in Niagara Falls?

I was born and raised here. When I was 8 we moved to 34th Street. I tell people I am the miracle on 34th Street. I ran for the Niagara County Legislature and (though I wasn’t elected) I have been on the (Niagara County Industrial Development Agency) board since that time – for about eight years.

Tell me what happened to you on 9/11.

I left for work like any day and got off the Metro. At 7 a.m. I went to a meeting, one of those video conferences with people from all over the world, and the meeting took about two hours. I went back to the office and was talking to my boss. I walked out of his office and the whole building started to shake and the lights went dark. The strobe lights went on. I saw a flash to the side of me and I guess that was the explosion of the engines. But (the plane) had already come through one building.

Did you know what was happening right away?

Having been in California, I thought it was an earthquake. But earthquakes don’t come with smoke and I knew it had to be more than that. I picked myself up off the floor, because it did knock me down. In our office everybody went out the door, down the hall, and into the courtyard. Our whole office stayed intact. The building itself was pretty messed up.

Were you surprised someone would make an attempt on the Pentagon?

Yes. We used to call it Fortress America. It is the center of the entire military world. To attack it is gutsy. Our office didn’t collapse immediately. Our office was water damaged and smoke damaged pretty bad. Everything was damaged, but two weeks later a Bible came out without a scratch.

How close did you come to being killed or injured?

Many of the lieutenant colonels I worked with were killed on 9/11, but about three weeks before the attack I was reassigned out of that unit and as a result I was no longer in the meeting with them on Tuesday morning. I was in a different meeting on a floor above where they were meeting. The plane came through the building and hit the first building – went right through it and then the whole area collapsed. Had I not changed units I would have been in that meeting.

As a survivor, do you feel a responsibility?

I feel a responsibility to talk about it. But this (Healing Field event) will be a first for me on 9/11 itself, on the actual date. I’ve talked to different organizations and my Bible that came out and I get choked up when I think about the people I worked with and got to know. On 9/11 itself, I usually don’t go to work. I usually sit and reflect on 9/11. Every day I think about it in some shape or form. But I don’t want people to forget and I feel a responsibility to the people I knew and were killed that day. I think it will be an opportunity to honor them.

Note: Healing Field in Gratwick Riverside Park will begin at 6 p.m. Friday and continue with music and programs at 10 a.m. Saturday. On Sunday, Sept. 11, the reading of the names will begin just after 9 a.m. and there will be a musical prelude at 1 p.m. with Sugar and Jazz.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, Onesi will be joined by local politicians. There will also be a release of peace doves, a performance of taps by Bill Miles and patriotic songs by Henry Pendleton. The afternoon will conclude with a 21-gun salute, benediction and closing remarks. Bagpipes will be played as people pick up their flags.

You can purchase a flag on the weekend of the event, or in advance by sending a check with “Healing Field” in the memo to Exchange Club of the Tonawandas, P.O. Box 1, Tonawanda, NY, 14150 or online at www.healingfield.org/northtonawanda16/, www.erieniagaraexchange.com or North Tonawanda Healing Field 2016 on Facebook.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

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