Active duty Marines Crystal and Andy Stephenson, a young married couple were both working on Sept. 11, 2001 — one in New York and one in South Carolina — when time stopped and the world changed.
Andy, a military bomb dog handler from Rayville, and Crystal, who is from Pennsylvania, were stationed in South Carolina but Andy was on loan to the United States Secret Service. He was working in New York City on an advance team for the United Nations General Assembly.
His base of operations was the World Trade Center, towers 7 and 2 somewhere around the 85th floor. Tower 2 was the second tower hit by a hijacked aircraft shortly after 9 a.m. Sept. 11.
Andy was to be at work at 9 a.m., but something that he says still defies explanation delayed his arrival.
"It was 8:15 or 8:20, and I decided to take Sheila (his bomb detecting dog) down to Central Park, the only patch of grass we could find in New York City," he said.
Sheila was a highly trained bomb detection dog who easily responded to hand and voice commands. But, when Andy decided to go back to the hotel, Sheila refused to come.
"She was chasing pigeons, she wouldn’t come when I called her," he said. "She would lay down, and when I would try to get close to her, she would take off running. Here I was, someone who was supposed to be able to control his dog and I couldn’t. I felt like a fool. Thank goodness I wasn’t in uniform."
For 15 minutes, Andy chased and coerced Sheila before gaining control and returning to the hotel.
"I don’t know what happened," he said. "She’s never acted that way before, and she never acted that way again."
At the hotel, he met up with three other Marines and left to catch the E train to the subway stop at the World Trade Mart. They missed the train and had to wait another seven minutes for the next.
Meanwhile, Crystal heard about a plane crashing into the first tower of the World Trade Center through a phone call from Andy’s sister who didn’t know Andy was in New York. “I said, ‘Andy’s there’ and I hung up,” Crystal said. “Right then, Andy called.”
Andy had emerged from the subway to find one of the towers burning. Like many others, it took him a few seconds to realize the magnitude of what had happened. When he did, he immediately called Crystal to let her know he was not in the building and that he was OK.
Crystal was six months pregnant with their daughter.
"You could hear the fear in her voice," Andy said.
The whole scenario unfolded as Andy watched. He saw children being led from a day care center hand in hand away from the World Trade Center area.
He was watching what he thought was paper falling out of the tower when he realized it was much worse.
"It was actually people jumping out, hand in hand," he said.
While the couple was on the phone, another plane hit the second tower and they lost their phone connection.
"I actually fell down, and somebody caught me," Crystal said. "My knees got weak."
Crystal went to her office to watch television with her co-workers. She feared that Andy had gone into the tower to help with the rescue effort.
"I remember everybody turned around and looked at me," she said. "I must have been crying hysterically, someone said: ‘Get her out of here.’"
Crystal said she asked to go home where she could be near her home phone and her cell phone.
"I watched the towers fall," she said. "I watched one fall and then I watched the other fall. All I could think about was how I was going to have to be able to explain to our daughter who her father was."
Hours passed before she reconnected with Andy.
In New York City, Andy offered his assistance but was moved away from the scene with others in the effort to evacuate the area.
As he left the area, he stopped to buy a disposable camera to capture the scene. He posed with his fellow Marine, Sgt. Christian Blue, as the towers burned in the background. During the days that followed, Andy was called to work with Sheila to secure areas for visits by former President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.
"What I’ll always remember about that day is that after a city was humbled and brought to its knees, there was this huge sense of togetherness and patriotism," Andy said.
Less than a month later, Andy and Crystal, impacted by the events of Sept. 11, re-enlisted in the Marines for another four years.
Crystal is a member of the National Guard and has served a tour of duty in Iraq. Andy is a Louisiana State Police trooper on patrol with his narcotic detecting dog, Senda.
"I believe some people are meant for the military and some aren’t," Crystal said. "Some can bear the weight and some can’t. Those of us that can, should … and we did."