Oldest active-duty enlisted Airman shares how 'more than coincidence' brought him to carry last live victim from 9-11 rubble

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Denise Johnson
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
From the Vietnam Conflict to Operation New Dawn, the oldest active-duty enlisted Airman recounts his participation in rescue operations at the base of the Twin Towers Sept. 11, 2001. (Editor's note: this is the third in a series of articles on the Air Force's oldest active-duty enlisted Airman. Catch up with the first article in the series here and the second article here. Tech. Sgt. Anthony Gomez contributed to this series.)

Chief Master Sgt. Paul Koester, Pararescue Functional Manager for the Battlefield Airmen Branch at Pacific Air Forces Headquarters here, swore his final oath of enlistment Dec. 7 under Gun Turret One aboard the retired USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor.

The 58-year-old pararescueman commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of his final tour of duty after 39 years of service. Koester joined the Air Force in 1974.

The impact from the drawdown of personnel following the end of the Vietnam Conflict was rapidly making its way through the Air Force by the early 1980s. This was one of several factors which Koester said led him to separate from active duty while stationed at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

With just more than a decade of service, Koester took advantage of the offer of a civilian job with an aviation communication company in Annapolis, Md. His transition to the civilian sector in 1986 would lead to an array of paths that Koester said he never would have foretold at that time, including earning the first of two graduate degrees by the end of 1987.

Koester's job in Annapolis led him to Long Island, N.Y., on transfer. He said something happened while there that was "more than a coincidence" in 1987.

"Just by chance, I happened to be inspecting an aviation communication antenna when I saw these two parachutes coming down," he explained. "I recognized the kind of chute right away, so I drove over to where (the jumpers) landed and one of the guys was my (PJ) class leader from 1974.

Koester's previous-class leader convinced him to join the New York Air National Guard. He spent the next 16 years back in uniform as a pararescueman with the 102nd Rescue Squadron at Gabresky Air National Guard Base in Long Island.

When the then-guardsman got laid off from his civilian job he applied for and beat out 6,000 applicants for one of 20 positions as a United States Federal Air Marshal.

Koester said he deployed at least five times with his guard unit, mostly in support of the no-fly zones for Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch.

"We'd be there for combat search and rescue support in case (air crews) got jammed up; but nothing of significance really happened during that time," Koester said. "The riskiest part of the job was flying in helicopters, for the most part."

Nothing of significance until 2001, that is.

The series of coincidences seemed to be leading up to one pivotal moment. Koester separated from active duty: took a job in Maryland which then transferred him to Long Island where he happened to recognize two parachutes landing nearby; he said he was compelled to go to the landing zone; he just happened to know one of the parachutists who then convinced him to join the New York ANG; and finally:

"I happened to be up in Long Island for my week of active duty in September of 2001. We were standing in the team room; we just got done with PT. I see on the television that two planes hit the trade center. When the second one hit, we knew right away we were under attack," Koester said.

His ANG base was only 64 miles away from the twin towers.

"We got all the medical gear and weapons together that we could. We knew we would launch on that mission, which we did," Koester explained. "(The helicopter aircrew) flew us into the base of the trade center to drop off the command and control team ... I flew with the team that same morning, the 11th. I was the only PJ onboard that two-ship of helicopters so I got to see it when it was still burning ... you know, big.

"We were the only ones flying ... that was weird: flying to it. We could see it from a long ways away. The smoke was going up a couple-thousand feet. I remember looking down as we flew over a golf course at a hotel resort and there were guys out there playing golf totally oblivious to what had happened 40 miles away. I figured they'd be in for a hell of a surprise when they got back to the clubhouse. Just one of those stupid things you remember," Koester recalled as his voice drifted off. "We're trained to think in terms of plane crashes, neighborhoods getting blown up, vehicle accidents, things like that ... but when you actually landed there and looked at the enormity of the situation, I don't think anyone could ever grasp just how big this was. It was like being on a movie set, it was very surreal and you felt very detached. It was impossible to grasp how big this was."

Koester got back onboard the helicopter headed to the ANG base for the rest of his team.
"Then we went back and got all the rest of the PJs and flew in and spent the night out there. We spent the next 26 hours helping everybody else -- just getting the last of the survivors out," Koester said. "There were hundreds and hundreds of aid workers and first responders, firefighters, the Red Cross and FEMA, doing what they could to basically dig through the rubble. We'd find pockets here and there of a survivor or two."

The team, despite the looming risks, continued its quest to find survivors.

"We did a perimeter search and went inside -- I think it was Building 7 -- and like an hour after we cleared it, the building collapsed. It was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen," he said.

And still the search continued ...

"I think Chief Koester kind of embodies the motto of pararescuemen, 'that others may live,' and that's really what it comes down to," commented Tech. Sgt. Steve Raethel, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape noncommissioned officer in charge for the 437th Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. "It takes a special caliber of individual to be able to fly into firefights in order to save others; so yes, they may have to return fire or put themselves in harm's way, but it's so 'that others may live.' They're actions are selfless, putting other people's lives before their own."

Koester recalled being on the scene to rescue the last person found alive in the wreckage.

"Another PJ on our team climbed atop this big pile of rubble and found a gal who had been inside a little catacomb for the entire night, just covered in white powder," he said. "We got her out and carried her in a Stokes litter down the mountain of rubble. She was the last survivor found. They called the search off." Koester said the operation then turned into a recovery mission, "... and then we knew our part was done, there was nothing else we could do."

The team departed Ground Zero, indelibly marked by the tragedy.

"So that was Sept. 12 and by Oct. 8 we were on a flight over to Southwest Asia," the chief said. "I remember sitting in the car driving to the airport, this trip was already planned as part of OSW, but the climate had certainly changed after 9-11 and I was still attached to the New York guard; so I remember driving to the airport when the announcement came over the news, 'the bombing campaign has begun in Afghanistan' ... it got real quiet in the car. I think everybody knew: it was very personal after 9-11 because we lost so many. Quite a few of the pilots in the helicopters and C-130s were also full-time cops and firemen in the city. They lost a lot of family and friends, so we were looking to go over there and kick some ass, tear it up ... to avenge our fallen. We put a lot of ordnance down those first few weeks with NYPD and NYFD stickers on them -- stickers were on the front of our helicopters, we made sure (the 9-11 victims) weren't forgotten."

Prior to 9-11 Koester said he shielded first his parents and later his wife and children from the heavy part of his job.

"But by now they were old enough to understand what I was doing and they fully supported it," he said. "We still lived in Annapolis at the time, so the Pentagon was only 45 minutes away from our home."

The proximity of the events, so close to his home and guard unit, shined a new light and gave the public and his family a new perspective on some of Koester's military and civilian duties.

"As a son, you come up with creative ways to tell your parents what you're doing as opposed to what you're really doing. I think deep down they knew, especially when we started deploying ... but up until the first Gulf War in 1990, you didn't really deploy -- you'd go on long (temporary duties) and spend a lot of time in the field but then we started ONW and OSW flying the Iraqi borders in the helicopters, but those TDYs weren't all that long ..." he said. "Well, after 9-11 ... that was a big game changer because everybody got to see on the news what was going on as well as some of what we were doing. There's no way you're telling them everything you're doing: one, because a lot of it is classified; but two, just the nature of it, because it can get pretty hairy."

Whether it was fate or a series of coincidences that brought Koester - the Air Force's oldest active-duty Airman - to the base of the twin towers on that tragic day, might never be determined but Koester's moments facing life and death were far from over. The deployments and Koester's experiences continued to mount in the subsequent years following 9-11.

Editor's note: Continue to watch www.pacaf.af.mil to hear and read about Koester's deployment experiences and how he found himself back in active duty in the next article covering Koester's illustrious career. Catch up with the first article in the series here and the second article here. Koester calls Colorado Springs, Colo., home. Raethel hails from Kailua, Hawaii.