When American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the of the Pentagon on September 11, Commander Charles E. Coughlin, like hundreds of other Pentagon employees, started to evacuate. “But then I began to think of my wife and four children,” he recalls. “And I would hope if they were in a situation like this someone would go back to help them.”
So go back he did, and you’d be hard pressed to find an individual better prepared to deal with a catastrophe. A trained EMT and a submariner by trade, he points out, “We were always training for casualties.” Within the close confines of a submarine, “every individual is expected to be part of the damage control effort.”
Coughlin worked his way down through smoke-filled corridors to where the plane’s fuselage had come to rest and he assisted in putting out fires and evacuating the injured. He describes the area as “surreal,” almost pitch black except for the weak gleam of emergency lights, and filled with smoke, water and the acrid odor of burning jet fuel.
When he finally made it outside the building, he assisted the medical team offloading supplies, transporting stretchers, setting up triage areas and training rescue volunteers how to evacuate the injured. It wasn’t until the following morning, when the adrenaline wore off and he woke up with pain in his neck and loss of feeling in his left arm that he realized that he himself had sustained an injury when a ceiling fragment fell on his head.
His heroic efforts on that fateful day have earned him a Meritorious Service Medal, while the injury he suffered from an act by a hostile force merited him the Purple Heart. In reflecting on how 9/11 affected his feelings on serving his country, Coughlin replies, “I have always been proud of my service to my country, but I now have a deeper sense of purpose for doing what I do — protecting the freedoms and ideals every individual in this country enjoys. I have a sharper focus on the importance of protecting the liberties we often take for granted and how quickly those liberties could vanish if we fail to maintain a strong will against those that would seek to destroy them.”
Coughlin, who traces his Irish roots back to Counties Clare, Kilkenny, and Tipperary, takes a similar pride in his Irish American heritage and his family’s long tradition of service in the police force, both in his native Long Island and in the NYPD. ♦