By Senior Airman Shelby Thurman, Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command
/ Published September 10, 2021
People walk in a dust and debris-filled street after the collapse of the first Twin Tower and look towards the fire coming from the second on Sept. 11, 2001, in front of the World Trade Center, New York City, New York. Col. Ephod Shang, vice commander of the 367th Recruiting Group and deputy director at the AFRC Headquarters for Recruiting on Robins AFB, Georgia, and others were hiding behind a random structure when the first tower fell, the dust completely blocked their vision. (Courtesy photo by Col. Ephod Shang)
Smoke and flames come from the Twin Towers Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, New York City, New York. This photo was captured with a disposable camera purchased specifically to capture events as they unfolded in front of Col. Ephod Shang, vice commander of the 367th Recruiting Group and deputy director at the AFRC Headquarters for Recruiting on Robins AFB, Georgia, when he was a newly minted captain at the time. (Courtesy photo by Col. Ephod Shang)
Official photo of Col. Ephod Shang. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)
“Do not call me courageous,” requested Col. Ephod Shang. “The Air Force Reserve trained me to respond instinctually in times of danger and threat; so I did.”
The now-vice commander of the 367th Recruiting Group and the deputy director at the Air Force Reserve Command Headquarters for Recruiting at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, recalled where he was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
As a youth pastor at a church in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, Shang took the public bus every day from his home on Staten Island, New York. The Air Force Reserve intelligence officer had just been promoted to the rank of captain with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
He remembered how beautiful the sky was as his usual commute took him closer to downtown New York City. There was a long stretch of tunnel to pass through before entering the main portion of downtown. His ride came to a screeching halt the moment the bus exited the tunnel back into the blinding daylight. The driver began yelling at the passengers to disembark. He then proceeded to high-tail it back to the other side of town, leaving all of them stranded in the busy street.
Shang looked up and saw what had caused the driver’s ire. Smoke from the first plane crash absorbed all of their attention. The sight provoked Shang’s instincts.
He ran inside a nearby convenience store to buy a disposable camera and sprinted towards the chaos. He attributes this specific purchase to his training as an intelligence officer with the Air Force Reserve.
“I immediately started photographing things in case there was a request from law enforcement,” Shang said. “I still have those photos to this day.”
After running as close as two blocks away from the Twin Towers, he found two members of his church. His instincts told him it was time to seek shelter. He recalled them running away from the pandemonium while scanning the area to find a safe haven. The heat and pressure compelling them forward. The best option they could find was a random structure that was already occupied by strangers.
Soon after joining them, the first tower collapsed. They were engulfed in dust and smoke. Embers from a nearby gentleman’s cigarette were masked by the thick pollution.
When the dust settled after what felt like an eternity to Shang, he knew it was time to continue moving people from the danger zone. Most people needed help putting one foot in front of the other because the dust impeded their vision so badly. He was thankful they found opportunities to rinse some of the soot from their eyes. Shang started giving orders to the church members once most of the people in their group could see enough to move.
“I told them to find people that were not injured and to order those individuals to help those that were injured in getting away from the area,” Shang said. “I said I would take the rear to ensure that everyone got out.”
The group started to put distance between themselves and Ground Zero. Before they could get very far there was more rumbling in the area. This time was from the second tower. It was time to seek shelter again.
The closest building belonged to a telecommunications company. They found that the floor-to-ceiling glass doors to the office were locked. Terrified employees inside stared back at them as they screamed from outside. In response to the staff not making a move to open the doors, Shang did something that he said he had never done before and never did since.
“I took my military ID out and slammed it against the glass,” Shang admitted. “I need to speak with your highest ranking person with authority to let us in.”
After getting approval from their higher ups, the employees rushed to open the door. Once inside, the doors were re-secured behind them.
Since no one had been able to get cellphone service, Shang took advantage of the type of business they were in. He demanded to get a secure line of communication to his unit so he could inform them about what was happening. They quickly complied and the intelligence officer was able to get the word out to his leadership. He made sure to follow up that phone call with one to his wife.
More of the dreaded chaos ensued outside as they continued to hide in the safety of the building. After the dust settled from the second tower’s collapse Shang and his group were able to get a chance to escape. They eventually made their way out of the immediate danger and into the hands of awaiting first responders.
Shang’s actions that morning resulted in those members of his church and many other strangers being able to walk away with their lives. Additionally, his actions preserved the stress and intensity of the moment through photography. He is still serving in the Air Force Reserve and plans on continuing to serve until he reaches mandatory retirement after his current tour.
“From providing leadership, to understanding threats, to looking for safe havens, to addressing injuries and helping others get outside the danger zone; I will always be grateful for the training I received through my affiliation with the Air Force Reserve,” Shang said. “This motivated me to continue to serve and I’m grateful to still be in uniform to this very day.”