HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT)-- It was a plane ride to Redstone Arsenal from Newark, NJ that kept Casey Wardynski, then Director of the US Army Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, in the skies during the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.
At that time in his life, he was high up in the Army, working closely with senior leaders at the Pentagon. It often took him to the very offices that were destroyed during the attacks. He could easily have been there that day, if he hadn't been following different orders.
"I'm kind of a spiritual guy, I think we've all got a mission. That wasn't my fate," he said. "I was coming to the Arsenal to visit the Patriot office, for the Patriot missile system," he explained. "I left Newark Airport and it was a beautiful day... You could look across and see the Twin Towers. I remember looking at them."
He didn't know it yet, but that was the last time he would see those iconic structures. When he landed in the Tennessee Valley, he heard the news from his mother during a phone call.
"She said, 'Oh, I'm so glad you answered the phone!' And I said, 'Well, it's good to hear from you too...' And she said, 'Well, we thought you were dead,'" he recalls. He ended up taking his rental car back from Huntsville to Washington, DC as soon as he could.
As he recounted the day to WHNT News 19, he understands how close he could have come to being in those offices as the planes hit. His friends, and superiors, were hurt and even killed.
"It was awful," he recalled, detailing how he visited friends in the hospital when he got back to the Capitol. "Most of the people I worked with were either hurt or killed in the Pentagon. The part of the Pentagon that took care of Army Personnel was what was hit."
The days that followed would be hard. He recalled the funeral of his boss, LTG Timothy Maude.
"It was probably one of the worst days I've ever seen," he said. "Good guy. Army funerals are tear-jerkers to begin with, but from 4-star Generals to civilians, there wasn't a dry eye in the chapel."
He recalled that the losses they suffered, especially that of LTG Maude, changed the course of the Army.
"Gen. Maude was getting ready to do some things that were going to help the Army be much better prepared for war," said Wardynski. "His loss caused those things to be delayed by about 3 to 4 years. The consequences of that will haunt America for many, many years."
He said perhaps the funeral that hit him the hardest, though, was that of LTC Kip Taylor.
"I went to his funeral, and his wife was there. Kip was a Major, he was General Maude's aide. He'd been trying forever to have a baby. His wife was pregnant, I discovered at the funeral... The disaster continued in that family. 2 years later, she was dead from breast cancer. So 2 beautiful new kids, no mom no dad. Pretty tough."
He said that from the second he found out about the attacks, "I knew we were at war." That's where his mind went, and stayed, in the days following. He remembers a meeting with the Secretary of the Army and assistant secretary for personnel: "I talked to them about what we needed to do to hold the volunteer Army together during a war that could be quite long. And ultimately, we ended up doing a lot of those things and they did end up holding the Army together during a long war."
Another surprising tidbit came later. Looking back, once he learned the details, Wardynski says he found out the plane that went down in Pennsylvania took off at the gate next to his in Newark that morning.
"Somewhere in that terminal that day, I was in the same area as the bastards that did that to our country," he said.
Through all the loss, and the danger the first responders faced, and then the troops overcame in the following years, he believes there are things people tend to forget.
"People forget we are at war," he commented. "When you've lost friends from Day 1, it's not hard to remember why we're at war and the cost that's been paid by many, many people."
But his time since 9/11, and what he's done with his life since then, has been the best way he's fulfilled his own mission.
"Life is for the living," he said. "We've got to do the best we can with it."