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In Remembrance of a Life of Service


A new monument honors Air Force veteran, 9/11 victim Lt. Col. Robert J. Hymel

Air Force 1st Lt. Robert Hymel

Air Force 1st Lt. Robert Hymel stands in front a T- 38 jet at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, at the end of his pilot training in 1971. Photo courtesy of Laughlin Air Force Base

Air Force 1st Lt. Robert J. Hymel narrowly survived the harrowing crash of his B-52 bomber in the Vietnam War. Three decades later, he was killed when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into his Pentagon office Sept. 11, 2001.

The life of Hymel — a husband, father and Knight of Columbus — was commemorated at the Jan. 30 dedication ceremony of a new tower erected in his honor at the entrance of his alma mater, St. Charles Catholic High School in LaPlace, La. Louis G. Authement, a member of St. Charles Council 2409 in nearby Luling, launched the memorial project a decade ago, after he heard the story of the heroic veteran’s life from Hymel’s twin sister, Mary Toce.

Hymel joined the U.S. Air Force in 1969 and trained for combat in single seat fighter jets before being promoted to fly B-52s three years later. His bomber was struck by missiles during a mission in Thailand in 1972. Rather than bailing out, Hymel and his crew had attempted to fly the crippled plane back to base so that their wounded rear gunner could receive medical care. When the plane crashed, Hymel was badly injured and trapped in the smoldering cockpit. He was rescued just before the aircraft burst into flames.

Though Patricia, Hymel’s wife, received a telegraph stating that her husband was not expected to live, Hymel eventually returned home and met their daughter Natalie, who had been born during his deployment. After a long recuperation, Hymel continued active duty in the Air Force, including strategic planning in the Desert Storm and Desert Shield campaigns in the Persian Gulf.

Hymel retired from the Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1993 and began work with the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1994, the same year he joined the Knights of Columbus. Known for organizing blood drives with his council, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Council 8183 in Lake Ridge, Va., he was cleaning out his Pentagon office in preparation to move out the next day when the Sept. 11 attack took place. Hymel’s body was found under a doorframe, where it appeared he had been attempting to rescue a coworker from the fire when the floors above them collapsed. He was the only member of the Air Force killed that day.

“Nearly 29 years after being within seconds of certain death and rescued from the burning wreckage of his B-52, Robert died in the burning wreckage of 9/11 in the role of the rescuer attempting to save the life of another,” Authement said. “During his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, a B-52 was allowed to conduct a flyover for only the second time in the cemetery’s history.”

Moved to memorialize Hymel’s life of service and sacrifice, Authement organized a capital campaign that was supported by nine local councils, including his own, as well as the Louisiana State Council and 14 Catholic parishes.

In remarks during the dedication ceremony, officiated by Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans, Authement noted that each pillar of the new Knights of Columbus Tower, as it is called, bears a plaque with one of the four principles of the Order — charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism — which typified the life and legacy of Lt. Col. Hymel.

“He was not just a Knight by name; he was a Knight by principles,” Authement said. “These four principles and the legacy of Lt. Col. Hymel will forever stand together as one on this tower.”