Vera was sitting in an office in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 when, he said, "there was a huge rumble and the whole building shook."
American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked by terrorists, slammed into the Pentagon a mere 20 yards from where Vera was sitting.
Vera, a West New York native and a 1998 graduate of Memorial High School, was feted last week in ceremonies held at Memorial High School for his heroic actions that fateful day. West New York Mayor Albio Sires and various members of the Board of Education came out to honor Vera.
According to Vera, he had received a call from his frantic wife just minutes before, telling him to turn the television on. Vera was soon intimately involved in an event of world-changing magnitude.
Said Vera, "Actually, my wife was home in West New York watching the news. She saw the first plane hit the tower and called me to turn on the television. I did, and five minutes later there was a rumble and a big shake. Most of my office furniture fell."
Continued Vera, "At first, we didn't really know what happened. We thought it was an old boiler downstairs that was always acting up. We thought that blew up. We made our way out of the office, but we couldn't see anything at first. All the lights were out and there were wires hanging everywhere."
It should be pointed out that Vera was in what is known as a "padded" room, which is soundproofed for security reasons. This added to Vera's initial confusion as to what had happened. The sound simply wasn't as loud for him as it must have been for others in non-soundproofed offices.
Vera and another Marine came upon a scene of utter devastation. They went directly to the point of impact, and it was at this point that Vera realized what had happened.
Said Vera, "It was a Marine's instinct. I just went to the place of impact and from the plane and started taking people out."
While that action would be praiseworthy in and of itself, what he did next catapulted Vera into national prominence and earned him a mention in a recent State of the Union address.
After leading an initial cadre of office workers into the center courtyard of the Pentagon and making sure everyone from his office was present and accounted for, Vera went back into the flaming building 14 times to save others trapped in the wreckage of the building. Vera had no protective gear or breathing apparatus.
Said Vera, "People were pinned down, badly hurt."
Vera's actions that day earned him not only the thanks and admiration of a whole nation, but a seat of honor next to First Lady Laura Bush during President George W. Bush's State of the Union address earlier this year. The First Lady hand-picked Vera to sit next to her. Vera was mentioned by name in the State of the Union address by the president as an example of the heroism that was demonstrated countless times on Sept. 11, 2001 whether in New York City, the Pentagon or in the skies above Shanksville, Pa.
For the unassuming Vera, what he did that day was all part of being a Marine. Said Vera's wife, Lisette, "He was just being a Marine, doing what he was supposed to do."
At the ceremonies held last week in West New York, Memorial Principal Matt Sinisi expressed pride in honoring Vera but in his speech, Sinisi said, "I really wish that we didn't have to be here today. I wish the whole thing [the terrorist attacks] never happened."
In a post-ceremony interview, Sinisi said "Basically, what Mike did is what we try to teach our kids here. Responsibility, commitment to excellence, respect. He's a wonderful human being. He exemplifies everything that we are trying to teach."
Said Memorial teacher Doug Neralich, a Vietnam veteran, "It's really very nice to be in the presence of someone who is considered a national hero."
For her part, Lisette Vera can only look at her husband with pride and love. Said Mrs. Vera, "It's been a very nice experience, especially for my husband to be recognized. It's good being called a hero. It is nice to know that he was willing to save others lives with his own in danger."
Mrs. Vera admitted that the day was pretty frantic as all the phones were knocked out and she had no way to contact her husband after the plane struck the building. Said Mrs. Vera, "The first phone call was from a helicopter with one of his generals. They were flying to his general's house, I think."
Said West New York Mayor Albio Sires in a pre-ceremony interview, "This is a real moment to be proud. Mike is a national hero. To think that just five years ago, he was graduating from Memorial and now he's been recognized by the president." Continued the mayor, "I want the kids to see the success. That they don't have to be limited in what they do. He's another role model for the kids to look up to."
Corporal Vera was presented with a plaque that reads, "With great appreciation for your heroic rescue efforts demonstrated at the Pentagon on 9/11, which resulted in saving many lives and has brought great pride to our community."
Added Mayor Sires, "Our nation has honored him, and today all of us in his hometown are proud to honor him as well."