Seared into the memories of most folks over the age of 25 are where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with as the unspeakable acts of terror were carried out the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
That is, of course, the day the United States was attacked by Islamic terrorists who turned three hijacked commercial jets, loaded with fuel, into missiles. They flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City’s Lower Manhattan. A third jet went into the western side of the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. A fourth hijacked plane, intended for the U.S. Capitol or the White House, crashed near Shanksville in rural southern Pennsylvania. Passengers and crew on that plane, alerted of the other hijackings by loved ones they had phoned, stormed the cockpit and fought the hijackers for control of the plane before it went down just 20 minutes from Washington.
For this solemn 20th anniversary commemoration, Indiana Connection asked readers to share their memories of that day. We received 42 letters and emails.
Readers whose submissions we printed received $50. One randomly selected submission was also chosen for a $50 prize. That reader was Natalie Yanos of New Castle.
Here’s a sampling of three stories we found compelling.
‘I Am Alive’
It was Sept. 9, and I was attending my nephew’s birthday party. Near the end of the party, I told my father that I was flying to New York the next day for a week-long business trip. I mentioned I was going to be in One World Trade Center, the one bombed in 1993. My father was concerned. “Don’t worry Dad,” I assured him. “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.”
Sept. 11, 2001, was my 1-year anniversary with a consulting firm. At 7:45 a.m., I arrived at 1 WTC to begin my workday on the 57th floor. I was working alone in an interior computer server room. I turned on my laptop to begin loading software for my project and noticed through online messaging that two women from my Chicago office, Laura Murphy and Bridget Patowski, were working on the 59th floor.
At 8:46 a.m., there was a large “THUMP,” followed by a huge, drawn-out explosion. The floor in the room lifted me up and put me back down. The rows of servers shook and shuddered, the monitors went off, then immediately back on. Then, the building began to sway violently. I thought, “BOMB!” I was scared and thinking, “I am going to go down with this building.” All I could think of was, “I need to get out of here. Where is the closest stairwell?”
As I exited the server room, I could hear the metal beams creaking within the walls due to the stresses put on them from the swaying. I found four strangers in the hallway from the New York office. From a corner office, an attorney yelled, “Come here, look at this!” From his window we could see the dark smoke and flaming debris above us. Paper was raining down from the upper floors. At this point, I thought we had been hit by something a few floors above us. We all hustled quickly to the stairwell entrance, but there was no panic.
When we got to the stairwell, it was already packed with people coming down from the floors above. They were very calm and helpful to others. Conversations in the stairwell ranged from, “What happened?” to “We were hit by a commercial jet plane.” How could we get hit by a commercial jet on such a clear, beautiful day?
It was a very slow process: going down a flight of concrete stairs, waiting for more people to enter the stairwell, going down another flight, and then waiting for more people to enter the stairwell.
At 9:03 a.m., there was a muffled concussion, and the stairwell shook for a few seconds. People began screaming and crying. I thought the building was coming down on us. During the slow descent, the crowd above would yell, “Move right! Injured coming down!” That was the first time I saw how badly some people were burned.
Around the 44th floor, the smoke began to rise up in the stairwell. It was thick, gray smoke, and I couldn’t even make out people two floors below. People were not panicking at this point, but I could see concern in some faces. I knew I couldn’t continue down this stairwell with all the smoke. I opened the door on 44, which is a switchover for elevator banks. A security officer asked, “Is that stairwell filling with smoke?” He began hustling people to another stairwell that was clear of smoke to the bottom.
After 35 to 40 minutes in the stairwell, I reached the ground level. We were hustled down an escalator and through a mall below the World Trade Center Plaza.
Once we were able to come out of the underground mall, about a block away, I was able to turn around for the first time and see the Towers. The upper third of 1 WTC was rolling with thick, black smoke. The upper half of 2 WTC was engulfed with thick, black smoke. Debris littered the ground.
I started to walk east, away from the Towers, toward my hotel. I was no more than a block from the WTC when I heard my name being called out. I turned around and ran into Laura and Bridget, my two coworkers from the Chicago office who also escaped. We grabbed each other and hugged, and I told them we should get back to my hotel to make phone calls.
It took us five to 10 minutes to walk back to my hotel. When we made it there, we were inside no more than five minutes when the ground began to shake. At first, we didn’t know what caused the shaking. From the TV in the lobby of the hotel, we learned it was Tower Two collapsing. The sky went light gray, gray, then black for at least a minute. Thirty minutes later, the whole scenario would repeat itself as Tower One collapsed.
We finally found public phones on the second floor of the hotel. I was conferenced in to my home from the Chicago office, and my wife, Jennifer, answered the phone. I said, “I am alive. I am OK.” Then, I broke down in sobs.
DON BACSO, Monticello, Indiana
A FLY ON THE WALL
I was at Headquarters, United States Strategic Command, serving as the reserve advisor to the commander. We were 40 feet below ground at the beginning of a worldwide exercise when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. When the second aircraft hit, Admiral Richard Mies said “That’s no accident. We’re under attack. Send out the messages to cancel the exercise, and let’s get into real-world operations.”
We were on a telephone conference the rest of the day with Vice President Richard Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secret Service, NSA, CIA, FAA, FBI, FEMA, Air Combat Command, Pacific Command, NORAD, European Command, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others. The operation was being orchestrated from the basement of the Pentagon. Questions would come up, and we would be polled for our answers. Military and civilian leadership was working very hard to defend the United States from whatever the next attack would be.
Late that afternoon, President George W. Bush arrived in our command post. Admiral Mies briefed the president on what was on our situation video board. Later, they went into a Top Secret video conference with the leadership in Washington.
I was a fly on the wall on one of the most important days in our history. I saw and heard what our government and military was doing behind the scenes while there was so much chaos above ground. I watched men and women remain calm and focused on their jobs of keeping Americans safe throughout the world.
MARK A. PILLAR, Maj. Gen. (USAF), (Ret.), Columbus, Indiana
THE MIGHTY SIX
I was in front of my class of fourth graders when our principal came to the door and beckoned me into the hall. She was terribly upset, and her voice was shaking as she said “If any parents come to your classroom to pick up their children, just let them go. No need to have them sign out in the office … keep a log of who’s left.”
How could I explain to 9-year-old children the hatred and insanity that had brought us to this? And at that moment, we did not even know the worst of it.
Almost immediately parents were cramming the hallways, taking their children home. Once the pace slowed a bit, I was left with six students whose parents worked in Chicago and were not able to retrieve their children. These poor kids were so upset as they watched their friends leave with their moms and dads. I knew the parents of those six children must have been frantic. I named my little group “The Mighty Six” and tried to assure them (and myself) that we would be just fine. We played charades, had a checker tournament, and raided the cafeteria. And, yes, we prayed.
I pulled up my list of parent contact numbers, and each child called at least one of his or her parents from my cell phone. I can still see their confused, frightened faces while they waited their turn. Four of the six were picked up by dismissal time.
An hour passed and the principal returned to our room wanting to take my last two brave little guys to the office to wait for their pickup, but I told her we were fine and we would just “wait it out” together. They were finally rescued by relatives around 6 p.m., quite relieved they did not have to spend the night with Mrs. P.
That whole nonsense about keeping prayer out of school … not on that day at Hickory Bend Elementary. Those 9-year-olds (and their teacher) were praying their little hearts out. Their honesty, sincerity, and innocence melted my heart like butter.
BARBARA PEARSON, Wheatfield, Indiana