‘And then I felt the building shake.’ Idahoans share memories on 20th anniversary of 9/11
Scott McIntosh, Idaho Statesman & Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Wendi Young was closer than most when the planes struck the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
She was on the 42nd floor of 7 World Trade Center, one of the office buildings adjacent to the Twin Towers.
“All of a sudden, people kind of started getting excited because on the 42nd floor, we were surrounded by windows, and we could actually see the first plane coming toward us,” Young, of Marsing, said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. “It flew over our building, it kind of rocked us, left to right, and then it crashed into the first tower.”
She helped a coworker, who was eight months pregnant, down 42 flights of stairs and out the building, where they parted ways.
Young said she looked up just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower.
“I looked up at the first tower, and saw people hanging out the window above where the plane hit,” she said. “And as you can see smoke coming out from behind them, and then they started jumping. So I watched about five people jump, because the flames were just too hot for them.”
As the United States marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Idaho Statesman asked our readers to share their stories about where they were, what their lasting impressions were of that day and what their thoughts are 20 years later.
A few of these stories are based on interviews, while others are from written comments submitted to the Statesman.
In putting this piece together, I spoke with two people who broke down in tears. One woman who originally submitted a story about the loss of two loved ones in the World Trade Center later called me to say tearfully that she just couldn’t do it and asked to retract her story. Another woman said she told her friend who was supposed to be at the World Trade Center that day to submit her story, but her friend said she doesn’t like thinking about that day at all.
No two stories are alike and no two reactions are the same. While some may welcome the opportunity to honor the memory of that day, others do not look forward to the grim remembrance of one of the darkest days in our nation’s history.
When asked what her lasting impressions were from that day, Young struggled to describe it.
“Just the destruction of it all, the lives lost,” she said. “We live in a country that you’re not surrounded by violence and destruction, the way this was. You see it in other countries … but to live it firsthand, to see what it’s like. And it’s numbing.”
INSIDE THE PENTAGON
Like many Americans, Robin Frank learned about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center while watching the news that morning.
But unlike most Americans, Frank was inside the Pentagon, as an administrative information manager with the U.S. Air Force, and it was part of her job with the Joint Operations Division of the Joint Staff to monitor the news.
“We were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to start a crisis team. … There’s no way that’s an accident,’ ” she recalled in a phone interview.
And then the second plane hit, confirming this was no accident.
Frank, now of Mountain Home, said she and her team continued to monitor the situation and were awaiting orders on what to do next.
“And then I felt the building shake.”
That was the third plane hitting the Pentagon, not far from where she was working.
At first they thought it was a bomb, and it was a scene of chaos. The building started filling with smoke, and that’s when the sirens started blaring.
It was the beginning of a long day for Frank, who was separated from her children and her husband, who was in Greenland at the time, while she worked inside the Pentagon. She had started work at 6 a.m. that day and didn’t leave the building until 11 that night.
“I don’t think it really hit me until I left the building, because where you had to exit the building was just right by where the plane hit, so you’re walking through all the smoke and everything,” she said. “It finally hit me when I got in my car what had really happened because you could see the hole in the building and you could see all the response workers.”
Frank and Young both said they don’t like to mark the anniversary of 9/11. They try to put it out of their minds each time the anniversary rolls around.
“It’s almost like dredging up bad memories every year for me,” Frank said. “It was a very hard day for me and it was very hard times, and I think what hurts the most is the younger people and the people now that it’s just something in history to them; it doesn’t mean anything to them. But for the people that were involved in it and lived through 9/11, it means a lot.”
IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
Ellie Somoza, a newly minted lawyer at the time working in Washington, D.C., was in a parking garage near her office, just a few blocks from the White House, when she first heard of the attacks.
Somoza, now a deputy prosecuting attorney for Canyon County, said that after she heard about the Pentagon being attacked, she saw Vice President Dick Cheney being evacuated in an entourage of SUVs past her office window.
People evacuated from her office building, but for Somoza, going home was not an option: Her apartment was just a few blocks from the Pentagon.
She and her roommate later that night made their way back to their apartment, which smelled of smoke from the burning jet fuel at the Pentagon.
“It was the first time in my life I ever personally feared for my safety, and that insecurity lasted far beyond the chaos of that day,” Somoza said.
“That day is so seared in my memory,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s one of the few days that I just have such vivid details of. I could smell the smoke in my apartment for days afterwards. And so everything about that day was just so personal to me. And so every year I’m not sick of it and I’ll never be sick of it because I’ll always stop and remember, I always take the time to stop and remember what that day was, and remember what was lost and remember how lucky I was to make it through OK.”
‘STILL CRYING … 20 YEARS LATER’
Twenty years later, Martha Lane still starts to cry when she recounts one memory from Sept. 11, 2001.
Lane, of Boise, was working at the FBI building in Washington, D.C., as unit chief of quality assurance for the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.
Following the attacks, everyone in the FBI was put on the phones to take calls and tips from the public. It was exhausting and draining work, and over the ensuing days, they would report for 20-hour shifts at times, Lane said in a phone interview.
“In the meantime, schoolchildren — and I don’t know how they knew that we were working 24 hours — but all of a sudden, food started coming in, and we didn’t have to go out or anything so we just were able to continue taking phone calls,” Lane said, starting to choke up.
“I mean it was incredible where the food just appeared with little —” she stopped, her voice breaking. “I’m sorry. It was amazing, they would show up and stick in little cards saying thank you,” she had to stop again, breaking down in tears. “I didn’t think I’d get so upset with this. Even recounting it is a little upsetting. I’m still crying over the issue, 20 years later.”
Lane also remembers President George W. Bush coming to the FBI and personally shaking their hands and thanking them for their work.
“He was a very empathetic person,” Lane said. “It was lovely of him to come over and walk through and tell us how much he appreciated our efforts.”
9/11 FIG TREE
David Scott, of Boise, was living in South Arlington, Virginia, about a half-mile from the Pentagon.
“It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, not a cloud in sight,” Scott wrote in an email. “My friend called me around 8:30 a.m. and told me to turn on the television, something I never did in the morning. To my horror, I saw what was happening in New York City. Then I was on the phone with my sister, who worked for the Department of Defense but not in the Pentagon that day. While we were talking, there was a huge explosion, and I thought my windows were going to blow out, but they didn’t. That was the plane hitting the Pentagon. I called my office and explained that I probably couldn’t make it to work as I would have to drive on I-395 right by the Pentagon and it didn’t make sense to try.
“On the bright side, I went into my garden and found that one of my fig trees had fruit for the first time. I always called it my 9/11 fig.”
Wally Hames, of Meridian, was working as a teacher for the Mountain Home School District at the time. He was teaching at Stephenson Middle School on the Mountain Home Air Force Base and was in an early meeting, at 6:30 a.m., with school officials and the Air Force Base Commander, so they could get to their schools before the students got there.
“During the meeting, people’s cellphones started going off,” Hames wrote. “Word got out that a small plane had accidentally hit one of the Twin Towers. It was horrible, but we got back to our meeting so we could get to our schools. Fifteen to 20 minutes later, everyone’s phones went off, including the base commander. The unthinkable had happened. We were under attack. All gates were shut, and even the commander, himself, was locked out. No one in or out.”
Students already on base could not leave. Sports teams still showed up to play games, but their parents couldn’t get on base to watch them. Students had to get off the buses so bomb-sniffing dogs could do their jobs.
“Machine guns mounted on top of Humvees were pointed at the front gates as vehicles entered, scaring the heck out of all the seventh and eighth graders as well as their coaches who came to play,” Hames wrote. “It was very intimidating. From that point on, all teachers had to have their cars checked under the hoods, inside the trunks, underneath the bodies of the cars for bombs before being allowed to continue on to their schools. Sometimes the lines were over a mile long and school would start late quite often.”
Hames said that went on for the rest of the school year.
Hames is still an American history teacher 20 years later, now in the Kuna School District.
“I love teaching on September 11th; I hate teaching on September 11th,” he wrote. “Our kids need to know what happened. It breaks my heart to see what is happening to our country right now. I wish we would remember that we are all Americans.”
IN SCHOOL AT THE TIME
Amy Eixenberger, of Caldwell, had just entered her high school library when she first heard of the World Trade Center attacks.
“I remember so clearly the feeling of almost non-reality,” she wrote. “The sense that there was no way this could be really happening. One of my clearest memories is seeing the plane hit the second tower. That was the first thing I saw on the TV. I looked to see what everyone was watching and I see a smoking building and a plane flying into the other one. I remember the absolute shock as the towers fell. The horror at this thing.”
Eixenberger said she still feels the sadness from that day, 20 years later.
“I am still carrying the sorrow of the lives that were lost that day,” she wrote. “The tragedy of it lingers on, and I try to express that to my children when we discuss it. Also the sorrow of all the lives lost in our attempt at revenge. The innocents killed in both circumstances make me sad. As the years have passed, I still feel we did right in going in (to Afghanistan) but that we should have thought it through before we stayed.”
AN INFLECTION POINT
Ryan Hand, who now lives in Boston, is originally from Boise and was a third grader at Andrus Elementary on Sept. 11, 2001. Hand had gotten ready for school that morning and was in his room reading a book while his father got ready for work while watching CNN.
“He abruptly called me into the room after the first plane hit and I remember seeing the first tower smoking and my dad, whose sister had been at a meeting at the World Trade Center the previous week, with a look of utter confusion,” he wrote.
Hand wrote that as far as he can remember, that day at school was relatively normal.
“The TVs in our classrooms were on and tuned to the coverage, and I recall my teacher, Ms. Anderson, thoughtfully and carefully answering our questions and trying her best to explain what was happening,” he wrote.
Hand wrote, “It was the first time that I consciously recognized that adults don’t have all of the answers, that they are fallible, and that sometimes, no matter how hard they try, there will be things that occur that they can’t explain.”
Twenty years later, Hand said his thoughts are of sadness and frustration.
“While I was much too young to understand the reasons for the attack and its long-lasting consequences, I remember the calls for vengeance, the drumbeat of war in 2001 and 2003, and, retrospectively, the sense of otherness that Muslims and Arabs in this country must have felt in the days and years after the attack,” Hand wrote. “My middle and high school experience was permeated with the fever to avenge 9/11 from students who didn’t understand the consequences of their words, slurs, and actions.”
Emily Hart, of McCall, was at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was walking to breakfast near the galley, and I couldn’t figure out why there was an action movie on the TV that normally showed weather and flight schedules,” Hart wrote. “Others standing there told me what was going on. I went straight to work, and our foreman gave us time to call home if needed. I immediately called my best friend (we met at age 3 at the McCall Congregational Church Day Care) who was living in New York City at the time. She was completely amazed that my call came through, since she’d been unable to reach her parents in Idaho, or anyone else. Her older sister was in New York City at the time and had plans to visit the World Trade Center later that day. I called her parents in McCall, from Antarctica, and reported that both daughters were safe.”
Hart said her friend and her friend’s sister had rented a car and were scheduled to return it to the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, but they’d decided to return it the evening before. Hart said her friend and her friend’s sister watched the second plane hit the South Tower from the roof of her apartment building.
Twenty years later, Hart said she remembers how “Americans really came together in the aftermath of 9/11, and it breaks my heart to see how divided we have become.”
LANGUAGE BARRIER IN BRAZIL
Todd Corman, of Boise, was in Sao Luis, Brazil, when he first heard of the World Trade Center attacks.
“I might have been the only person on the planet not to have any idea of the tragedy that had befallen NYC,” he wrote.
That’s because he was on a recruiting trip as a women’s basketball coach for Oregon State University, and he had spent the entire day and evening watching a tournament, surrounded by people speaking Portuguese, which Corman didn’t speak.
“Everyone in the arena probably knew what was happening except me,” he wrote. “I don’t speak Portuguese, so any banter about the destruction of the towers went completely unnoticed to me. It wasn’t until I returned to the hotel, and received a multitude of messages advising me not to leave the hotel, did I know anything had happened.”
James Bennett, of Eagle, and his wife were on vacation, on the Dutch half of the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean.
“That day we’d taken a drive around the entire island and were on the French side, in the capital, having lunch,” he wrote. “Wondering why our waitress never came back to our table, I went inside only to find everyone there watching the wall-mounted TV. At first I didn’t recognize what they were watching, but it soon became apparent that the first tower had been hit. The rest of the week there was crazy for us. Each morning we got an update notice from the U.S. consulate passed under our door, advising us to stay at the resort. Getting back home was a challenge with most airports closed. Certainly a vacation we’ll never forget.”
Dora Morley, of Meridian, was on a cruise, and on Sept. 11 had traveled to Berlin.
“We were at Checkpoint Charlie, and an agitated older man, speaking in broken English, said he was so sorry,” Morley wrote. “I looked at him, and he said, ‘Two planes hit.’ When we returned to the bus, the driver turned the radio to an English-speaking station. When we heard what happened, some women started crying, but I don’t think any of us really understood the gravity of it. We were escorted back to the train by armed soldiers every 6 feet. When we arrived at the ship, frogmen were climbing out from under the ship where they had searched for bombs! From that point on, all of the U.S. embassies had flowers and well wishes for America.”
Morley said only the death of John F. Kennedy rivaled how much 9/11 affected her personally.
‘CANADIANS ARE FAMILY’
Chuck Cavanaugh, of Boise, was living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s an experience that I treasure, in a way,” he wrote. “It deepened my appreciation for America’s friends and allies, generally, but most especially for our neighbors to the north.”
Cavanaugh said Canadians would good-naturedly take jabs at the U.S.
“The tone changed 100% on 9/11,” Cavanaugh wrote. “Everybody immediately dropped the old habit of distinguishing themselves from Americans. Everybody felt the pain so deeply, as much as Americans. Everybody I knew brought me words of sympathy and hugs of shared grief. The local newspaper printed a color page of two flags, USA and Canada, crossed. Very simple image. EVERY shop window in the city put it in their window.”
Cavanaugh said the U.S. embassy had for a long time “a mountain of flowers and tokens of love piled out front,” and the following Saturday, 100,000 Canadians gathered at Parliament Hill in another show of support for America.
“In a sort of way, I’m glad I got to experience 9/11 from just outside the USA with a little different perspective from most,” he wrote. “Canadians are much more than our allies, we’ve got lots of those. Canada is unique among nations. Canadians are family.”
‘I STILL GET TEARY’
Cindy Lee, of Boise, was working for an airline at the time and was in Toronto on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was supposed to be in the air that morning but had flown from Newfoundland to Toronto a day earlier and had been mad about cutting one day from my family trip,” she wrote. “I worked in airport procedures so I needed to get back to my home base of Montreal to help, but there were no planes and no rental cars. I took my chances and went to the train station and eventually got a seat. The following days were intense as we responded to the many changing FAA rules that were coming in over the fax machine hourly. In the weeks and months that followed we’d rewrite operational procedures many times. There was a lot of confusion. A lot of, ‘Wait … what are we doing now?’ ”
Lee wrote that going through the coronavirus pandemic makes her feel some of those same 9/11 feelings.
“The helplessness, loss of control, uncertainty and high stress,” she wrote. “But also the teamwork and putting differences aside for a common goal to recover from the tragedy.
“I may not be an American, but I live here, and I went through that day just as everyone here did. My homeland of Newfoundland was one of the places many transatlantic flights were diverted to. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Newfoundlander for what my people did for travelers that day and in the weeks that followed.
“I still get teary about all of it.”