20 years later: 9/11 is etched in everyone's memories

·19 min read

Sep. 8—Alexandra Paisely of Stewartville was heading to work on a small Island in the Aleutians when she heard about the attack.

Andrew Wood of Rochester was on an airplane when he noticed something strange. Looking out a plane window, he saw several Northwest Airline planes descending and landing on the Rochester International Airport runway.

Helen Laack of Rochester was attending a training session in her Newark, N.J., office when a woman barged into the room and began talking on the phone loudly: Plane. Trade Center. Crash. She and her colleagues organized carpools and drove home, a large plume of smoke behind them.

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Rochester is a city that "churns." So many of the people who shared their memories about the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago were living in far-flung locales: Austria, the Aleutian Islands, the East Coast. But no matter what points of the globe they were at, all became aware, nearly simultaneously, of the traumatic event happening in New York City.

The mind doesn't easily or automatically adjust to something viewed at the time as unimaginable. For many, a dawning awareness of the attacks began as something quite ordinary: A call from a friend or family member to turn on the TV. The sight of people huddled around a TV set. An overheard conversation. But, no matter how ordinary or quotidian, everybody knows what they were doing that day.

On that day, four planes were hijacked simultaneously by terrorists and used as guided missiles to destroy buildings in Washington and New York. Two planes hit the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York. The third plane struck the western face of the Pentagon. The fourth plane, believed to be heading to the Capitol in Washington D.C., crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers fought back.

In all, 2,977 people lost their lives.

Every generation lives through galvanic historical events. But it wasn't until the advent of mass media that such events could be shared as common, I-remember-exactly-where-I-was experiences, says Rochester Community and Technical College history professor Chad Isrealson.

Fort Sumter fired the first shot in the Civil War, arguably the most momentous event in American history, but not everybody learned and experienced it at the same time. Such shared experiences were a 20th century phenomenon. The assassination of President John Kennedy and man walking on the moon were dark and bright events memorably brought into our living rooms. Not even two years into a new century, we watched a magnified horror unfold.

Working on a small island when 9/11 happened

On Sept. 11, 2001, Alexandra Paisley found herself working as a nurse and city clerk on a small island in the Aleutians.

The village itself was home to about 70 residents and a few hundred people worked at the Trident Seafood fish processing plant further up the bay.

Paisley woke up early, turned on the TV and instantly called the mayor. Turn on the TV.

Paisley reluctantly went to work. Later that morning, a worker was brought in claiming symptoms of appendicitis. Surgery meant a flight to Anchorage, but all flights were grounded. Thankfully, he did not have appendicitis. Appendicitis is a condition that is easy to feign when the hard labor gets to be too much. The man left with a sheepish smile.

There were no medical emergencies on that day. Thank goodness.

Paisley, now a Stewartville resident who works as a registered nurse, recalled feeling safe out in the middle of the Bering Sea. How different it must be for people who live in countries where innocent people die from military and terrorist actions.

"What must it be like to have that worry and experience that pain every day of your life. The shock and horror were new to us but not for so, so many others," Paisley thought.

Listen to a reading of Alexandra Paisley's experience:


It was a beautiful fall day

It was a normal, perfectly lovely early fall day: Blue skies and perfect temperature for walking to the train in Newark, N.J. Helen Laack had a 1-month-old granddaughter she planned to see that weekend.

Laack, a "free-lance" volunteer who has lived in Rochester since 2006, was receiving training that day when a woman dashed into the room, picked up the phone and started talking loudly. "Then we heard the words: Plane. Trade Center. Crash," Laack remembered.

Everything stopped.

"I found all my coworkers clustered around a TV in the breakroom," Laack said. "And it was there that I arrived just in time to see the second plane hit."

Silence. And then sobbing. Dashing to desks to make calls. Newark is a mere 13 miles from New York City and Manhattan's distinctive skyline is visible, especially on clear days. A colleague's husband was working security in one of the buildings. Some had friends who worked in the "second tower." No one was getting through to get confirmation of their friends and family's safety.

"I can't reach Amy," her son said on the phone, with fear in his voice.

Amy, Laack's daughter-in-law, managed part of the Import Export Bank computer systems and had been asked to do a vendor review at her office. With the baby only a month old, she would go into the office only if she could bring Eleanor along. The two of them had gone in to work.

"We knew nothing of their safety or welfare. That uncertainty would continue for hours," Laack said.

All New Jersey Transit trains were stopped, so Laack's department organized carpools. Driving home, Laak could see the smoke still pluming skyward behind her.

She arrived home to find an answering machine full of messages about Laack's safety. She wouldn't learn that Amy was safe until late in the day. A neighbor across the street who taught in Manhattan arrived home covered in dust. Laack's administrative assistant heard from her husband about midnight. He had made his way down one of the towers before it collapsed. A friend from church had had car trouble and didn't get to the office in the first building hit. Almost all of his coworkers died.

When Laack did return to work, the train ride was haunting. Laack's train route included the Trade Center after Newark, and there were many empty seats in those early days. One regular conductor pointed out the window at a full parking lot at one of the stops:

"Those are cars of people who won't be coming back," he said.

"A co-worker who had worked in the Trade Center office before coming to our company attended five funerals in a week," Laack said.

The conductor who pointed out the full parking lots resigned, because of the passengers he no longer saw. Laak volunteered with an organization that organized grief counseling. The sessions were heart-wrenching. Chaplains spoke of counseling children who lost fathers, of people who had "survivor guilt."

Slowly, life returned to "normal."

"But we really didn't forget, none of us," Laack said.

Listen to a reading of Helen Laack's experience:


On 9/11, I was on an airplane

It was a beautiful crystal-clear early fall morning. And Andrew Wood, of Rochester, was on a business trip to conduct safety training for General Mills at their Iowa City and Cedar Rapids manufacturing facilities. Wood had the whole front row of the airplane to himself. The flight path took passengers just west of Rochester.

"I thought this would be a great day to fly," said Wood, who is president of Ergonomics and Wellness Consultants.

On the one side of the aircraft, he could see several Northwest Airlines jets landing at the Rochester airport, but did not think it unusual, since Northwest used the airport for flight training.

Landing in Cedar Rapids, the plane parked about 50 yards from the terminal. Wood thought that was a little unusual, but this was a commuter flight, after all. When the door opened, he overheard the baggage handler tell a flight attendant that they were in a no-fly zone.

Wood's first thought jokingly was, "Well, Northwest screwed up again. I'm just glad I made my destination."

Walking to the terminal to get his rental car, Wood noticed people behind the airline and rental car counters, in the back rooms, watching television. Wood called my wife and asked, "Who got nuked?" She told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time Wood had reached the General Mills Cedar Rapids manufacturing plant, his wife called again and said the second tower had been hit.

He told her to fill the car with gas and if things look bad, he would meet her at his father's farm in Rock Dell where he knew they would be safe. The safety training that he was doing at the Cedar Rapids plant was cut short. Local emergency personnel was needed to protect surrounding manufacturing plants, particularly those with hazardous chemicals. They were viewed as potential terrorist targets.

The evening of 9/11, Wood was glued to the television in shock and horror watching replays of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fall. With his training complete in Iowa City on Sept. 12, Wood drove back to Minneapolis in his rental car. A large number of buses on the road were taking airline passengers back to their homes. There were long lines at gas stations and some stations were price gouging, charging $3 a gallon!

Wood arrived back at the Minneapolis airport to drop off his rental car. The terminal was like a tomb. M-16 rifle-bearing soldiers were guarding the entrances. Hundreds of aircraft were parked wing-to-wing all over the airfield, and the sky was empty with the exception of military aircraft circling the Twin Cities. It was surreal.

"The first thing I did when I got home was to give my wife and daughter a huge hug and kiss," Wood said. "We felt so lucky that we were all safe and sound and no harm had come to us or our extended family."

Listen to a reading of Andrew Wood's experience:


'I realized that something was wrong'

Early that day, Dan Holter of Rochester boarded a Northwest Airlines flight at the Rochester airport.

It was a short flight to Minneapolis, then onward to his destination, Denver. His Denver-bound flight left on time, just after 7 a.m., and arrived on time. A few steps into the Denver terminal, Holter realized that something was wrong. The first words he heard were from someone waiting for an outbound flight: "They've canceled our flight and don't know when the airline will be able to fly again."

His first thought was that financial difficulties had caused Northwest to cancel flights. He took a few more steps and overheard someone else exclaim, "Did you hear what happened? Terrorists crashed a plane into the White House!" Holter's heart sank to his knees, fearing that the president may be dead.

The comments and commotion in the terminal were a cacophony. As Holter approached the car rental check-out, what seemed like a mile-long line had formed. Since he already had a reservation and confirmation number for a car, Holter proceeded directly to the rental garage and secured his car. As he was leaving, barricades were being installed on the inbound lanes to the airport. No traffic was allowed to enter.

Holter had been in Denver the previous week and had purchased a bus and bus parts at auction. He had to get everything loaded before his scheduled return flight. He spent the day focused on his work, but he did stop a couple of times to view a TV in the office at the site where he was working.

It was surreal. At the end of the workday, while driving to his hotel, Holter saw an American flag at half-staff. That is when it really hit him and tears began to flow.

"I was bewildered, wondering how could anyone be this evil and kill innocent people?" he said.

Knowing that his return flight was canceled, Holter secured a truck for the trip home. At his hotel, he made arrangements to return his rental car early because he heard they were in short supply. He wanted to make it possible for someone else to be able to get home.

The next day, he finished his work in Denver and drove overnight to get home. He arrived safely back in Rochester in time to change clothes to attend the funeral of a parent of a close friend.

"He was the fortunate one. He lived a full life and died at an old age, unlike the victims whose lives were cut short on 9/11/01," Holter said.

Listen to a reading of Dan Holter's experience:


She rudely hung up the phone

When Linda Stamschror of Kellogg learned of the attack on the Twin Towers, she was working in Wabasha at what was then Tyco Healthcare.

She was on the phone with a customer from Belgium. As they were talking, a buzz of conversation was getting louder and louder, interspersed with a "No, it can't be happening" and "Oh my God." Finally, another salesperson told her to hang up and get into the sales meeting room. Stamschror got off the phone with her customer and joined the crowd of people in the meeting room watching the news coverage. Tears began to fall and an unusual quiet came over the group as they watched unbelievable scenes on TV.

The television scenes play over and over in her mind even to this day.

Stamschror's sales area was mainly international sales, which is why she was on a call to Belgium. "In the days following 9/11, faxes, emails and cards poured in from my customers expressing sorrow and condolences," she said. She made a folder of the messages and shared them with her employees.

"We are considered a "safe" country and the attack was unprecedented, but many of those countries sharing our grief had experienced their own horrors. Perhaps they could better understand what we were going through because of their own history," she said.

By the way, the customer from Belgium called back the next day to apologize. She thought Stamschror had been rude to cut the call short, but she soon found out why she had been so abrupt.

Listen to a reading of Linda Stamschror's experience:


'It was a conference I will never forget'

Sept.11, 2001, found then-Rochester City Attorney Terry Adkins in New Orleans, attending a national conference of city attorneys. The conference began on Sunday of that week and continued Monday. The conference was typical — useful and informative, but otherwise uneventful. All of that changed on Tuesday.

Adkins had the "Today Show" on the TV as he got dressed for Tuesday morning's sessions. He saw the first World Trade Center tower on fire and watched as the second plane hit the second tower. He was already late for the day's first session, but he could not pull himself away from the TV coverage.

By the time he arrived at the educational sessions, conference attendees were huddled around TVs that had been set up by hotel staff in the hallways. The conference proceeded as best it could, but attendance was sparse as most of the attendees were out in the hallway watching the live events unfold.

Tuesday's conference schedule called for lunch in the New Orleans Superdome. The lunch was canceled by officials worried about additional attacks on other prominent public buildings. Somehow, the hotel staff, with almost no advance notice, put together lunch for the 500-plus attendees.

Adkins went back to his hotel room and discovered several messages on the room's telephone. Family members in Minnesota and California, where he was raised, were calling to make sure he was alive and well.

"I could tell by their voices they were concerned for my well-being despite the fact that I was not in New York or Washington, D.C.," Adkins said.

At these annual conferences, the city attorneys from Minnesota always gathered for a group dinner somewhere in the host city. The Minnesota dinner was planned for the evening of Sept. 11. They considered canceling it, but people had to eat somewhere. So, the state dinner plans were kept. A restaurant with plenty of TVs was chosen so that they could keep abreast of the developments.

"Hardly a word was spoken by the Minnesota delegation attending the dinner," Adkins said. "It was a most somber gathering."

Getting home became quite a challenge. Their return flights to Minnesota were canceled because of the closure of the air space. Some Minnesota attendees rented cars and drove back home. But, "we were not the only folks in New Orleans in need of a rental car to get home," he said. Word reached them that the local rental car companies had no more rental cars available.

"I know of one Minnesota city attorney who returned to Minnesota by Amtrak," Adkins said.

The rest of the Minnesota attorneys simply had to wait it out until the air space reopened and they could get a flight back to Minnesota. For Adkins, it was Friday of that week, two days later than initially planned.

"During my 27-year career as the Rochester city attorney, I attended nearly all of these annual conferences. Some stand out more than others," he said. "The September 2001, conference is one I will never, ever forget."

Listen to a reading of Terry Adkins' experience:


Experiencing a shared humanity

John Downer, of Rochester, was living in a small Austrian town south of Vienna on 9/11, working at a faith-based drop-in center for refugees, many of whom were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

It was early afternoon in Austria when the planes hit.

"We followed as best we could from news websites that wouldn't load due to increased traffic and very slow dial-up internet connections. I knew a few people who had satellite TV and I saw some coverage on SkyNews," Downer said.

The odd part was going to work that night. That evening, a corner store called "The Oasis" was opened that was a couple of blocks from a refugee camp housing several thousand asylum-seekers. All were welcome to come share coffee, tea and conversations, in English, German or via interpreters.

"Those from Muslim backgrounds came in droves that night, with a common message: We are so sorry for what has happened, and those responsible do not represent us," Downer said. "These desperate people had fled their homes due to war, persecution, oppression and a hopeless future, and showered our mostly-American staff with compassion and understanding."

Many had experienced similar acts of violence and terror, on a smaller scale, but with far more regularity. While some in this country were already scapegoating all Muslims, across the ocean "we were experiencing a shared humanity with those people — not our enemies, just human beings who had also tasted the worst that life has to offer and, undeterred, had learned how to survive and move on, and were helping us take our first steps in that same direction."

Listen to a reading of John Downer's experience:


'Right away, I said terrorist!'

Olivia Heim and her husband, Tom, of St. Charles were preparing to leave their farm by 9 a.m. to go to Galena, Ill., for a retirees reunion.

Her husband had one thing to do, and they had NBC News on. Olivia saw the construction workers look up because there was an airplane in restricted territory. Just then, a plane dove into a World Trade Center building.

"I yelled at my husband to come look, and then another plane circled and dived into the second building," Heim said. "Right away, I said 'terrorist'!"

The couple watched for a few minutes but had to leave to stay on schedule. Olivia brought a large book and was determined to read it on this trip, but she never opened it. They had the radio on. They stopped for lunch in Wisconsin, where everyone was talking about it and looked as shocked as they were.

They arrived in Galena and went on their scheduled tours of wineries and flower gardens. When they got back to their hotel rooms, they turned on the TV and watched. Olivia was a soap opera nut and had two VCRs going for the few days they were gone.

"So, I had the whole 9/11 over again on my VCR tapes," she said.

The couple had taken a bus tour of New York in 1997, and wherever they went — New York Harbor, the Empire State Building — they had taken pictures. In nearly all of them, the World Trade Center stands in the background.

"Thank goodness, I had a disposable panoramic camera," Olivia said. "We did a city tour and went to the Trade Center for a short talk on the lower level (I still have the tapes and a VCR!)

Listen to a reading of Olivia Heim's experience:


'I could not believe what I was seeing'

Alice Atkinson of Lake City was working in the Lake City Clinic as a transcriptionist, transcribing doctors' notes so they didn't have to write them in the patients' charts.

Atkinson was an experienced transcriptionist, having worked at Mayo Clinic. But she needed help because there were so many of them. A gal named Kelly was hired by the clinic to help. But she had two little children of her own to care for, so she transcribed the notes from home.

On Sept. 11, Kelly called Atkinson from home and told her that a plane had just crashed into one of the towers in New York.

"I said, 'What?!! Can't the pilot see the Twin Towers? She said it is on TV," Atkinson recalled.

There was a big screen TV in a conference room and the clinic workers turned it on to see a man falling from one of the windows from the Twin Tower's upper floors.

"I could not believe what I was seeing," Atkinson said.

Another plane crashed into the second tower, a big ball of flame erupting from it. Tons of paper flew out of the buildings and floated to the ground. People were walking around crying. Firefighters and police rushed to help people staggering out of the towers.

"We were glued to our TV sets for days, watching all that was happening, plus President Bush being interviewed at the Twin Towers site, saying, 'we are at war and we will be coming for you!'" Atkinson recalled.

Listen to a reading of Alice Atkinson's experience:


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