Panic, shock, sadness: 9/11 etched in memories
We were at work, at home or on the road, living our separate lives, when suddenly tragedy and terror drew us together.
A feeling common to many that day was that it didn't feel quite real, that it was like watching a movie.
"In sociology, these profound, unforgettable events in our lives are called 'marker events,'" said Mike Griffin, who watched the attacks on the Twin Towers with his class at Janesville's Parker High School.
"In one's lifetime, there are actually few of these, but they become imprinted in our memories: the death of a parent, one's wedding, the birth of your children, and for those now approaching 30 years old, the tragedy of 9/11," Griffin said
The now retired sociology teacher recalled how his class reacted to the images on the TV screen that day.
"Some seemed unable to comprehend the reality of what was taking place. Why would they? They were me in November 1963, upon hearing of the assassination of John F. Kennedy during my lunch at home across the alley from Lincoln Junior High School in Beloit.
"Many seemed confused. Something of this magnitude they had seen only on a movie screen. When the second plane hit the tower, I vividly remember that other than a few gasps, there was silence.
"One student in the rear of the class—I sure wish I could remember his name—uttered to another student: "I think someone is attacking us.'"
Here are more memories from local people who responded to Gazette requests to share their memories.
Earl Arrowood, air traffic manager at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, was off that day. He remembers the shock after a call from a friend alerted him to what was happening. He rushed to work.
"I knew that the national airspace would be closed immediately, and it was. At the control tower, the guys on duty were glued to the TV not saying very much. We all knew, however, that the implications of what had just transpired would forever change how we did our jobs, how we traveled and how security would be tightened. We just didn't know how much they would change.
"It hit us all deeply in the most personal levels. Controllers, in charge of separating aircraft from other aircraft and terrain features as well as keeping the skies safe, didn't know how this could happen. …
"We felt helpless. We didn't know what caused these things to happen. We thought the worst. Did a crazy controller purposely turn three jumbo jets to a heading that would make them impact the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a fourth one in Pennsylvania, heading God knows where? Did someone make a grave error? We just didn't know, not until a little later did we find out that actually terrorists were flying these huge airplanes into buildings.
"Eventually, we learned that the controllers—20 of them—who actually controlled those four aircraft on that day were extremely professional and did everything that they could do.
"Today, 90 percent of everything we do as controllers was affected by this most tragic event. …
"Most people stop to remember every year on 9/11. We controllers stop every single day and remember. We flinch at every little quirk that could be another possible attack or something that we can not fathom."
Mary S. Vander Pal of Beloit was at work in Mercy Health System's adult day center when she got the news. After she got home from work:
"I knew the only place I wanted to be was with other believers, so I drove to our church, not knowing if there would even be anyone there.
"I sat with others and wept and prayed for our country."
Janesville native Elizabeth Gunderson was getting ready for work at her home in Queens when news reports first reached her. She rode the aboveground train into work in Manhattan and could see the Twin Towers smoking:
"It was the most surreal thing I have ever seen. It was like looking at a large movie set."
When she got to work, "I said to my boss, 'Did you hear about the tragedy this morning?'
"He replied, 'Which one?'
"As he told me about the Pentagon crash and the plane that had crashed in the field in Pennsylvania, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I had to use a landline phone to let my family know that I was OK because all the cell towers had been on top of the towers.
"We were glued to the radio all morning. Hearing the people scream about the buildings as they came down was the worst. Shortly after I had gotten into the city, all transportation in or out of Manhattan was shut down. When I went out for lunch, it was eerily quiet. An official helicopter went over, and everybody on the street froze, not knowing what was going to happen next but expecting the worst.
"By the time I got off work that evening, the bridges, tunnels and subways were open again. That night, seeing the hole in the skyline with the plume of smoke from the smoldering ruins was heartbreaking."
Deb Stover was working in an office in Footville when she heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.
"I remember basically stopping the work I was doing and fixating on what was happening via the radio commentary. It felt as if I was living in a fictional drama. When I went home, I put the television on and watched all evening. It still seemed so impossible."
Dan Cunningham, now of Forward Janesville, was at a conference inside a House of Representatives office building on Capitol Hill, working for then-Congressman Bob Etheridge of North Carolina. They heard rumblings in the hall outside.
"We exited our conference into a world of chaos—Capitol policemen everywhere, nervous congressional staffers running about and just mass panic and confusion. A Capitol policeman ran by and not-so-calmly explained that the building was being evacuated, and that the Capitol might be under attack.
"The congressman and I bolted out of the building and down the street to the house of a fellow staff person a few blocks away. We still weren't aware of the scope of what was actually happening. We just ran like hell.
"We walked into our 'safe house' and were immediately confronted with an image of the burning towers. It was almost like a scene from a movie. The first tower fell shortly thereafter. ...
"The rest of that day is a blur. I can remember wandering around Capitol Hill and eventually making my way to a popular downtown bar. It was absolutely packed, but stone silent. Everyone's eyes were glued to the televisions that were documenting the tragedy in real time.
'"Eventually, the coverage moved back to Capitol Hill, where a group of lawmakers sang "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol. When they finished the song, the bar patrons broke into spontaneous and sustained applause. …
"Ten years later, it still doesn't seem real. Every time I happen upon a documentary about that day on television, I am easily sucked in, and all those old feelings—panic, shock, and sadness—rush back quickly."
Lara Pensy of Janesville was working for a banking/investment company in Illinois. Her office was near the bank lobby, which had a large TV in it.
"I heard someone yell, 'Oh my God!' I came out of my office to the waiting area, where people began to gather. It was up on the large screen television, the live coverage at the World Trade Center. …
"We all stood there frozen in absolute disbelief at what we had just seen, and then the second building was hit. We watched as they fell to the ground. There are no words to describe the paralyzing feeling of realizing all the people who were in those planes and all the people who were in those buildings were gone. …
"Tears were rolling down our faces, but we couldn't even speak for the longest time. Strangers were holding hands; strangers were leaning on each other. Everything stopped. …
"A few executives at the company where I worked had been at the World Trade Center less than a week before the attacks. They were involved in a business deal with some people whose office was in the upper floors of one of the World Trade Center buildings; they had just sat in those offices less than a week before the attacks.
"A day or two after the attacks, some mail arrived, two large packages. … I picked up the packages, and as I put them in my hands, I saw the return address in the upper left corner—'One World Trade Center.' The people who sent them were killed when the World Trade Center buildings went down. …
"When the packages were opened, there were notes from the person who sent them: 'Give me a call, and we'll talk about next steps and maybe get together again next week,' one of them read, but there would be no call and no getting together. How fast it had all been taken away for so many."
Lawrence Bower, now a welding instructor at Blackhawk Technical College, was in San Raphael, Calif., driving south on Highway 101 when the first plane struck.
"I was moving very slowly across the Golden Gate Bridge when the second plane struck. This was my daily route on the way to the United Airlines repair depot in San Francisco, where I worked as an instructor for the airline. Listening to the radio, I had a sense for what was happening right away and feared for my co-workers, who ultimately perished, not to mention some instant personal fear about being in a major city, sitting on one of the world's most notable landmarks.
It was one of the most terrible days of our lives, as we sat in the training center watching the video replay of the attacks and waiting for any information about our friends and co-workers on the flights. The emotions we shared that morning and afternoon, I can't describe. …
"I guess I can say that I did experience 'terror' on and after that day. This in no way is a credit to the attackers. Their miserable situation and hardened hearts gained no benefit from my reaction."
Felicia Koehn had just started her first year of teaching at Janesville's St. John Vianney School. She was in front of a class of sixth-graders, just starting a social studies lesson when:
"We heard our principal's shoes in the hallway. She was running to the middle school rooms, telling us to turn on our televisions. I turned on the television just in time to see the first tower crumble. Half of my class was in tears, the other half unable to process what was happening. As a first-year teacher, I had a hard time trying to explain what was happening."
Asked what she might say to students if confronted with a similar situation again, the now veteran teacher said:
"I would want kids to know that our country has proven time and again that we will remain united. Even through the scariest of times people always manage to pull together all their strength to help others. It's amazing what the human spirit can do. We can conquer anything as long as we stick together."
The Gazette also received memories on its website, including jjcwsimm, who wrote about watching events unfold with her children:
"My eyes welled up in tears, and we just stared in disbelief as we watched the towers burn. When the first tower went to the ground, I just covered my mouth and all I could say is, 'Oh my God!' and could not believe what was happening. …
"I … never in my dreams would have thought I would have to explain to my 7-year-old what was happening and what terrorists were. I remember him asking me, 'Why do they hate us, Mom?' With tears in my eyes, I remember saying, 'I don't know, but to say a prayer for all those people, and pray to keep the rest of our country safe.'"
"I was in eighth grade at the time. It was first hour, and I think our teacher got a call to turn on the TV. I watched in shock. My teacher was frantically trying to call her husband, and I was beginning to worry about planes hitting Chicago or other places.
"It was difficult to wrap my mind around what was happening. Classes resumed slowly through the day, but eighth grade seems to be a pivotal point in a person's life—growing up and seeing adult problems. This shaped the future for many of us."
"Thank you, Smith Barney, for not hiring me. Otherwise, I would have been in the south tower that day. The best job I never got."
"I can remember sitting with my children in front of the television set. My son was in third grade and my daughter in fifth. My daughter was able to deal fairly well, but … I was worried about my son. …
"As we watched the first tower fall, he asked, 'Mommy, are people in that building?' I told him yes but that it happened so fast they didn't feel anything. A lie, I know, but considering the truth, I felt it was the answer he needed. …
"I held him as he cried, and I have never felt so powerless and powerful at the same time. Helping them come to terms with this overwhelming grief was my job as a parent. I have thought about 9/11 often over the last 10 years, and each time I see it through the eyes of my 8-year-old son."