By Peter Vankevich
Depending on our age, we all remember horrific events that are etched into and have modified our psyches and ways of looking at life.
For older folks, those may be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the day the Challenger shuttle exploded.
Another is the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, known as “9/11.” What occurred that day and what has transpired since then has kept this event in the news and our consciousness daily.
The morning of 9/11, a warm, clear Tuesday on the east coast, four California-bound commercial airliners were highjacked by 19 members of al-Qaida, the pan-Islamic terrorist organization founded by the late Osama bin Laden.
Two of the airliners slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan causing them to collapse.
Another crashed into the west side of the Pentagon, just outside of Washington, D.C. The fourth, though headed for D.C., crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed that day including the 19 terrorists and many more died later of complications.
Soon after, when it was determined that bin Laden was in Afghanistan, the United States launched the War on Terror that included the invasion of that country.
Called the “Endless War” and presided over by four presidents for 20 years, more than 800,000 military servicemen served in Afghanistan with nearly 3,000 killed and 20,000 wounded. The cost estimates are more than $2 trillion dollars.
There is, of course, much more to this story and as it winds down, strong feelings about this horrific attack and what transpired afterwards are many.
So many have stories to tell. Twenty years later, I still vividly recall that day, especially that morning. I worked at the Library of Congress, across from the U.S. Capitol and next to the Supreme Court. It was a day of uncertainty and confusion and fraught with rumors what was next. That my colleagues and I were stressed for a long time afterwards would be an understatement.
We present here some remembrances of that day.
Karen Lovejoy, island resident:
That day was a school day. Emma (almost 11) and Molly, 7, were beginning another homeschool morning as we typically did — reading from favorite books and discussing the planned activities and assignments of the day.
We heard a knock at the door. Our friend, Sundae Horn, let herself in asking if I’d heard “the news.” After a quick conversation I sent the girls to another room to play for a few minutes while Sundae and I turned on the small tabletop TV and watched the horror unfold when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
Sundae left and David (Frum) called shortly after from Portsmouth where he was working at Cape Lookout. We agreed to talk to our girls together when he got home later in the day. I couldn’t imagine what we would say to describe what had happened or find words to comfort them in the face of such unimaginable tragedy.
I remember revising our lesson plans and spending most of that fall day outside. We played games in the backyard, walked the Hammock Hills nature trail and climbed the dunes at the beach. 9/11 a school curriculum altered, and our world forever changed. Unforgettable.
Trudy Austin, Variety Store clerk:
I know exactly to the minute and the day when that happened. I guess like everyone else so absolutely shocked, I was trying to process it. You’re listening and you’re watching it on TV but it was just too hard to process at first and everything. And then that afternoon I did have to come to work, and I think everybody was just in total shock. It was just hard to believe that something like that was happening in our country. It was just a somber mood all day in the store. It was a sad day for everyone.
Donald Davis, island resident and storyteller:
The night before 9/11, Merle and I met our friends, Glenn and Naomi, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, so that the four of us could hike to Mount LeConte for three days. As we were using the restroom at the Newfound Gap parking lot and headed onto the Appalachian Trail, some people getting out of a car said, “We just heard that a plane hit a building in New York City.” That’s all we heard as we started our hike.
Arriving at the LeConte Lodge, where there is no electricity on the mountain, there were some sketchy reports arriving from hikers coming in from other directions. Several people with reservations did not show up that night. We were there for two nights with no real news and no television.
I am forever grateful that we did not spend those days watching television and did not have to watch the terrible events live as they happened. Instead, we experienced quietness and our own reflections during our time on the mountaintop.
Mary Ellen Piland, retired Ocracoke School teacher:
My teaching assignment that year was a kindergarten/first grade combination class with 12 students divided into groups. The younger students were watching Sesame Street when I was notified that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers. My first reaction was to immediately reach out to my family and make sure everyone was all right. The feeling of panic was running through my system, and I realized that I needed to direct the children back into regular activities in the classroom.
We cut the television off and were afraid to take the students outside. I received a call from a concerned mother who wanted to make sure her child was not seeing the disaster unfold. A few parents came to school and picked up their children. The kindergarten and first-grade students had no concept of the horror that day and were easily directed back into other activities despite my uneasiness over what was happening in our country. After reminiscing about that morning 20 years ago, I plan to talk with the local 25- and 26-year-old young people from my class about their memories that day, including one special student who is now the kindergarten teacher at Ocracoke School.
Lynne Gentry Neaves, longtime visitor from Asheville
I was living in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. I was at home when my mother in the piedmont area of North Carolina called and simply said, “turn the television news on” and immediately ended the call. The tone of her voice itself let me know that the news was not good.
Watching the photos and videos of the Twin Towers as they burned, people fleeing the area, rescuers bravely entering the scene, victims being taken away on stretchers was devastating for me. Many of my Canadian friends showed sincere concern for the United States, and I especially appreciated a kind neighbor coming to sit with me for a while.
As I reflected on my mother’s message, I realized she was not only concerned about the tragedy but also about her grandson, my nephew, who lived near the towers. Late that afternoon, we were grateful to learn he was away from the city on that miserable day. Unfortunately, all those who lost their lives were not away.
Philip Howard, owner of Village Craftsmen:
Shortly before we opened for business that morning, I heard reports that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. The true scale of the tragedy was not immediately apparent, but it was obvious this was a horrible event. I immediately walked next door to turn on the TV in my father’s house.
I walked back to open the craft gallery but continued to check my father’s television to monitor the events as they unfolded: Not one small plane; but two large commercial jets. Not an accident; but a deliberate attack by the Islamist extremist group al-Qaida. Dramatic images of smoke billowing from the iconic towers were seared into my memory.
It was only after several minutes that observers began to unravel the full, sinister details.
I went back to the Village Craftsmen to announce that we would be closing to help all of us process the ongoing events. Incredulously, I discovered that several customers wanted to continue shopping. Whether they didn’t fully comprehend the scope of the disaster or were unmoved by the unfolding events was not apparent.
We closed, and my family and employees went next door to watch as the full scale of the attacks emerged, leaving an indelible impression on me, my family and the nation.
Tucker Scully, part-time resident and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries:
Early that morning I crossed the Potomac to a park in Alexandria to walk along the river in search of migrating fall warblers. Reluctant to bring the morning to an end, I paused at a bridge to look out over the river. This reverie was shattered by the roar of jet engines.
An American Airlines plane, barely above eye level, was racing upriver — one of the landing paths to National Airport. Much too fast, I thought. The pilot must have aborted the landing. Thirty seconds or so later there was a loud but muffled crash, akin to a large dumpster being dropped.
As I turned to head to the car, a bicyclist, wearing headphones, stopped. “You should listen to the news,” he said. “Bad things are happening in New York.” As I listened to the horrific descriptions of the destruction of the Twin Towers, I heard the wail of numerous sirens and, looking north, saw flames and a massive plume of smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon. Bad things were happening in Washington, too.
And yet, what I still remember most clearly of that day was the beauty of the morning – before the world intruded.
Candice Cobb, part-time islander:
One of the advantages, or disadvantages depending on your perspective, of working at a television network is that there are TVs blaring everywhere. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was settling into my PBS NC (formerly UNC-TV) second floor office when “Breaking News” cut into programming. My colleagues and I gathered in the communications department hallway as CNN anchor Carol Lin described the first plane crashing into the north tower. It was 8:49AM. There were gasps of “Oh My God!” Then shock and tears.
As we watched in disbelief, my coworkers began remembering New York friends and relatives with WTC connections. “Could they be in the tower?” “Are people trapped?” Suddenly, I thought of McMillan, an airline pilot and a recently-promoted captain for US Airways. Bob was also my partner Martha’s brother.
Martha’s office was on the first floor. We met when I started my network position there nine years earlier. I rushed to her office as Martha was answering the phone. “I’m okay!” Bob’s voice on speakerphone offered momentary relief. Then Bob said, “Oh No! Another plane just hit!” We watched Martha’s TV as a ball of fire exploded from the south tower.
My mom, Vickie Cobb, answered her home phone in Hillsborough. She had recently returned from another Cobb House season on Ocracoke. We shared the news, and she turned on her TV. Together, we watched in silence as two more planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. On that September morning, family felt more important than ever.
Ocracoke School Principal Leslie Cole:
I was teaching 7th and 8th graders N.C. history. Someone knocked on my door at about 9:25 and said you might want to turn in the TV. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. One building was already down. I began reading the banner across the bottom of the screen and tried to figure out what was going on and to explain to the kids what was going on.
Then the other building fell while we were watching, right there on the TV. I said, “Oh my gosh…. What is happening!??”
Just like that, the world changed. I was afraid for our graduating class of seniors and worried about the draft as I felt war was imminent. I remember being scared for them.
The kids that were in my room were the classes of 2006 and 2007. I know I’m leaving some out, but I believe the students were Nicole O’Neal, Alex Garrish, Marcus Lawson, Laurie Laker, Megan Van Landingham, Dylan Bennink, Katy Mitchell, Miles Huppert, Molly Lyons and Yeager St. John.
Ed Norvell, part-time resident and attorney:
The morning of September 11, I went to work in my office when Kathy Naujoks, from the Raleigh office of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, my employer, called. “Ed, are you watching the television?”
“No,” I said.
“You had better turn it on. You won’t believe what is happening.”
I rushed inside and turned on the television in the breakfast room where I found my wife, Susan, glued to the TV. Every channel had the same pictures of smoke streaming from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Then the television switched to a picture of the executive office building beside the White house with smoke billowing in the distance. Commentators said they thought the White House or office buildings nearby had been hit or bombed. The different television stations switched back and forth from close ups of the World Trade Center to Washington, D.C., then to a long-distance photo of the World Trade Center with smoke pouring from it. Then there was a loud shout from the crowd on the street in New York as another airplane hit the South Tower. The image of the airplane exploding on impact was played over and over again.
We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Estimates were floated about how many thousand workers were in the buildings at the time, forty-five, fifty thousand. We were in shock. Then came the news of an airplane crash in Pennsylvania. Was it related? Then it was announced that all air traffic was to be grounded.
Then the first tower collapsed. It was unreal, the photos of people running through the streets of lower Manhattan, the terror on people’s faces as the horrific gray cloud chased them through the city then overcame them, the thought of all those people, possibly as many as tens of thousands in each building — doomed.
The pictures were played over and over again. My wife was in tears; I was in shock; the cries and screams from the city chilled us to the bone. We knew what would happen next — it was only a matter of time and in time it came, the other tower collapsed just like the first, like a pancake. The buildings that we had visited a recent trip to New York, the symbol of American optimism and power reduced to a pile of rubble in a matter of seconds with the possibility of thousands of lives lost.
Then the phone rang. It was Jean Jones who worked for my parents.
“It’s your father. He collapsed and we called an ambulance. He is at the hospital.” It was too much, too much happening at the same time.
“I’ve got to go to the hospital. It’s dad.” I told Susan.
“I’ll go with you.”
Recently my father had lost a lot of weight and was in a lot of pain, his doctors thought he had cancer, but we were still waiting for the results of the latest tests.
“What happened?” I asked Jean and Mom.
“He got out of bed today then he collapsed, and we couldn’t get him up, so we called the ambulance.”
“How are you doing?” I asked him.
“I don’t feel good. The pain is a lot worse.”
He was on a morphine drip.
I looked up at the television. The pictures of the collapse of the Twin Towers played over and over again. Soon we turned the sound down and could only see the images.
The next day the tests came back. He had lung cancer and it was very aggressive. He was gone by Nov. 1.
September 11 was a horrible day not only for our country but for my family. A day I will never forget.
Stephen G. Basnight III, superintendent Hyde County Schools:
I remember that morning like it was yesterday. It was first period, and I turned on my TV.
Then, I saw the second plane go right through the South Tower. I froze!
All I could say was, “This isn’t an accident!”
We were all confused, scared, numb…the district was trying to decide whether to let schools out. We heard about the (other crashes). No one knew how many planes there were or what might be attacked next.
Six months later, my wife, Ashley, and I took our kids to New York City to go to Ground Zero. There were lots of people there, but it was silent except for the cranes working on the site.
They were still looking for the remains of those who lost their lives that day. The fence still had photographs of people who were lost. The buildings that were still standing had painted markings where they had been searched or if they had been used as makeshift hospitals.
That happened to also be the week they turned on the spotlights that pointed up into the night sky.
When we took off from LaGuardia to fly home, our pilot banked the plane over the site of the Twin Towers, and we flew right through the lights. That was an incredible feeling!
Paul Jones, long-time visitor and UNC professor emeritus:
We were outside at the Daily Grind, our favorite coffee shop on the UNC campus, trying to get the Wi-Fi working. At that point, Wi-Fi was, while a standard, still experimental.
I’m not sure who saw it first, Simon or Jonathan or me, but some newsgroup, some listserv, someone’s email, hooked us up with a CNN link which was replaying the first plane (as I write this a man from Grover, N.C., is sitting in what he says is a bomb-filled truck in front of the Library of Congress). Surely this was some diabolical oddity.
Then there, as we watched, the live camera caught the second plane. It seemed the day and deaths would never end. We were transfixed. We had followed the storming of the Russian White House live on IRC in 1993 and read reports from the Oklahoma bombing being posted by folks inside the building in 1995, but the scale and immediacy of this was apocalyptic.
To think about it, even now, shocks me, makes me pause. I can hear my heart begin to pound as it did then.
Val Kells, professional illustrator and longtime visitor:
In the spring of 2001, I began fishing the bluegill and bass out of a small golf pond that was to be drained and turned into fairway. Over several months, I transferred the fishes into a cooler and relocated them to a large pond. On the morning of Sept. 11, I discovered the small pond was being pumped down prematurely. When I stormed into the manager’s office to complain, he pointed at a TV. The Twin Towers were in flames. At first, I was dumbfounded and confused––then panicked. My sister worked a block away from the Trade Center, and one of my best friends lived in downtown Manhattan.
After several excruciating hours, I got word that both were safe. Thankfully, my sister had gotten off the subway before her usual Trade Center stop, and my friend was uptown. I watched at home as the Towers fell and the air above filled with smoke and ash. My senses of powerlessness, hopelessness and uselessness were slowly taken over by a deep desire to do something, anything, that was good and positive. So, I went back to the pond, kept my promise, and relocated the remaining fishes to safe haven. It was a small act of humanity against the face of inhumanity and tremendous tragedy, but sometimes, that’s all we can do.
Dave Frum, retired NPS and Ocracoke water plant worker:
I was working at Portsmouth that day. The summer was over, and a crew of workers was helping me clear, cut and burn brush. At mid-morning, we took a break and went back to the quarters where they stayed.
One of the first ones back had turned on the television. We were met with the “breaking news” story of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center. As we watched, the second plane hit the other building. We all realized immediately that this was no accident. All watched for a while and continued to check on the story through the day, not believing what was occurring.
This was before news was immediately available at one’s fingertips through cell phones.
My first thoughts were of family and wanting to contact them. I called (my wife) Karen Lovejoy on a cell phone connection that was poor at best. I told her I loved her and to hug the girls for me.
I could not wait to get back to Ocracoke that evening. When I got home, we all hugged long and hard realizing that life now was going to be much different.
James J. Zogby, long-time visitor and founder and president of the Arab American Institute:
I can never forget the flood of emotions that I experienced on September 11 and the days that followed. If I’ve learned anything in my seven decades, it’s that remembering and recalling are important. Especially so, in this case, because the trauma of that period shaped America and its foreign and domestic policies, and the way the horrors of that day impacted my community.
For me and millions of other Americans, September 11 began as just another Tuesday morning. I was stuck in traffic, stopped at a light when I noticed a woman in the car next to me signaling to roll down my window. As I did, she shouted, “Did you hear what happened to the World Trade Center?”
“No,” I said, “my car radio isn’t working.”
“A plane just crashed into the building!” she yelled. “My father works there, and I don’t know what’s happened to him.”
Then the light changed, and she moved on. I never saw her again, but I can never forget the look of sheer terror on her face.
By the time I got to the office, everyone was watching television. That was when the second plane hit. Like my colleagues, I was stunned and transfixed by the images of planes slicing through the walls of the World Trade Center, people jumping from the building, and finally of the two towers collapsing into a pile and disappearing forever. It was a horror never to be forgotten.
Soon, the nightmare became personal. My daughter worked near the Pentagon, which was also a target. She called frightened and concerned for me because the White House appeared to be another likely target and my office was only two blocks away.
Speculation was rife that Arabs were involved, and Arab American community leaders were already phoning us for advice and support. They wanted to know how to respond to the inevitable media requests and the threats that were sure to come.
During this time, my office came under police protection because of the flood of hate mail and death threats. One month later, I was asked by the chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to report on the extent of hate crimes and violence that occurred in the weeks after 9/11. In my testimony, I cataloged hundreds of documented hate crimes against Arab Americans, American Muslims, and those thought to be Arabs or Muslims. I noted that there had been seven murders as well as other acts of violence and threats of violence.
This backlash was frightening and profoundly unsettling to Arab Americans. As Americans, we too, had been pained by the enormous tragedy that had been inflicted on our country. We too, needed to mourn but we were pulled away from our grieving and forced, instead, to look over our shoulders in fear.
I was angry, of course, at the threats and prejudice. But more than that, I was angry at the terrorists who had violated the openness and freedom of my country. They killed thousands of my fellow citizens. And in doing so, they also caused incalculable damage to the millions of Arab Americans and Muslims.
What was also striking and deeply moving were the acts of kindness. As our fellow citizens learned about the hate to which we had been subjected, many expressed sorrow and turned to us and offered support. This, too, I will never forget. Members of Congress called and passed resolutions, as did church groups, and most major ethnic organizations. In the face of this, I came to realize that however great the backlash, we would be protected.
But here, too, I felt pained. As undeserved as the hate had been, the kindness also seemed undeserved. I didn’t want to feel “other.” Nevertheless, the support was welcomed.
Robin Macek, Owner/innkeeper with husband Chad of Oscar’s House Bed & Breakfast:
Chad and I were married on Sept. 8, 2001, at Belvedere Castle in Central Park. It was the most incredible day with all of our family and friends. So many of them pitched in to help us make it the perfect wedding. My father even made a cooler out of Styrofoam to fit the ice cream wedding cake. It was our favorite flavor, Hershey’s Moose Tracks. He and my mother then drove the cake from central Connecticut down to 31st and Park where our reception would be held.
Everything came together perfectly. Our honeymoon suite was given as a gift to us by two of my clients, architects who had designed the hotel, the Tribeca Grande. Our suite was gorgeous and the view right out our window was the Twin Towers. There were gorgeous wedding lilies all over that made the suite smell beautiful.
We would’ve stayed a week if we could. Now I think a higher power made sure we didn’t. We had to get home to our three kids, so on Monday the 10th, we took the lilies and caught the train from Grand Central back home to Cheshire. People were thanking us for making the train smell so good!
We had arranged for the cable guy and the phone guy to come to the house Tuesday morning to switch things over to our name. They arrived around 8:30. I had the news on and just as the cable guy was about to cut the feed, the first plane hit. At first, we all thought it had to have been an accident. The service men and I all sat around my kitchen table speechless and in horror at the thought that this was no accident. Once the second plane hit, we knew for sure.
We had just left the beautiful city that was home to me. The most beautiful day of our lives was followed by the most horrific. It took a very long time for us to go back. So many of the people in our town lost loved ones that day. I think the rest of us lost a lot as well, our hearts. Today, 20 years later, it’s still difficult. We tend to think of all who were lost rather than the happy occasion just a few days prior.