Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, the day dawned bright and clear in New York, as it did in Cincinnati.
At 8:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, everything changed.
Everyone in the country that day, from that moment on, was an eyewitness to horror, and a partner in the disbelief and realization – no, abject fear – that this was not going to be over in a day.
We asked readers to tell us about their starkest memories of the day to help us remember, with both great sorrow and great pride, how we responded.
These are some of their stories.
On the ground
Diane Hunter’s husband called her from his Water Street office in Manhattan. He told her he had seen the second plane hit the South Tower. He then told his staff to evacuate immediately. She was safe on Long Island.
The day unfolded for her, as for all of us, minute by minute, horror upon horror, an endless dive into a place most of us had never been. Afraid for ourselves. Afraid for our country. Afraid of what it all meant.
The now-Union, Kentucky, woman watched it all from across the East River. Three people she knew died that day. Two were firefighters.
Her mourning for them continues to this day.
Linda Cajka reported to work as usual at the Pentagon that morning. The chief exhibit specialist for the Army Museum System had the responsibility for caring for and storing all of the Army's artifacts and paintings in the building where she worked.
The Pentagon was undergoing some work and Cajka was taking all of the Army’s largest paintings out for restorative work.
If a co-worker had not called in sick, the Cincinnati woman believes she would have been directly in harm’s way that morning.
Tom Schram’s wife called him around 9:30 to say that a plane had hit the North Tower and that her bookstore partner’s brother was in the South Tower. He had just completed a call with her and hung up when the next plane hit the South Tower.
“They never heard from him again nor did they find any remains.”
Later that day, Schram received a call from a Naval Academy classmate that one of the Class of 1969 members from the 23rd Company had been in the North Tower, above the crash location, and was missing, presumed dead.
“His name was Kevin Connors, and he became one of 14 USNA graduates who died that day. His widow arranged a memorial service for Kevin on October 5, my birthday and 12 members of the 23rd Company, USNA Class of 1969 attended (there were 24 of us living then). We came from all over the country to be there."
Schram, now 73, remembered he had been planning on a trip to the city in mid-September and was going to stay with the Connors. They had planned a lunch at Windows of the World.
Jan Angilella worked at Newsweek magazine. She remembers walking down Seventh Avenue, into Times Square. “Silence,” she writes. “The stock ticker was still on, except instead of symbols and numbers, the scroll was full of telephone numbers to call for relatives of people who worked in the World Trade Center.”
From her window at 1411 Broadway, Suzanne Thomas watched as the South Tower fell. She then walked down 30 flights of stairs with others who had been in the building with her, many singing "Amazing Grace."
Finally back at her hotel, the Grand Hyatt, a rumor started that a bomb had been planted next door at Grand Central Station.
“Everyone was gathering in the lobby/bar area,” she wrote, “and I recall seeing an elderly gentleman sitting down to eat. His wing-tip shoes were coated in grey ash.”
The first day
The congressman from Ohio’s 2nd District had organized a meeting at the West Wing of White House for the morning of Sept. 11. President George W. Bush's office had a few senior officials in attendance and knew immediately “there seemed to have been a terrible accident.”
Now U.S. Sen. Rob Portman was asked to go upstairs to the chief of staff's office. All assembled watched the second plane hit.
He watched as a deputy national security advisor rushed into the West Wing and head for the Situation Room.
Not long after, as he was being evacuated from the White House, he saw the black smoke rising from across the Potomac. “We turned on the car radio and heard about the attack on the Pentagon and the possibility of another plane coming to D.C.”
His wife, Jane, was in town for a short visit. The Portmans managed to get the last car available at the Enterprise rental agency and Jane drove back to Cincinnati to be with the couple’s three children.
“On her way back, somewhere in Pennsylvania," Portman wrote, "Jane called me to say a group of first responders from Ohio Task Force One out of southwest Ohio, passed her going east, lights flashing.”
Nancy Egan of Villa Hills worked in the downtown Cincinnati reservation office for American Airlines. It was her day off work, but she called in and they said come.
“We were given printed out manifests for passengers on both AA flights that had crashed, since the 800 number that the public was given to check on loved ones were the calls we would be receiving,” she explained. “If we saw a name match, we transferred the call to a supervisor.”
All planes in the sky were forced to land, leaving Egan with a lot of work getting those stranded home by partnering with train and bus companies.
The work took weeks.
The day dawned on the city's first-ever "strong mayor" primary in the history of Cincinnati. Mayor and candidate Charlie Luken stopped at Taft Elementary School in the West End, to vote. It was 8:30. The local media was there watching.
But not for long. After the news of the terrorist attack unfolded, the mayor gathered information, assessed the changing situation and expressed solidarity with the rest of the nation.
"We also felt vulnerable and scared," Luken remembered. "Emotions had to wait, though. We have airports, water systems, hundreds of assets that needed to be protected to the greatest extent possible. Our police and fire departments mobilized. Still, we did not know exactly what to do. How extensive was this attack? What was next? Where? We were standing at the ready, but not sure what we were getting ready for. We met and planned as best we could but we didn't know far more than we knew.
"I ordered government buildings closed, urging people to go home to their families. Cincinnatians were way ahead of me on that one.
"I also remember President Bush that day. He did his best to reassure the nation, but I thought I noticed a different feeling on his face. There was some shock, some fear on his face.
"He was just like the rest of us."
Dianne Cooper was, at the time, the marketing director for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops orchestras. It was, she remembers, the very first day of rehearsing for new conductor Paavo Jarvi. A whole week of celebration, complete with a street fair, had been planned in honor of him taking up the baton here, ending in a triumphant Opening Weekend of concerts.
Jarvi had walked to work anxious to start this new life, this first season (of many, it would turn out). But, first, a decision. Would the show go on?
“Everyone agreed that because of the healing power of music on the human soul, the concerts would go on,” remembered Cooper.
The concert programming was, however, altered. Now, American composer Samuel Barber’s deeply moving masterpiece “Adagio for Strings” would be played in tribute to those who died that awful morning.
Mark Haverkos is now 66 and living in West Chester. A builder of hotels, he was at that moment he heard the news on top of a roof only miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport's runways.
“After the news hit every contractor on site had their truck radios all listening to the latest news as it was happening. As the airlines began recalling all flights, we all sat on the roof in silence watching the planes circle and land at Dallas. At one time we counted 24 planes circling waiting for their turn to land.”
Haverkos realized he was supposed to get on a plane to come home to Cincinnati the next day. He made quick arrangements to stay another week in Dallas and to keep his rental car. (“Honey,” he was told, “if you have a vehicle, hold on to it as there are no more cars available anywhere.”)
That evening, he used a service road to see what was going on at the airport. There were hundreds of planes that had been parked wherever they could find room after being unloaded.
Two weeks later, he flew home. “The instructions from the flight crew were ‘nobody gets out of their seats for any reason.’”
It remains the quietest flight he has ever been on.
Jenna Beall Mueller was 11 and in Miss Krummen's sixth-grade classroom at St. Jude School in Bridgetown. A teacher came to the door looking panicked, she wrote, “and I'll never forget the way Miss Krummen's face fell as she heard the news. Wordlessly, she strode to the corner TV and turned on the news. All I heard was ‘twin towers’ accompanied by fiery images.
“The only twin towers I knew were the P&G towers downtown where my dad worked. I was absolutely terrified that something awful had happened to my dad and a giant lump began to form in my throat until it became clear this was unfolding in New York City.”
She remembers her Red Cross babysitting classes being canceled that day.
“Eleven is a difficult age to comprehend such a tragedy,” she wrote. “I knew enough to be frightened and sad but lacked perspective. I had nightmares of planes crashing into my own home, and the sound of an airplane flying overhead at night made me hysterical.
“For months,” explained the now-31-year-old, “I slept on the family room sofa with foam earplugs stuck in my ears. It was the only way I could sleep.”
Fred Wood and his family had just arrived in Myrtle Beach for a vacation, all set to start their vacation with an oceanfront view. The Woods’ college-aged son arrived just before 9 a.m. on the 11th, having driven through the night from Cincinnati with a friend who called his mom to tell him he had gotten home safe from South Carolina.
She told him to turn on the TV.
Fred Wood remembers how, when he looked out to the Atlantic that day, there was no one on the beach. How he went to Walmart and there was no traffic. How the store was eerily deserted. How, despite the beach and the sun and the freedom, they watched TV all day.
Alvin and Jeanne Crawford were on their way home from France.
Here's what they heard: “May I have your undivided attention. The United States is at war. One of the World Trade Center’s buildings has been bombed. the Pentagon has been bombed and fighter interceptors have been sent to intercept a plane headed for the White House.
"The president is being taken to the Strategic Air Command base. Martial law has been declared, and no planes may enter or leave the United States air space. We will be landing shortly in St John's Newfoundland."
Once safely there, the Red Cross took over, assigning passengers to St. David’s Presbyterian Church. When the church bath showers failed, a nearby Gold's Gym gave everyone temporary memberships.
"The church members were fantastic, donating their sleeping bags, towels, shaving gear, casseroles and friendliness every day. All cultural and ethnic boundaries were dissolved and the community worked as harmoniously as could be imagined. One of the airline pilots went daily to every location of his passengers and checked on them while we were in St Johns."
Cynthia Smith and two other moms were about to go apple picking with their five kids under the age of 5. They saw what was happening in New York but decided they’d keep their plans. That evening, she saw what had happened, heard the terrible toll. Still, she felt many things but also grateful to be where she was.
“Family,” the Wyoming woman thought, “is where you feel safe."
Lebanon’s Jean Benning was teaching a class of junior engineering design students at the Warren County Career Center.
“Shortly after the class began, we were told to turn on our televisions to observe an incident developing in New York City. We were then told to stay in place for the morning. The class and I began to write bits of information on the board to record what the news reporters revealed.
“The design class had just completed a unit on structural support systems focusing on tall buildings and bridges. At some point, a quiet 16-year-old raised his hand and said, ‘Mrs. Benning, the building is going to collapse on itself.’ ”
She asked him how he came to this conclusion. He said he’d “been studying structural theories and why and how they could be vulnerable.
“About a half-hour later, the building fell.”
The second day and beyond
Salvation Army officer Leo Sanclemente was stationed in Holyoke, Massachusetts, at the time. He knew immediately he wanted to join a response team. He and wife Persi – both now commanding officers of the Salvation Army’s Hamilton Corps – had been married in New York City years before and had once been assigned to ring the bell at the Christmas kettle stand in front of the World Trade Center. He knew those towers.
The Salvation Army’s job, he explained, was to care for the crews doing the rescue work. He watched their hard work and long hours.
“As individuals got exhausted they needed a place to sit, water and something to eat. Some needed new shoes, gloves or clean clothing. Hundreds of people were working among the mountains of debris. We were supporting their basic and emotional needs.”
Sanclemente remembered that “there was little hope of finding anyone alive, but great effort was still made digging through the rubble.”
Other Salvation Army teams served as grief counselors at ground zero and at the morgues where the remains were taken.
But he was on the site, working with those who did the work of finding bodies. Every day he was debriefed by professional counselors before going home.
He says he was not traumatized by the experience but, instead, greatly honored to have been allowed to help others for those long days after.
Robert Rielage, then Ohio's fire marshal, moved swiftly to do his job and help in any way possible, all the while wondered about his son, Dale, a Navy officer serving at the Pentagon. Dale's office would, in fact, be less than 100 feet from the crater created by the impact and fires of American Airlines Flight 77. (Dale, who assisted with evacuation early and was later decorated for his actions in returning to the building to save others, fought the blaze with his colleagues, armed only with a pressure washer.)
Within the week, because of his stature within the fire community, the elder Rielage found himself helping federal agents in New York.
"For several days, I had been driven around by then Fire Lt. Robert Higgins to wherever I needed to go. From that deck on the American Express Building, I asked him to help orient me to the activity on the ground. 'Is that the Oppenheimer Building over there? If so, then Tower 1 was here and Tower 2 there,' I pointed as I asked.
"Bob replied, 'Yes, and somewhere over there is where my brother, Tim, is still buried' as he pointed to another debris area. His words slammed me back to reality. This was not only the loss of the 343 FDNY firefighters, nor nearly 2,700 civilians, nor 189 in DC, nor 44 in Pennsylvania: this was the loss of ‘family’ that I had by the grace of God averted at the Pentagon, but for me would be forever embodied in the words, 'Never Forget'."
Terence Gragston was a sophomore in college as an ROTC student at the University of Cincinnati when the attacks happened.
“Being a cadet in the US Army at the time, I had orders to report to Wright Patterson Air Force Base for medical screening for my potential scholarship. I vividly remember seeing the jets that were fully armed and bombers that would eventually make the trek to Afghanistan during our initial bombing campaign in Tora Bora."
After college, Gragston enlisted and served 11 years, included 26 months in Iraq in active combat. The 39-year-old Pleasant Ridge man remains dedicated to the veteran community.
Kathleen Spencer and her husband were packing to catch a mid-afternoon flight, headed for a long-dreamed-of three-week trip to Greece.
A little after 9 a.m., the friend who was going to house sit for them called and demanded fiercely, "Are you watching your television?"
After an hour of unremitting horror, they learned their flight had been canceled. For three days, they tried to salvage the trip only to finally accept it was not to be.
“We were left with a complex set of emotions,” wrote Spencer, now 74 and living in Northside. “Gratitude that we had not actually been in the air when the terrorists struck, and that we were not stranded somewhere unable to get home. Gratitude also that every airline and hotel where we had reservations unquestioningly refunded our money, so all we lost was the trip itself, a small price compared to what so many others lost that day.
“But this gratitude was accompanied by a numb uncomprehending sorrow at the frightening new world we found ourselves in, along with ferocious pride and appreciation for the ordinary Americans who rushed in to help others at great risk to themselves.”
Pamela Green was on her way to the airport to catch a plane, as she did at least once a week in 2001, and heard the news on the radio. She turned around, came home and thought hard about her life. She and her husband had moved to Cincinnati to live and raise their family. And they had wanted to make it a better place. You can’t do that if you leave all the time, she thought.
For her, then, Sept. 11 is forever linked with that change. In truth, she wrote, that change had already all started with the Cincinnati police shooting of Timothy Thomas five months before on April 7, 2001.
“I wanted to be a part of building a stronger community in my chosen hometown, which was still reeling in pain. Ninety days later, I quit my job and resolved to take six months to figure out what I wanted to do. Six months stretched to a year as I enjoyed time with my toddlers, and I resolved that when I returned to the workforce, I wanted to do work that made a difference,” Green wrote.
Soon after, she was hired on by Easterseals, which is designed to provide programs and support for those with disabilities.
She is now its CEO.
Jennifer Weber’s husband walked home to Queens that day, his second on the job he had taken near the Trade Center.
She remembers the city being so quiet and so openly joined.
“People were more empathetic and caring towards each other. There was a lot of love in NYC and not hate like you saw in other cities around the country,” Weber wrote. “It was so different living in NYC than living here in Cincinnati. People didn't hate anyone. I didn't see the hate towards Arabs and Muslims as you see so common in politicians and churches.”
She said it was sad to see that people, especially leaders, who had not been there were more Islamophobic than ever, “the exact opposite on how they acted in New York after actually witnessing the tragedy.”
Dorothy Weil had lived through World War II but “the horror of people facing the decision of jumping or facing burning, collapsing floors stirred me as no other event ever had.”
An artist, the now-91-year-old East Walnut Hills woman went to work making two large towers from board, one shiny and intact, the other built of the pictures of all the victims which had been published in the newspapers.
“It did nothing for the dead of course, but only for myself and some viewers who needed to commemorate the horror.”
Trevor Stansbury flew often. In fact, the Loveland man was dressing for work at a hotel adjacent to Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix when the second plane hit. His cell phone rang.
“It was my older brother. The one I rarely spoke with. The one I never got along with growing up. While I don’t remember his exact words, the conversation went something like this: ‘Trevor? Are you OK? Oh, thank God. For a minute, I was sure you were on that flight.’ The relief in his voice was palpable. Both of us felt it. Neither of us could speak for a moment. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I clumsily assured him I was OK.
“I then said something that had never been said between brothers before. ‘I love you, Rhett.’ I love you too, Trevor.’ With that, a lifetime of hard feelings were instantly and completely obliterated. Out of the ashes and molten steel of ground zero, healing had somehow inexplicably happened.”
They have been close friends, not just brothers, ever since.
Wendy Slavey was in her car headed to Christ Hospital for a visit.
“I heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. I immediately called my husband, who worked at the Enquirer at the time, he said, ‘Oh, it was probably a small private plane. Let me see what I can find out. It wasn’t five minutes when he called me back and said it was bad news. He said he may not make our appointment.”
But he did. Just in time to hear, “Yes, you are having a baby. “
The Slaveys had been married for almost 20 years and were, so far, childless. Yet, she still calls the moment both "a miracle" and “bittersweet.”
Then she added:
“Our beautiful baby girl is now 19.”