On the 10th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, responders offer personal perspectives on Sept. 11, 2001.
By Mary O’KEEFE
It will be one of those dates when over and over again people will ask, “Where were you when you heard?”
On Sept. 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m., hijacked American Airlines flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. New York city police and fire departments immediately began their response but before most could comprehend what had happened, hijacked United Airlines flight 175 slammed into the South Tower.
Fifty-six minutes later the South Tower fell at 9:59 a.m. At 10: 28 a.m. the North Tower fell. Firefighters and police were in the towers when they fell in an attempt to rescue victims.
At 9:37 a.m., hijacked American Airlines flight 77 flew into the Pentagon. Another flight – United Airlines 93 – crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa.
In New York, falling debris ignited fires in the surrounding World Trade Center buildings. A fire burned out of control in the West Tower. It eventually collapsed at 5:20 p.m.
On Dec. 18, 2001, in a joint resolution Congress designated Sept. 11 Patriots Day, a National Day of Service and Remembrance. Sept. 11 is now recognized as Patriots Day. It is a time to look back, to never forget.
The country was in shock as they watched the events of that day unfold, however there were some who did not have time to wonder why these attacks had happened, only to prepare to help. After 10 years, the memories are still strong.
A firefighter/emergency responder from the foothill area shared his memories of his search through the wreckage after the attacks. He requested anonymity.
On Sept. 11, 2001 he woke at about 6 a.m. and was told there was an accident at the trade center. He and his fellow firefighters watched as the attacks played out on television. A few hours later he received a phone call ordering his team, California Task Force One, to New York. By 9 a.m. the team was on its way to March Air Force Base. By that night they were in New York.
“I remember the Twin Towers [what was left of them] were still on fire, and we were still miles away,” he said. “We went down the turnpike and onto New York streets. They were lined with people; everyone had the same look on their face … No one knew what was going on. It was just confusion.”
The first day the team went to the site of the World Trade Center. They spent the entire day working.
“It was dusty and dirty and buildings were still collapsing,” he said.
He described a white/gray dust that covered everything. The team was there for 11 days. They initially had hoped to be a rescue unit, however they soon realized they would only be recovering bodies; no one had survived.
“We were searching areas 40 feet under ground. There were trucks at the very bottom [in the lowest level of the parking garage] that looked as if someone had just parked them there and went home,” he said. “All the steel girders had been pulverized. The glass had [turned to] silica. The second or third day we were there [it] rained.”
The rain made the mix of steel and glass slippery, and even more treacherous. Team members would go into holes in the twisted metal to search for bodies, still hoping for a survivor.
“We would go into these openings that would be maybe three feet [in diameter],” he said.
Tractors constantly moved debris, however at times they would cover the holes that rescuers had entered.
“We would come back [to the opening] a few hours later and it would be gone,” he added.
As the days went on more people would come down to the site and attempt to search with intentions to help, but without training it was adding danger for the search teams. The firefighter understood why people were so desperate to help, wanting to find survivors.
“But everybody we came across … time didn’t make a difference,” he said.
Searching in the area that was full of gases and dust was not easy. One night an explosion occurred, ignited by 15 gallons of fuel. The metal girders retained their heat for days after the fire was contained.
The firefighter recalled the dust being so thick there were times when they would be crawling on the debris and realize there was a victim beneath them. When they found victims, they would mark them and move on. When they found fire or police victims they would mark them and wait for the specific city departments to recover the bodies of their own.
Searching through the debris was difficult.
“Everything was pulverized. We would go into an area and on the girders there would be floor numbers. In a six-foot area there were four floors, and I am talking furniture and everything. There was nothing larger than a couple of inches [thick].”
When asked if there was one memory that stands out from those 11 days, he shared the story of a woman who had lost her son.
“We had a 75-year-old [woman], she was supposed to be going to the Trade Center that day for a meeting but she didn’t go. Her son went in her place. He was in his 40s or 50s. She kept coming to the area every day trying to find him. She gave us pictures of him and letters. We would work 12-hour days. She would greet us every [morning] and be there at the end of the day.”
As far as he knows she never found her son’s remains.
The responder has been to many disasters, from hurricanes to earthquakes, but New York was different. The severe damage and light dust that constantly hovered over everything created a ghost-like effect. Many who had responded to the Twin Towers are now dealing with lung problems due to that dust.
“I think it has affected me,” he said.
He had a personal connection to the search as well.
“One of my friends, a New York [fire] battalion chief, he and I had gone on a deployment with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to hurricane Fran (that slammed into North Carolina in 1996).”
The battalion chief was one of the commanders to enter the first Trade Center Tower.
“He was in charge of the rescue. He didn’t make it.”
When asked what has been learned, if anything, from the attacks and response, he replied, “I think we are a little too relaxed here. It could have easily been a building in downtown L.A.”
Captain Scott Mekelburg is a former enlisted Infantry Marine. Ten years ago he was a member of the California Army National Guard.
At the news of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was involved with a leadership academy at the Guard. Almost immediately he and fellow National Guard members were called to duty to supply security at the nation’s airports.
“I got activated for nine months,” Mekelburg said. “I went to every local large airport.”
The National Guard can be mobilized at any time by presidential order to supplement regular armed forces, and upon declaration of a state of emergency by the governor of the state or territory in which they serve. Responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, Mekelburg said no one had any idea how far reaching their deployment would eventually go.
“I think everyone was in shock of why [the attacks happened] and then to find out it was determined it was Al-Qaeda,” he said.
He added no one had any idea of the deployment that lay ahead.
“I was deployed twice in support of Iraqi Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom,” he said. He spoke of those first days in Iraq. “It was very active. We lost at least six [members of his battalion] within a nine month period and then there were numerous wounded. “
Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the troops are scheduled to come home. In the first few years of the war that followed the attacks, the military built its troops substantially. Now that the troops are returning, there are many in the military who are not being given the option to reenlist.
“They [military] are very selective,” he said.
The problem is a war does not end for its soldiers simply because they are sent home. Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, has become a concern for returning veterans who in every way look physically sound but have suffered a concussion while serving. There are also cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] that are being reported from military personnel.
Mekelburg added it is important to remember veterans and the price they have paid.
“Those that live [with these symptoms] may need care for the rest of their lives,” he said. “I think we will be paying for this [war] for a generation.”
One of the first responders that bravely went to New York and searched for hours was only about three feet tall and walked on all fours. Bella and her trainer Deresa Teller from the Los Angeles City Fire Department responded to the call for assistance to the Twin Towers.
By the time she responded to Sept. 11 she had been a veteran of earthquakes and other disasters. During an earthquake, a home in Encino had tumbled down a hill.
“There was someone in the home and we needed to get an idea of where they were,” Teller said.
Bella was able to find the body of the person in the home.
“Her really big [response] was to Oklahoma City,” Teller said.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh had committed a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast destroyed buildings killing 168 lives.
“Bella finds both live victims and human remains,” Teller said. She added that being able to search for both types of victims was unusual for one dog. Bella had also helped police investigators in finding a victim of a serial rapist in Simi Valley in 2000.
Through all these tragic events that Bella and her trainer responded to there needed to be a detachment from the emotion of the event.
“The dog and handler have such a close connection you can’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the [situation]. The dog can sense it on you,” Teller explained.
They stayed away from television reports of the Sept. 11 attack and the families looking for loved ones that filled the news channels.
“There was that wall of all those pictures of missing people. I couldn’t go there,” Teller said.
Despite the dust that was everywhere, Bella could search through it to find victims.
“[The team] found about 20 or 25 [victims]. I lost count; they were just being found,” she said.
Because Bella had the ability to search and recover, she was in demand by New York responders and other teams as well.
“My first impression when we arrived [at Ground Zero] was we were not going to find anyone alive, or if we did they would be buried so far down under the rubble. In Oklahoma, you saw office furniture, but [in New York] there was nothing [to identify].”
Teller described the ever-present cloud of dust as varying shades of gray.
Through it all Bella never lost sight, or smell, of what she was there to do.
“When I talk to groups, I tell them that you may enter your home and smell beef stew. The dog smells carrots, peas, potatoes and the [spices],” she said.
Bella passed away since responding to Sept. 11, but her spirit lives on. Teller is working with three of her grandkids.
Community Events Planned for 9-11
By Brandon HENSLEY
Bill Flanders was living in Rancho Cucamonga when the planes hit the World Trade Center in New York 10 years ago. He had just dropped off his children at school and returned to his house where his wife told him what was happening.
A few weeks later, Flanders, a pastor at a church in Indio, held a special service recognizing those lost in the attacks.
A decade later, some things have changed and some things haven’t. Flanders moved to La Crescenta two years ago and became the pastor of First Baptist at La Crescenta after spending 20 years in Rancho Cucamonga.
On Sunday, First Baptist will be part of the many churches in Crescenta Valley and across the U.S. in recognizing the 10-year anniversary of 9-11.
The service, which begins at 10:45 a.m., will include a flag ceremony by the Crescenta Valley High School ROTC, remembrance videos put together by various Christian organizations, a candlelight vigil and songs from the church choir.
“It’s to remember those that lost their lives trying to be rescuers, and we also want to take that as an opportunity to recognize local rescue personnel that work in safety [professions],” said Flanders.
The church has contacted local firefighters, but as of Tuesday Flanders said he wasn’t sure who would show up.
“I don’t know if we’re going to get any responses but we have invited some of them,” he said.
The attacks 10 years ago triggered a national economy that began to dip, and Flanders said his sermon, which is called “Never forget … Hope,” will focus on things that have changed but also problems today that are similar to that of a decade ago.
“In our present economy and so forth we get people that are out of jobs and people that are struggling,” he said.
“For people, life is tough sometimes.”
Flanders said that people are still struggling with the issues that they were on 9-11.
While attending one sermon may not cure everything, it could be a start.
First Baptist at La Crescenta is located on 4441 La Crescenta Ave.
Several other houses of worship are holding special 9-11 services. Visit the Religion page for details.
Other events throughout the community
• 9-11: A Remembrance In Poems at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse from Friday, Sept. 9 through Friday, Sept. 30. Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse, 1010 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge
• The Glendale Unified School District will observe the 10th anniversary on Friday, Sept. 9 at 8:46 a.m., the time of the day that the first hijacked airliner crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. All Glendale Unified schools will observe a standing minute of silence to mark the anniversary.
• Center for Spiritual Living – La Crescenta will hold the John Randolph Price World Peace Meditation service on Sunday at 10 a.m. The public is invited for this special service that is usually held at 4 a.m. on Dec. 31. Center for Spiritual Living, 4845 Dunsmore Ave., La Crescenta
• A blood drive sponsored by Center for Spiritual Living – La Crescenta, Crescenta Valley Methodist Church, the La Cañada Islamic Community and Huntington Hospital is being held on Sunday from noon until 6:30 p.m. at Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church, 2700 Montrose Ave. in Montrose.
• The Crescenta-Cañada & Verdugo Hills Family YMCAs are collecting items from the Troops Wish List to send overseas. In addition, Monte Vista Elementary school students are creating artwork and writing letters of appreciation for our troops to send as well. For a complete list of requested items, visit the Y website at www.ymcacc.org. Donated items can be dropped off at the bins at the Y through Sept. 16.
• The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) encourage Crescenta Valley residents to fly their American flags to show honor and respect for those who perished.
• The Glendale Fire Department invites the community to attend a brief ceremony. On Sunday each of Glendale’s nine fire stations will pay tribute with the following events: 6:50 a.m. Raising and lowering of the flag to half-staff; 6:59 a.m. A tribute will be aired by Verdugo Dispatch over the fire department radio (XLC ACCESS) honoring those who sacrificed their lives on 9-11. A moment of silence will unanimously be observed by all 44 of Verdugo’s stations and Verdugo will toll three sets of five tones to honor those firefighters; 7:04 a.m. The firefighters at each station will read a portion of the total 343 firefighters’ names whose lives were lost on 9/11. The Police Department will also be in attendance and read a portion of the 72 names of the police officers who lost their lives. Each station will end their ceremony with a prayer led by a community religious leader.