(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
REMEMBERING SEPTEMBER 11: The 2001 terrorist attacks on America changed the country and shaped a new era for us…
It was 19 years ago. People were going about their everyday lives, living in what they considered the greatest country on the planet.
The United States has reaped the benefits of being the sole superpower since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. The tech sector had shown tremendous promise with the internet growing in importance and ability. We had a powerful military that had utterly pummeled the Soviet-supplied Army of Iraq. Optimism was something that defined the 1990s and the turn of the century. The United States seemed invincible and untouchable.
But as we woke up on September 11, 2001, it became quickly apparent that this wasn’t going to be a normal day. Our country was under attack.
“It was my sophomore year of high school,” former Jenkins High School student Jory Fields said. “I walked to school with no idea what was going on. When I got to the school, I noticed all of the TVs were on in the classrooms and everyone was bustling around and some people were crying.”
Saying the all-American town of Chewelah is sleepy might be cheesy, but the town was in the West Coast time zone, three hours behind and completely oblivious to what was going on until the first reports rolled in.
Four passenger airlines had departed from airports in the northeastern United States. Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists, many from Saudi Arabia, hijacked these plans, crashing American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93 had their plane disrupted by the brave Americans who decided to storm the cockpit and confront the hijackers. The plane crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.
Fields said when he first saw the towers burning on television, he thought it was the anniversary of when a smaller plane had crashed into the towers.
“I asked a teacher what was going on and they laid it all out,” Fields said. “I was in complete shock. If I remember right, we only had a half day of school that day. When I went home, my Mom had spray painted ‘we are praying’ on a sheet and hung it on the side of the house.”
The United States was at war.
As air travel ground to a halt and cancellation after cancellation of everyday normal life was announced, it began to really take hold.
For Springdale resident Elisanne McCutchen, she grew up 60 miles north of New York City and, as an architecture student, visited the World Trade Center. These buildings, when completed in 1973 were the tallest buildings, on Earth. One tower was 1,368 feet tall and the other was 1,362 feet tall.
“I recall putting my back against the north wall of south tower and looking up and seeing the massive structure looming overhead,” McCutchen said.
The building had been previously bombed in its parking garage in 1993, but this damage had been repaired. On September 11, 2001, the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. after burning for 58 minutes. News cameras showed people desperately jumping from the tower after being trapped in the buildings from the burning planes.
“When the first tower was hit, my radar was on high alert because I knew that the city was a no-fly zone for big airplanes,” McCutchen said. “Of course, all doubt was stripped away moments later. It’s not hard to viscerally recall the shock I felt when each tower fell and the further horrors of that day were revealed.”
Tragically, no one expected the collapses. First responders, including New York police officers and fire fighters, had rushed into the burning buildings to help survivors, only to have the building come down on top of them.
Steven Cross was in the military at the time and was out in the backroads of Texas listening to cassette tapes, when they eventually took the tape out and listened to the radio.
“We found the first radio station we could and were thinking this is a terrible skit to be playing on the radio and that it wasn’t very funny,” Cross said. “It took a few minutes to realize that it was not a skit.”
After the attacks, Cross said the lines at the gas stations in Texas were crazy and prices quickly rose.
“I had to stop in Amarillo and call AT&T from a payphone at a gas station to get my cell phone to work in case I got called back to the unit that I had just signed out of to go somewhere,” Cross said. “I called my buddies that were still at Ft. Hood and they said that the traffic to get onto post was backed up for about 15 miles and they were inspecting every vehicle to get on post. Then each unit had guards at every parking lot entrance searching vehicles again.”
For his wife Nancy, she was in base housing on Ft. Lewis and got a phone call from her mother.
“My mom was crying; her and my dad were heading up that day to see us from central Oregon,” Cross said. “She told me to turn on my TV. Within an hour the entire base was on alert.”
In the smoke, flame and rubble, the country moved to understand what happened and brace for more attacks.
“I just remember holding my baby girl and crying as we watched because I knew nothing was going to be the same for our country or military after that,” Cross said.
For Chewelah resident Chuck Ritchie who was living in Anchorage, Alaska, working for a catering company, he was roused out of bed by his roommate.
“My boss called and said they needed me to come in to work,” Ritchie said. “Oh, and we were under attack by terrorists. I got up in time to see the second tower fall.”
Flights were cancelled and people were stranded, confused and worried.
“We occasionally catered events at one of the historic hotels in Anchorage,” Ritchie said. “We were put in charge of feeding two full flights worth of Japanese tourists three meals a day for almost a week while they sorted flights out. It was pretty surreal, very few spoke any English, everyone was scared and confused.”
Two of Ritchie’s roommates had moved from Iran during the Iraq invasion of the Iran-Iraq war. For them, the world had changed as well.
“I saw a lot of the hatred and racism towards Middle Eastern people and Muslims first hand,” Ritchie said. “It was all so crazy.”
More than 90 countries lost citizens because of the September 11 attacks. In all, 2,996 people were killed and 6,000 people injured. There were 265 passengers on the four planes, 2,606 people inside the World Trade Center that never got out and 125 people at the Pentagon. Most were civilians, but 343 firemen, 72 law enforcement officers and 55 soldiers died.
In New York, fire houses and precincts were decimated and traumatized. Following the attacks, many people suffered from health issues because of the toxic gasses and dust that were released by the attack. So in a way, the attacks still take lives.
But America was no longer in a period of peace. And soon the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would follow. The country still has troops in these countries and the politics in this region were forever changed by the attacks and for the United States reaction.
For Fields, who was in Jenkins High School at the time, he would be sharing the halls with those who would serve in these ensuing wars, and some would not return.
“It really was a life changing experience for a 16-year-old,” Fields said.
In Iraq, 4,825 U.S. soldiers would die and in Afghanistan, there would be 2,420 U.S. troops killed. It is estimated over 38,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, and between a half million to a million Iraqi civilians have perished.
The politics surrounding 9/11 and the ensuing wars would swirl around the Bush and Obama Administrations. The War on Terror would begin, and the world, which had seemingly been freed by the Soviets just a few years before, was dangerous once again.
The War on Terror is still uncertain. We have thousands of troops in Iraq for a second time around. We never left Afghanistan which has now become our country’s longest running war. The territorial butting-up with Iran has created tensions with country. The rise of ISIS amidst the fall of Syria again dogged U.S. troops and civilians in the region. An attack by Iran after the U.S. killed an important general wounded several US soldiers and showed it’s still not a peaceful situation there.
The world changed on September 11, 2001. And with every passing year, the ripples from those attacks continue out amongst many different people and countries. America too has changed and 19 years after the fact, it is still a day of self reflection, self-evaluation and mourning.