Twenty years ago, life came to a virtual standstill as millions of Americans watched in awe and disbelief as four planes crashed: two in New York City, one in Washington, D.C., and a fourth in an open Pennsylvania field.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 people. The event made a lasting impact on Americans far and wide, regardless of age, ethnicity or background. It altered people’s sense of safety, sent American foreign policy into a new direction and caused the worst kind of grief for thousands of families.
On the anniversary of Sept. 11, four Southwest Coloradans – a witness, a first responder, a soldier and a teacher – recalled the trauma and solidarity of the pivotal period in American history.
But 20 years later, they also found themselves grappling with the impacts of two wars, a fleeting sense of solidarity and how future generations will remember the event.
Matt Besecker, who now lives in Mancos, was walking near West 21st Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City just before 9 a.m. Sept. 11. He said he will never forget seeing papers flying through the air and the horror on people’s faces after the attack on the Twin Towers.
Trevor Peterson, who now lives in Pagosa Springs, was in a high school chemistry class the morning of Sept. 11. Two years later, in 2003, he joined the military and went to Iraq to fight the war on terror. He says it is important Americans never forget what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
Beau Brooks, now an Ignacio High School civics teacher, was listening to the radio in his car. He teaches a new generation of students – for whom heightened airport security is the norm – about how life changed after Sept. 11.
Jeff Dyar, who now lives in Bayfield, was teaching about disaster scenarios at the National Fire Academy when the attacks occurred. Two days later, he arrived at the World Trade Center to help organize emergency operations. He still feels the health impacts of breathing asbestos and glass.
“Every time I talk about it, it’s a little more cathartic,“ Dyar said.
Matt Besecker, then 32, was about 2½ miles northeast of the World Trade Center heading to work at a photo printing lab.
“I didn’t experience anything like what some people did, but I will definitely not forget,” he said.
He recalled it was a beautiful, cloudless day. When he got off his train to work, people were looking up and saying one of the towers had been hit.
Taxis were stalled with their windows down and the radios playing, he said.
“We could see fire engines flying down south on Fifth Avenue. People were just milling around,” said Besecker, now 52 and working for the city of Durango as an arborist.
At 8:45 a.m., the first plane struck the North Tower. Hundreds of people were killed instantly, with hundreds more trapped above the 91st floor. At 9:03 a.m., the second plane struck the South Tower.
“My manager, Dave, and I watched that happen live. I can just remember the office paper fluttering around the tower after that explosion happened,” Besecker said.
At 9:37 a.m., the third plane hit the Pentagon, the home of the U.S. Department of Defense outside of Washington, D.C.
Besecker’s boss told him to go home. About 20 minutes later, as he was making his way back to Harlem, the South Tower fell.
At 10:03 a.m., Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing 33 passengers and seven crew members. Recordings on the plane that are maintained by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum reveal how passengers interfered with the hijacking. The plane’s intended destination is unknown.
Hundreds more died when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m.
“A lot of people just had horror on their faces. People were screaming and crying and consoling each other,” Besecker said. “I probably watched people more than I watched the building. It was just crazy.”
Around the country, people watched nonstop news coverage of the attacks.
In La Plata County, residents tried to track down friends in Manhattan. At least three Durango locals, Susan Cross, Tom Tella and Paul Gasser, escaped from the World Trade Center after the attacks, according to past coverage in The Durango Herald.
The public would soon learn the terrorist attacks were carried out by 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group, al-Qaida. The group, led by Osama bin Laden, was allegedly acting in retaliation for America’s support of Israel, its involvement in the Persian Gulf War and its military presence in the Middle East.
Durango Fire Department staff members watched the collapse of the second tower at the World Trade Center in “deafening silence,” said Rick Szmajter, a fire district employee at the time.
“There was (sic) a lot of first responders inside the building at the time. They were even broadcasting their radio communications up to that very moment,” he said in an email to the Herald. “Everyone was pretty shocked.”
Jeff Dyar, then 46, arrived at the World Trade Center site on the morning of Sept. 13.
When the towers fell, 344 firefighters, including leadership and special operations teams, were killed. Thousands of people self-dispatched to the site to help with the emergency response, but they did not have a command structure to guide their efforts.
The National Fire Academy, as directed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sent several command experts to form the Type 1 Incident Management Team to support the emergency response. As chairman of the academy’s emergency medical service program, Dyar joined the team.
“When I arrived there, there were about 10,000 emergency responders wandering around the event,” said Dyar, now board president for the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District based in Bayfield.
Dust and smoke from fires underneath the buildings hung in the air. He recalled a sound like the “cacophony of crickets.” Emergency response breathing apparatus, designed to make a chirping alarm as a safety feature, lay around the edges of the debris.
“We know there are thousands of people missing, but as we show up there are no people. There are no bodies, desks, phones or anything,” he said. “Because of the intense heat, pressure and sheering forces when those buildings came down, it basically vaporized people.”
Dyar spent three weeks at the site. For 18 hours a day, he focused on setting up operations centers and organizing resources.
Twenty years later, Dyar said he has mostly dealt with the trauma of the event. But the impact of Sept. 11 is still heard in his voice. Emergency responders, wearing masks or other personal protective equipment, inhaled asbestos and glass fragments.
Since then, about 81,000 first responders have enrolled in a federal health program tracking long-term, Sept. 11-related illnesses, like cancer and chronic rhinosinusitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only one memory brought emotion to his voice: He recalled leaving the site at 11 p.m. and passing New Yorkers lined up on the side of the highway to support the first responders.
“Even when I say it now, I get choked up about it. They had signs. They were cheering,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Two years after the attacks, Trevor Peterson joined the U.S. Army infantry, motivated in part by Sept. 11. In March, he landed in Iraq expecting to face chemical weapons and 30% casualties.
“We thought they had weapons of mass destruction, which I thought was a good reason to invade. ... I was also really scared because I was brand new to the Army,” said Peterson, now a 37-year-old firefighter living in Pagosa Springs.
After he learned there were no weapons of mass destruction, he lost motivation, he said.
“We were just so unprepared. ... We should have had at least two more Army divisions,” Peterson said. “We were in Baghdad, it was just out of control. They were shooting and looting. All sorts of stuff.”
Looking back, Peterson said his experience in the military taught him about other cultures and to appreciate living in America. It can be worse in other places, he said. Americans should “always remember” Sept. 11, he said.
“It seems like yesterday for sure. It seems like I was just getting deployed to Iraq,” he said. “I’ve been keeping busy and trying to make the most of my opportunities for sure. Because I know there’s guys that have not been able to.”
Since Sept. 11, communities around the country annually commemorate the lives lost during the attacks. In Durango and Farmington, police and first responders annually hold memorial stair climbs.
In Durango, Besecker said every year he and his friends from New York make a point to call each other on the anniversary. But he struggled to come to terms with the wars that resulted from the tragedy.
“With everything that’s going on in Afghanistan right now ... the only thing I can think of is, why does the United States have to be the world police?” Besecker said, referring to the controversial U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recent return of the Taliban to power. “We’ve got enough problems here in this country that we need to work on.”
Dyar remembered the nation coming together after the Sept. 11 attacks. Everyone put an American flag out. The solidarity didn’t last, he said.
“There was a lot of anger, but I did not see division amongst people,” he said. “I was hoping we would’ve had the same solidarity behind our pandemic, but in fact, we’re very divided. ... I’m surprised, and I’m saddened, that it (the solidarity) didn’t follow us into other catastrophic events we’ve had since then.”
Beau Brooks, 25 in 2001, was on his way to a job interview in Detroit and heard the news over the radio. An acquaintance he met while on vacation died in the towers, he said.
“It was odd to know somebody who was alive one second and wasn’t the next due to the towers falling,” he said. “That’s something that still sticks with me 20 years later. They were my age, and they never got the chance to have 20 more years of experiences.”
Twenty years later, Brooks, now a high school civics teacher in Ignacio, is responsible for teaching the younger generations about Sept. 11.
Students ask him where he was and what he remembers from that period of time. He explains the changes in daily life for Americans.
Wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Homeland Security was formed, and the USA PATRIOT Act passed. For some students, it is a surprise to learn there was a time when travelers did not have to remove their shoes at airport security, Brooks said.
“I find it important that these students have never lived in a world that was before a domestic terrorist attack,” he said.
Every year, some students are nervous another attack will happen on the anniversary.
“One thing that always comes up is fear of the anniversary,” he said. “And second is fear of people that fall into a certain religion or look like they are from a certain part of the planet.”
After the attacks, Islamophobia rose, and hate crimes against Muslims spiked 500% between 2000 and 2009, according to a Brown University study.
“For students who practice Islam, it’s a tough conversation within their family regarding sharing that with other people,” Brooks said. “I’ve been very proud of my students feeling comfortable enough to share that they practice Islam with their families.”
This week, he spent his days teaching about the event. He recognizes the topic can be traumatic and offers students tools to deal with anxiety. His goal is for students to ask: Is the government doing all it can for its people right now? If not, how could it improve?
One big parallel between 2001 and 2021, he said, is that many people stay focused on finding who is at fault, rather than offering solutions.
“It’s great to identify what’s wrong, but as citizens, we should say, this is what’s wrong, but here are steps we could take to find a solution,” he said.