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Remembering 9/11. . . and How Our Lives Were Changed

September 11, 2021


Andrew Pekarek

Players from Notre Dame, Green Bay West join the Army National Guard at midfield to present the American flag prior to Friday’s kickoff

There are some events in history so important that you’ll never forget where you were the day they happened.  For Americans, 9/11 is certainly one such event. For the 20th anniversary of that fateful day, The Tritonian assembled the accounts of several NDA staff members–some teachers, others students, and still others administrators–of their experiences on 9/11.  Their memories help to recall and pay tribute to this tragic day in American history.

Mrs. Katie Stanczak, Theology: I was a Sophomore in Honors Biology with Ms. Hollenback. If I remember correctly, I think we were just finishing a test or quiz on the parts of a cell. Our principal came over the PA and said something to the effect of needing to take a moment in silence as something horrible had happened in New York. I don’t even remember if he said a plane hit the tower. But, I remember him saying that a lot of people were already hurt and we needed to pray. 

I remember the bell rang and I had this quick thought to check in with Mr. Harry Geiser because he had a TV in the corner of his room and would often watch the news. I was also in Journalism with Mrs. Brown that semester and knew that she would be okay if I was late to class in order to watch the news; she was my second period class. I ran into Mr. Geiser’s room and saw him and a small group of students watching coverage of New York. We were all trying to make sense of what we were watching (live) and it was footage of the first tower burning. Then, we saw a plane hit the tower, and I didn’t realize at first what I had just witnessed. I thought it was some kind of replay or different camera angle action shot. Very quickly it registered, that now, both towers were on fire though and I remember looking at Mr. Geiser and I remember being very alert and confused. I remember seeing the smoke billowing out of the first tower hit and then the infamous fireball of the second plane, and it just felt horrible. 

I remember watching the tower collapse and being so shocked that this was real. I remember hearing reporters mention that people were jumping from the buildings and they were reporting it, showing it…You just never saw things like that on television or the news. Realizing that this wasn’t a crazy movie or video game, and again, just being in total shock. I don’t even know how long I stayed in Mr. Geiser’s room or what bells rang for other classes. We just watched and I remember other students crowding in the room, standing in the door, and all of us were trying to watch what was happening. Then, the other tower’s radio antenna started to tip and I remember shouting. In a matter of seconds, we saw the gut-wrenching reality of the other tower coming down too.

Again, as a journalism student, I also think back on those moments and remember being shocked for so many reasons, but also because I had never seen news broadcasters be so confused on what to say or report. Many of them just didn’t know what to say and we just watched live footage in silent reporting, which was so strange.

Over the years, details blur and refocus about the day. But, when I think back, I couldn’t even tell you what happened next. I don’t remember what classes I went to, or who I talked to. I remember watching footage in the Auditorium throughout the morning because they set up a permanent broadcast link for people to stay tuned in. I remember my afternoon teachers trying to process with us and there being a ton of questions about whether we would stay at school. I remember some of my friends got picked up early because they were scared. I remember hearing about a couple of students who were afraid about families on flights and extended family members in New York. Mostly, I remember feeling scared, angry, helpless, and heartbroken all at the same time. 

I don’t exactly remember when I learned of the attack on the Pentagon or Flight 93. All of those details came later when I watched the coverage with my parents at night after school and over the years of recounting the day in Memoriam. I don’t remember any of the other specific class periods I had courses in high school. I remember teachers, topics, and the names of the classes I took, but I couldn’t tell you what hour of the day. But these two periods are carved into my memory. Since then, most people tell me the same thing. They remember who they were with, what they were doing when they found out, and we often end up chatting about how noticeably different many things are before and after that day. 

My heart breaks every year on this day and I am significantly removed from any immediate or direct loss and trauma. I didn’t have any family in the cities or on the planes or working in airports or as first responders. I was simply a sophomore in high school watching the horror of the day unfold. I remember seeing footage of people covered in ash and dust. I remember how the smoke plumed over the entire skyline, and I remember hearing that they had grounded all flights. Mostly, more than anything, I remember the shock, horror, anger, fear, and sadness of that day. I remember having long conversations with my parents about ‘how could God let something like this happen?’ It was because of Mr. Schultz and Mrs. Brown that I found my love for Social Studies and Social Justice. It is because of my family and pastor processing that day with me that I found my appreciation for prayer and learning that God is greater than the evil in the world and the actions of human beings. 

Mr. Shane Lagerman, Theology: I was teaching in Room 105.  I taught through the morning. I left to go get copies between first and second hour. We had a wonderful woman that ran the copy center.  She came up to me and said, “Shane, an airplane ran into the World Trade Center.” That’s all she said. I went off, I got my copies, and I came back. I’m thinking it was a biplane carrying a banner or something, so I went back to work. I’m teaching and then I came out second hour when I had started to figure out what really happened. The thing I remember most was the people jumping, some of them going hand in hand. To see them trapped in that building, and then when the buildings went down, just to see the overwhelming recognition of the massive loss of life taking place in that immediate time and immediate locale.

I was quite angry. People were lined up then. The Marine Corps couldn’t get them lined up fast enough! I remember that immediate return of patriotism. It became quite strong. The recruiting stations were quite active. It created this whole mess that we’re still in twenty years later. We hope it doesn’t happen again, but time will tell.

I also remember the first Packer game afterward. When they came out, they flew the flag. It was an odd feeling. It was a proud feeling, but I feel like most people thought ‘Could it happen here?  Could it happen now?’

Ms. Michele Mahlock, Registrar: Memory is an unpredictable thing. Some moments of September 11 are burned into my memory, and I can see them in my mind’s eye as though they happened 20 minutes ago, not 20 years ago.

Back in those days, some of us had televisions on wheeled carts in our classrooms. Word travelled quickly that morning that something was happening in New York, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and in the last few minutes of the class, we turned on the television. It was the Today Show. In those first few minutes, we all thought it was a terrible accident, not a willful act of terrorism. About 60 seconds after we turned on the tv, we saw the second plane slowly and deliberately crash into the south tower. I don’t think many of us realized that we were witnessing people perish before our eyes. Some students refused to believe we were watching live tv. They thought it was a hoax. The image of the plane crashing into the tower is one that will not fade, even all these years later.

The bell rang for the end of that class, and the rest of the day remains somewhat blurry for me. It was impossible to process what we were witnessing and hearing. We learned about the Pentagon; we heard about Flight 93 in Shanksville. No one knew how many other planes were in the air and if or when or where they would come crashing down. For me, at least, several days passed before I stopped worrying that more planes were going to be used.

There were many realities to wrestle with in the days and months immediately following: how much the U.S. was hated by some others in the world, how air travel security was transformed, how a country could grieve and heal. I don’t know how well we’ve done. It might take quite a long time to understand how we’ve weathered it.

I’ve been to the 9/11 Memorial Chapel in the Pentagon and the Twin Tower Memorial. They are devastating and haunting.

My friend, Joe, worked on the 101st floor of the North Tower. It didn’t take long for the news to get out that the first plane hit between the 93rd and 99th floors of that tower. I try not to let myself imagine what he might have suffered through before he died. It was many months before his remains were found and brought to his family: a piece of his jaw. I will never get over it, and I don’t think I should.

Mrs. Julie Campbell, Social Studies: I was teaching and another teacher stopped in my room to announce that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. At the time, we assumed it was an accident and turned on the TV to watch the events unfold. After the second tower was hit and everyone realized that it was a terrorist attack, the mood changed drastically. A couple of the students in the building had family and friends who worked in New York and began calling their parents for information. Many of the teachers and students went to the chapel and auditorium for prayer services. I remember feeling very fortunate that I was in a school where prayer was not only allowed but encouraged. It was very surreal to share something so tragic with my students.  

Mr. Patrick Browne, Principal: To walk through the experience of 9/11 would take quite a few hours, the event still stirs deep emotion for me and has forever changed life as we know it in the United States…to say the least…it was life changing. 

9/11 was a beautiful fall morning in Lake Forest, Illinois. I was principal of a school that had two campuses and was driving from the lower school to the upper campus. The drive was down what is a stunningly beautiful tree-lined street. The leaves had just started to change, and I had just turned onto Illinois Street when I turned on the radio and heard the news. Although we weren’t quite sure what was happening, we heard that planes had collided with the Twin Towers and there was a feeling of uncertainty unlike any I had had before. Was the United States under attack? Were we safe? What was I supposed to do with the 700 students and 60 employees I was responsible for?

We made the decision to tell the teachers to turn off all televisions and continue to teach their classes. We hoped that we could at least create a feel of ‘normalcy’ for the students until they had the opportunity to go home at 3:00 and they could discuss with their parents. At that time cell phones were not a ‘thing’ for most, so it was easier to keep school safe from the news.

I honestly don’t remember much beyond this except that life never seemed quite the same. The days and perhaps weeks were quieter as all planes were grounded. The skies over Chicago were suddenly quiet—a big deal considering there are almost 1,000 flights in and out of O’Hare airport in Chicago daily.  

One realization I remember having was that there were people who genuinely did not like Americans and were willing to do whatever they could to kill them. While you can ‘know’ something from books, to ‘know’ something from experience changes the way you view life. Innocence and naivety were no longer options for our generation. 

Mr. Matthew Koenig, Athletic Director: September 11th, to me, is an event that will always be an unfavorable memory that I witnessed in my lifetime. I was 26 years old and remember the exact location of where I was when this happened and the first person who told me what was going on. I was confused, scared, and worried, and I will never forget the feeling that the country I live in and love so much was under attack and how helpless I was being so far away. Those individuals that were on those planes that morning, and in the towers and Pentagon, the police and fireman who lost their lives trying to save others just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I asked for a long time, ‘why did this happen?’ I remember going home from work and just hugging my wife and crying. It was a very very sad day in the history of America. What came of that though for the next couple months was that our country came together and we were united as one and everyone was picking each other up. 

Twenty years have passed and it is important to never forget those who lost their lives that day. They didn’t deserve that.

Mrs. Carolyn Brown, English: Our principal, Mr. Tim Schumacher, came over the PA during class (it was a Senior English class) and announced that a plane had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, that it was believed to be a terrorist attack. Tom Greene in the back of the room by the windows cried out, “Oh, no! My parents were on a flight to New York this morning!” Another girl, Danielle Smith, also screamed: “My uncle is a firefighter across the street from the World Trade Center! He might die!” (and he did). Tom’s parents were not on that plane.  

Everyone was stunned. People were walking the halls like zombies. Parents came to pick up their kids. Mr. Geiser, Harry, had one of those tv’s on a cart, and people were gathered in his classroom watching all the ensuing attacks/news. We had a science teacher, Ms. Amy Gabel, whose brother worked in the Pentagon. Fortunately he missed his train that morning and wasn’t there when it was struck. Our IT director, Shawn Massey, set up a big screen in the auditorium, and people wandered in to see the ongoing news. Not a lot of anything else was done that day.

It was such a shock, something never expected to happen. Now, today, we’ve seen terror attacks, school shootings, you name it, so we’re a bit hardened to such a catastrophe.

I was also thinking how 9/11 changed our family’s life AND united the country. My oldest son, who was doing his dream job as a teacher and basketball coach in Atlanta, responded like so many did: an outburst of patriotism. He had never been interested in the military or considered joining, but he immediately joined the Navy Reserve (after failing to get into the Navy pilot program because he’d had lasik surgery) and simultaneously applied for work with the government. He was taught French in five months and sent first to Senegal, then Mauritania, Rwanda, Djubuti, etc. He is currently in Tel Aviv, Israel. Danielle Smith, the girl in my classroom that day, has also been serving in a diplomatic role, living overseas in China for awhile, working at the embassy there. We were so united as a country after 9/11, so fearful of another attack.

I have two distinct moments where I can remember precisely where I was when it happened; one was 9/11 and the other was even earlier, when Kennedy was shot.  I was a junior in high school, and it was right after lunch–but that’s another story.

Mr. Greg Geiser, Social Studies: I was working in my first “paid” job after college. Julia and I had spent a year doing volunteer work in Chicago for a year after I graduated from college in 2000, and we had moved back to Green Bay about two months before 9/11. I was the Activity Director at San Luis Nursing Home in Ashwaubenon (now closed I think). My normal day was a quick meeting with my direct staff in the morning to go over what activities they’d be providing for residents that day, what bigger events we were working on later in the week that needed prep and planning, and how I could directly or indirectly support my staff in any way that day. Then I’d go to a meeting with department heads to discuss resident needs and how we could work together to make sure they were met. This was always a fun meeting. The head nurses and the nutritionist were very funny, and we often would joke and laugh about things that other people might find shocking. Working amongst death, loss, and sadness every day requires special coping mechanisms to get by. Luckily, I was brought up on sarcasm and fit right in. After the staffing, my normal routine was to walk around and be social with residents. This was to make sure I had contact with all of them at least once every day and make sure there were no special issues for any individuals because I had made friends amongst the residents, and I valued those friendships and the wisdom and perspectives they provided but also to avoid paperwork which was one of the worst parts of the job.

I don’t remember the specifics of any of the meetings for that day, but I do remember being in a very jovial mood when I left the department head meeting as usual. It must have been a little before 9. As I started walking around, I noticed the hallways and rooms were more empty than usual. I moved towards the front of the nursing home, starting to wonder what was up. Then I saw many of the residents in the front lobby, where some of them regularly gathered to watch the morning news and “news” (entertainment programs that disguise as news after about 9 a.m.).

To this day, I’m not sure why so many residents were there. Did word get around that something interesting was happening and they moved or asked to be moved there? Did the nurses think that they should move people there because something interesting was happening? I don’t know. I do know that as I watched the burning tower on the screen, the overriding thought in the room was that it was a horrible accident, that it had been chance that the plane had hit the tower. The worst case of bad luck possible.  That’s when the other plane hit as we watched. I couldn’t really understand what I was seeing. We were definitely in shock. I was talking to some nurses as we tried to make sense of this together, and it collectively dawned on us that this couldn’t possibly have been just bad luck.

We decided at that point that unless the residents really wanted to stay and watch, we should try to get them into the normal flow of the day. Disturbing or scary things can be magnified in weird way in nursing homes and really affect peoples’ emotional states. At that point we didn’t know what the news would bring on the reasons for what was going on or what further events would transpire. I got into the flow of the day as well and the rest of the work day is foggy in my memory. I did get some tidbits of news here and there as I went about my day, so I was dimly aware of some of the speculation for causes, the towers falling, and other events (like the Pentagon attack), but I mostly threw myself into the work to keep my mind off of it and make sure the residents were OK.

When I left work that day, I remember that I stopped by NDA on my way home. I wanted to see my dad, as much for his stability and reassurance as to get his take on the day’s events. It was good to see him and get that kind of comfort that only he can give me.

Mrs. Danielle Bennett, Social Studies: I was living in Seattle working for a special events company. I woke up to get ready for work and while drinking my morning coffee, I turned on the news. I can’t remember if what I saw was live or on a repeat loop because Seattle is three hours behind New York, and I can’t remember how early I woke up that day. I just remember seeing a plane hitting one of the towers, and then at some point later, seeing another plane hit another tower, and then seeing the first tower coming down. I couldn’t tell you what time it was or how much time elapsed between those events. But I remember feeling a little nauseous, a little scared, and a little broken hearted all at the same time. I feel it all over again just writing this.

It took a little bit for me to understand that this was happening in New York because every major city (including my own) had a world trade center building of some sort. Eventually I realized the towers that were hit were in New York, but I still didn’t know if attacks were happening in other parts of the country as well. Everyone I knew lived on the coast (west coast that is, but still…). I immediately called my Dad and Stepmom in Portland, Oregon. They were fine, nothing happening there. Next I tried calling my mom who was living in Los Angeles, but I couldn’t get through. So I tried my sister, also in L.A. Nothing. All lines were busy, either out of my city or into theirs, landlines and cell phones. It took over an hour to get through, and that whole time I had no idea how to think about what was happening. I just needed to know if other cities were being hit, if I or anyone else I knew was at risk.

I went to work…what else was I supposed to do? Remember, Seattle is three hours behind New York time, so the attack took place just before 6 a.m. out there. When I got to the office, it was somber, quiet, and all of us were just wondering what we should be doing. We had an event coming up, but should we be going about our business as usual? When I asked where our boss was, they told me he was “with the city.” My boss was a specialist in public safety, and he was on an elite city committee that only met in times of emergency. This was their first meeting ever, as far as I knew. We didn’t see him all day, and no one even knew where they were meeting. It wasn’t until later that I found out that they literally met in an “undisclosed location” and that there were threats coming in about the Space Needle and chatter about terrorists coming into Washington State from British Columbia, Canada.

I wouldn’t say I was forever changed in the moment, but, twenty years later, I now realize that after 9/11 I lost a bit of my innocence and security, of feeling like I lived in a pretty safe place, that people liked America, and that we were immune from terrorist attacks because of our geographical separation from the Middle East. Some years are harder than others. I continue to mourn the loss of all those killed, and I also mourn for all the families directly affected, while grateful that I am not one of them. Writing this, I realize how much I also miss that feeling of safety and security I had on September 10 of that year.

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