Eighteen years ago, terrorists associated with the Islamic extremist group, al-Qaeda, hijacked four airplanes and carried out the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history on American soil.
The hijackers flew two of the planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was flown into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., while the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after the passengers tried to retake the plane.
Some 2,750 people were killed in New York, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 in Pennsylvania.
The first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. EDT. The second hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. Within one hour and 42 minutes, both towers collapsed while the world watched on TV.
Most Americans who were old enough to watch remember where they were on 9/11.
Our reporters asked a few of the people on their beats to recall where they were and their memories from Sept. 11, 2001.
Thomas Schingle, Scottsbluff Fire Chief
Thomas Schingle, Scottsbluff fire chief, would have normally been scheduled for duty on Sept. 11, 2001, however, instead, he was home recovering from a surgery.
“I was watching the news as it happened,” he said. “For me, there was an emergency, and law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, were doing their jobs of responding.
“I would say it certainly had an impact on the way that emergency services is done today,” he said. “It changed quite a few things. I think certainly security has increased across the nation, especially in the public safety realm.”
For example, Schingle said, the department he served with at the time changed its policies, requiring someone to staff the truck at all times, even at emergency scenes, to watch for suspicious persons. All of them are now required to wait in a separate area of the airport rather than going directly to the gate and saying goodbye or greeting an arriving family member or friend.
“(The terrorist attacks) put homeland security and procedures on everyone’s radar a lot more,” he said. “We have all felt the effects.”
Kevin Spencer, Scottsbluff Police Chief
When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened, Scottsbluff Police Chief Kevin Spencer was a newer officer at the department, having started at the department just seven months prior.
“I had been working the evening shift, 2 to 10, my children had just left for school,” he said. “I was watching the news on television and they were reporting that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. While I was watching, a second one hit the other tower, and I immediately knew it was an act of terrorism. I was consumed by the news.”
Like many, Spencer said he followed the news throughout the day — news reports of the other plane crashes, such as American Airlines Flight 77 striking the Pentagon, and Flight 93, in Pennsylvania. He specifically recalled the stories of Flight 93, of the passengers and crew who attempted to regain control of the flight from four terrorists, as particularly “heartwrenching.” “It was brave what they did,” he said.
“I remember being angry, feeling very patriotic and thankful for the reaction by our president to the terrorist attacks.”
Later, on shift, he said he recalls the night as being “pretty routine.” Officers had calls for service, responded to people who had routine needs such as accident investigations. However, the terrorist attacks were a common source of discussion. “It was definitely a big topic of discussion amongst us and the community when we were on calls.”
Raymond Gonzales, Scottsbluff Mayor
Scottsbluff Mayor Raymond Gonzales was at work.
“We were all seeing the news come in, and we were just in shock that something like that, something that horrific, could take place here in the homeland.”
Lynn Garton, Scottsbluff Wastewater Supervisor
Lynn Garton, Scottsbluff Wastewater supervisor, was in Building and Planning with the city at that time.
“We saw a little bit of it in the morning. Then when we came back in the afternoon, we spent most of the rest of the day in the manager’s office. Everyone was glued to the coverage, whether it be radio or the TV, just wondering what the future was going to be.”
Tyson Lambertson, Lead Pastor at The Rock Church
Tyson Lambertson, pastor at The Rock Church, was working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Parker, Colorado, at the time. He was on his mail route, so could only listen to the radio until his route was completed at about 5 p.m.
“I was in shock. You’re wondering what in the world is going on. My initial thought was that it was an accident, then the second one hit and you realize that it wasn’t.”
Starr Lehl, Economic Development Director for the City of Scottsbluff
Sept. 11, 2001, started off much differently for Starr Lehl, current economic development director for the City of Scottsbluff. She had scheduled a half-day off from work so she and her husband could drive to Denver for a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at Fiddler’s Green.
“We were both getting ready for work and deciding what vehicle we’d use and what route we’d take,” she said. “We happened to have the news on and stopped in our tracks when we saw what had happened. We couldn’t really believe it because we had that sick feeling in our hearts.”
Mike Minzey, Terrytown City Council
“It was early in the morning and we had the radio on at home,” said current Terrytown City Council member Mike Minzey. “When we heard the news we went to the television. I was due at work at 8 a.m. but I didn’t get there until about 9:30. I didn’t want to believe it, but I had to because it was on the news. And I wondered when it would stop when the Pentagon was also attacked and the crash in Pennsylvania."
He said 9/11 was one of those things people will always remember. It was like the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger space shuttle explosion. People remember where they were and what they were thinking.
“We didn’t know the extent of the attack, when the death toll started to come in and we were getting actual figures of what happened,” Minzey said. “I’m concerned about the lessons we’re losing because we have an entire generation that doesn’t remember that day.”
Jeff Jay, Pastor at Lighthouse Community Assembly of God
Jeff Jay, pastor at Lighthouse Community Assembly of God in Minatare, was in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps when 9/11 happened. He was among several chaplains who were traveling for a day of training.
“We heard about the attacks while we were driving, so we all turned around and came home,” Jay said. “My memory of that first day was watching the videos of the towers coming down. I just can’t describe how stunned we all were.”
The chaplains also heard news of another plane flying into the Pentagon, which was a direct connection to them.
“There were some wonderfully heroic things that happened that day,” he said. “It gave us something positive to hold onto during that day.”
Pam Barker, Lincoln Elementary Principal
As the principal at Geil Elementary, Pam Barker went about her morning routine eating breakfast, reading the paper and watching "Good Morning America." Images of the World Trade Center flashed on the screen as airplanes flew into the buildings. Barker felt horrified and angry as well as a sense of bravery and courage.
“I felt tragic sadness and so much that as I thought how would I have reacted if placed in the same situation,” she said.
In disbelief, she continued to watch the news coverage reflecting on how life is short and the heroes who responded on Sept. 11 and served their country to protect our country.
“9/11 changed America,” Barker said. “It unified people in the United States. It focused us on heroism and bravery, pride in our country and on freedom.”
With the developing news story coverage unfolding, Barker recalls visiting with staff and students about the day. She also remembers watching TV broadcasts throughout the school day to stay up to date on what was happening.
“The school day was subdued with students and staff in a state of disbelief,” Barker said. “We were questioning why and how could this happen and how hatred could bring people to do such horrific things to others.”
The day reminded Barker of President John Kennedy’s assassination, earthquakes in California and other horrific events she's witnessed on TV.
While students today do not remember the events of 9/11, Barker said it remains Americans’ responsibility to educate the younger generation about the stories and images of 9/11.
“We can honor the victims and heroes of 9/11 by sharing stories and images of 9/11, so we can pass on memories to younger generations,” Barker said. “And to remember the challenge President Obama spoke of 10 years after 9/11. The smallest act of kindness can be the greatest gift we can give someone. What a simple way to serve and honor those individuals whose lives were lost and the heroes that survived Sept. 11, 2001.”
Bob Hastings, Gering Public Schools Superintendent
As an elementary school principal, Bob Hastings prepared for another school day when he learned the news about an airplane trashing into the World Trade Center. They turned the TV on in the school as the staff watched the terrorist attacks unfold.
“When the first plane hit, my reaction was hoping it was an accident,” Hastings said. “When we turned on the TV and actually saw the second one hit, then it was disbelief.”
There was information coming out about the attack and Hastings worked with the staff to keep the students safe and informed.
“We took extra precautions because no one knew what was going on,” he said. “We were in a lockout mode, so we didn’t let students out of the building and if anyone needed to come into the building, we had them show ID and prove why they needed to be there.”
Following the school day, Hastings said, “I vividly remember that evening saying we need to fill up our cars with gas. We sat in line for gas for an hour because everyone was concerned about the impact on the economy.”
Reflecting on the significance of Sept. 11, 2001, Hastings said there are a handful of events in the country’s history that directly impact how the country works. That day is one of them.
“That day changed how we view everything in our country, especially security,” he said. “School security had already been an issue in schools, but it caused us to look at school security from a global perspective and how we would handle it if any terrorist activities were near us.”
Hastings hopes students understand how that day changed our country and how “we are not shielded from the things that happen in the world and we have to be on top of it.”
Gary Largo, Scottsbluff High School social studies teacher
Scottsbluff High School social studies teacher Gary Largo said he still remembers where he was when he learned about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It was like the day President Kennedy was shot,” he said. “You remember exactly where you were when it happened."
He learned an airplane struck the World Trade Center from a colleague while walking down the hall.
“We hypothesized that it was simply a small plane that had gone off course, much like the plane that hit the Empire State Building, in a dense fog, in 1945,” Largo said.
As he returned to his classroom, he turned on the TV to watch the news coverage. Largo scrapped his lesson plans for the day to allow his students to watch the news coverage and discuss the event.
“It was simply too big an event to try to ignore it,” he said. “As the day progressed, the second plane struck and it became clear that this was not a plane off course. We continued to watch during first period, international relations, where I speculated to my students that bin Laden was behind the whole thing. I was shocked and, like most Americans, felt vulnerable and very sad for the loss of life.”
Following the World Trade Center attacks, Largo recalled the sense of fear of additional attacks, which culminated on the national level, with the passage of the USA Patriot Act. On a local level, he remembers residents stockpiled duct tape and plastic to keep their houses safe in the event of a chemical attack.
“One of the most relevant consequences was the war in Afghanistan, now in its 18th year,” Largo said. “In addition, with very sketchy intelligence, President Bush launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003. That would deepen our involvement in the Middle East and further complicate the peace process in that region. The historic impact will be debated for years to come.”
Brian Wasson, Scottsbluff Police Department
Brian Wasson, captain at the Scottsbluff Police Department, says he remembers being in bed as news broke that a plane had hit the first tower at the World Trade Center.
“It wasn’t clear that things were nefarious at that point,” he said. “I was getting ready for work when the second plane hit. I remember watching the coverage for 30 minutes. I was late for work because I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
At the time, Wasson said, he served on the WING task force, which at the time had offices in the basement of the Scotts Bluff County Administration Building. Once he arrived at work, he said, he and other members of the task force and the communications staff watched the rest of the day’s events unfold on television. He said he recalls specifically footage of people jumping from the World Trade Center towers and the devastation.
“I was blown away. Heartbroken. Very angry.”
Having served in the Marines, Wasson said the impact of the terrorist attacks affected him. “I couldn’t believe that it happened on our soil, that something that devastating happened here. And, I knew that there would be people that I served with who would answer the call to serve.”