Twenty years ago today, Americans and the world watched in horror as the World Trade Center towers fell and the Pentagon burned. The remains of a fourth plane lay scattered in a field.
News that the first plane hit the north World Trade Center came just before 8 a.m., as most of us were headed to work or school or otherwise start the day.
Maybe it had been an accident, we speculated, giving the benefit of doubt even though we knew the World Trade Center had been a terrorist target in the past.
Eighteen minutes later, a second plane hit the south tower and it became clear that America was under attack.
It became one of those “Where were you?” moments that define a generation, just like “Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot?” and “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?”
Local residents shared some of their memories of that fateful day:
Like many, Carri Sailor heard the news on the radio on her way to work.
Except, she didn’t completely hear it.
“I kept changing the channel because I wanted to hear music, but every station was talking,” she said.
At the time, Sailor was 21 and working at Pizza Hut. She had recently finished college at Allen Community College and was planning to move to Joplin, Mo. She was looking forward to being an independent adult.
It took about five minutes to drive to work where she met with her boss, Brenda Kern, and Brenda’s sister Linda. Pizza Hut didn’t have a television. Internet access at the time was limited, and cell phones had not yet turned into smart phones with constant access to news and information.
“I walked in and said, the guys on the radio were talking about some kind of attack in New York. So Linda called home and that’s when we found out what was happening,” Sailor said.
“That entire day was just really weird. That atmosphere was different. We were just hearing what customers were telling us. For eight hours at work, all we were hearing was what other people were telling us and it wasn’t always true.”
Sailor’s parents came to pick up her car and fill it with gasoline, as rumors swirled that fuel prices would spike to $6 or $7 per gallon. (Locally, they didn’t.)
Sailor and her coworkers heard of threats to nuclear power plants, and were concerned about the proximity to Wolf Creek Generating Station.
After work, she spent the night at her parents’ house.
“I’m not a person who’s ever been scared, but for some reason, I didn’t want to go to my own house that night. I wanted to be with my family,” she said.
She reconsidered her plans to move to Joplin in three weeks.
“Should I continue my life? Do I need to be here? Do I need to be scared?”
The next day, a power outage plunged Iola into darkness for two and a half hours. It was caused by a downed feeder line into the city, but Sailor and other residents were afraid something terrible had happened.
“I was sitting there like, ‘Oh, gosh. Did Wolf Creek get hit?’ That scared everybody but it turned out it had nothing to do with it.”
Sailor did indeed move to Joplin a few weeks later. Eventually, she met Mike Sailor, got married, had a child and moved back to Iola. They now own Rookies Sports Bar & Grill and are expecting a second child.
Recently, their daughter, Tara, age 9, asked about their experiences during Sept. 11.
“She’s fascinated with it. Growing up, she’s only heard stories about it.”
Before he became director of the Writing Center and an instructor of developmental English at Allen Community College, Bruce Symes was areporter for the Register in 2001.
Keep in mind, news was not as instantaneously available then as it is now. Newsrooms relied on updates from wire services like the Associated Press for breaking news.
Symes handled layout and served as copy editor and wire editor. That means he was keeping a close eye on the latest updates from the AP when news came that the first plane hit.
“I shared with the newsroom that it was a weird thing, but reports were maybe it was a commuter plane and an accident, although a really strange accident,” he recalled.
“We had the front page pretty well made up. The deadline was noon, but we often went past noon because we had the printing press.”
Having a printing press in the building gave the Register an advantage many other small newspapers lacked by being able to adjust their daily deadline for that day’s news.
But it would take a lot of work.
Reporters contacted people they knew who had family in New York City and Washington, D.C. They fanned out across the city to talk to local residents and take photographs of people watching the news on television.
Symes moved all of the front page stories to the back of the paper, redesigning the paper entirely in a matter of hours.
“My memory is that we won a Kansas Press Association award for front page design for newspapers of our size on that coverage. We were able to localize a lot of stories,” he said.
“It was so hustle and bustle. Those kinds of stories, as tragic as they are, really get our adrenaline flowing.”
The staff was so focused on getting and delivering the news, they weren’t able to really process what had happened until later.
“It wasn’t until we got the paper done, and really that evening, that I let the emotions in and grasped the weight of what had happened.
“I remember, that evening, getting home. First I hugged my wife — well, my wife at the time — and then I called Mom.”
“There was a let down just from the whole energy and surreal nature of the day, just being at home and having a minute to think about what’s important.”
Now, two decades later, Symes compares and contrasts current events and those from that time.
“People were more absorbing information in the first few days, rather than proffering opinions. There was a difference, too, in that it brought our nation together. That’s a little different from the COVID situation now.”
Still, he said, the ongoing violent and repressive situations in the Middle East and the recent departure of troops from Afghanistan show that those events have stayed with us, in some way, since the attacks.
Symes, who is also an Allen County commissioner, said his understanding of the world has changed. Working at the college, especially with international students, has given him a wider perspective. He also took a trip to Israel about two years ago, which further educated him about issues outside of Allen County.
“In those 20 years, I have maybe broadened my world a little bit. Getting to work with international students made me appreciate the need for all of us to get outside of ourselves and our communities and our comfort zones, and learn from each other,” he said.
“It’s made my world a lot bigger,” he said.
Michael Waldman, executive vice president at Iola’s Community National Bank, was living in Garden City on Sept. 11, 2001.
He was on his way to work at a bank there and waiting at a stop light exactly one block from his job when he heard the news on the radio.
As soon as he arrived at the bank, he joined a group of coworkers downstairs to gather around a television and watch what was happening.
“The first thing in the morning, everyone heard that gas prices were going to go to $6 or $7 and people were freaking out, saying everyone needs to go fill up their tanks. I said, nobody’s going anywhere. They’re not going to raise prices, and if they do, they’ll get in trouble.”
And even though it was far from the attacks, the incident caused a great deal of excitement in Garden City. All air traffic was immediately diverted to the nearest airport.
A 737 passenger jet was told to land at Garden City, which had never before accommodated that large of a plane but had a runway just long enough and a radar tower that could guide it in, unlike airports in other area cities.
Waldman wasn’t part of that drama, but remembers reading and hearing about it.
“They didn’t have stairs to take these people off the plane, so they brought in fire trucks.”
Most of the passengers stayed in Garden City for about three days until planes were cleared for flying. Area residents hosted some of them.
“Those people, they didn’t know anybody but people took them into their homes. There was a real sense of patriotism.”
He remembers going outside and looking into the sky, clear blue and absent of any contrails. It was odd not to see any planes above.
Waldman said he missed seeing the jet leave Garden City.
Janelle Aikins now owns Alpha Dog, a store just off the downtown square.
But in 2001, she was still a sophomore in college.
On the morning of Sept. 11, she was at home studying for a psychology test for a 9:30 class at Allen Community College.
The television was on in the background, and news broke that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
“It was so surreal when they broke in and said the first tower had been hit. I literally saw the second tower hit on live TV,” she said. “So then I quit studying, of course.”
When the time came, she headed to ACC for class.
She discovered most of her peers had been in class and hadn’t yet heard the news.
“I don’t think kids my age understood the gravity of the situation at that time,” she said. “And here we are, 20 years later and still dealing with it.”
She remembers feeling both safe and scared. Safe, because she assumed a small town in the Midwest was less likely to be a target for terrorists. But also scared, because she felt that anyone could be a target, at any time.
“It brought us all together and created this sense of community. Everyone felt very patriotic. We thought of our police and our first responders as heroes,” she said. “It brought us all together more than at any time in my life.”
Sept. 11 changed the course of Chase Martin’s life.
Watching the scene unfold as a teenager stirred his sense of patriotism and prompted him to join the military. He would later enlist in the Marines, become a dog handler, and be deployed to Iraq where he hunted down hidden explosive devices.
But on Sept. 11, 2001, he was 16 and a high school sophomore living on a ranch in Nebraska.
He was watching television when the first plane hit, and he knew something about it wasn’t right. But he needed to get to school, so he listened to the radio as he drove.
By the time he arrived, the second plane had hit. He joined his classmates in a classroom, and they spent the day watching events unfold.
“For kids that age, that day was such a defining moment,” he said. “There was such a sense of patriotism.”
What made him think joining the military was the answer?
“Because I’m such a hothead,” he laughed. “I’ve always been patriotic, but the idea that someone could come into our backyard and do that… I can feel the rage now almost as I did back then. There was no doubt in my mind. I had to do something.”
Martin was still a sophomore, so he had a couple of years to decide which branch of the military to join. By that time, he was certain he would be deployed to a war zone.
In retrospect, he’s not sure what path his life might have taken had it not been for Sept. 11. Perhaps he still would have joined the military. Perhaps he would have gone to college. Perhaps something else.
He’s proud of his service.
“Like most in the military, we talk fondly of our service even though we hated parts of it. I enjoyed my deployment in Iraq more than other parts. I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t gotten deployed.”
Would he do it again?