Locals reflect on Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 20 years later

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough took this photo at Ground Zero. Wall was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

  • The World Trade Center smoking after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Photo by Michael Foran

  • Brian Wall of Peterborough was one of the hundreds of first responders who responded to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and also participated in the months-long clean up. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/8/2021 1:49:19 PM

“A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

The moment Andrew H. Card Jr. of Jaffrey told President George W. Bush of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has become immortalized in photo and video. Bush was visiting an elementary school, reading a book with a group of grade-schoolers, when Card, his Chief of Staff, was informed of the second attack.

Card said when he heard the news, he immediately knew the implications.

“My very first thought was the fear the passengers must have had. And then – truly only a nanosecond later – three initials flashed in my mind.”

Those initials, Card said, were those of Osama Bin Laden, the then-leader of al-Qaeda, who would later claim responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11.

Only moments before, Bush had been told of the first attack on the World Trade Center, only minutes after it had first occurred. But, Card said, no one knew at that time exactly what had happened. Initial reports were of a small prop plane crashing into the tower. A tragedy, Card said, but the immediate thought was not terrorism, but that it was an isolated accident, perhaps caused by malfunctioning equipment or a pilot having a medical emergency mid-air.

After receiving the news of the first attack, Bush had left the staging room to meet with students of Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Within minutes, Card said, he had been updated: It was not a prop plane, but a commercial jet. And then, again, within minutes: A second plane had crashed into the second tower.

“At that point, the question became, ‘Does the president need to know?’ This is a question that comes up five or six times a day as Chief of Staff. The answer seemed pretty obvious. He needed to know,” Card said.

With 11 deliberate words, Card relayed the message to the president. It was only the beginning of one of the most momentous days in American history.

At Ground Zero

Brian Wall of Peterborough, who was living on Long Island and working for the New York Police Department as part of the Emergency Search Unit in 2001, was home with his 3-year-old son and celebrating his birthday when he got a frantic call. Within minutes, he was responding to the World Trade Center.

Wall, along with his police partner Dale Schultz, knew they were driving to the biggest scene they would ever deal with. And, he said, what they knew could very well be their last.

“We talked about it on the way there. That this could be our last job,” Wall recalled.

The scene, he said, was chaos. By the time they arrived, the South tower had already fallen. But even with the enormity of the structures, it wasn’t immediately obvious that was the case, because of the enormous amount of dust caused by the collapse.

“We were walking in a foot of dust,” Wall said. “It took a second to comprehend. You could not imagine the enormity of these structures, and what it means for one to not be there. Finally, it made sense.”

Wall said he was preparing to assist with the evacuation of the North tower, when he was informed no one else was to go in – it was also about to collapse.

“I was right at the front, when it happened. I started running,” Wall said. “I had this thought – ‘I can’t believe I’m going to die on my birthday.’”

But after the collapse, Wall was still standing, though he had been separated from his partner in the chaos. When the dust cleared enough to see, there was no one – and then, he said, he saw Schultz. One of the few miracles that came from that day.

“It was surreal,” Wall said. “We had had our share of close calls. But we asked ourselves, ‘How the heck did we pull this one off?’ From that point on, we were in rescue mode.”

There were recoveries made that first day and night, Wall said, though they were few and far between. Police and firefighters hoped for void spaces in the collapse where people might be trapped, but the collapse was so complete that there were very few.

“It was a sheer pancake collapse. It was devastating. You never saw a chair, or a desk, everything was just compressed to dust,” Wall said.

That day, Wall said, was the start of a month’s long clean up effort and search for remains – and if not remains, then at least something that could be given to family members. His team recovered bank cards or police badges without ever finding any sign of the people they belonged to, he said.

Many of the emergency responders he was searching for, Wall said, were friends.

Fourteen men from his unit, including one of his captains. Seven people from his home community. And since that day, even more from cancer or other illnesses likely contracted from working that day and during the clean up.

“I’ve lost so many friends, and it’s devastating. Men I stood next to every day,” Wall said. “It’s on your mind every day. It’s part of the job, that you know you might lose someone. But to lose that many, all at once...you can only hope it never happens again.”

“It was an act of evil”

In 2001, Clay Hollister of Jaffrey was preparing to retire from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Expecting to exit the job on Oct. 4 that year, he was mostly concentrating on preparing his successor to take over his position in the agency. He had been with FEMA since 1977, and had worked his way to the position of chief of staff, and at the time of Sept. 11, was Chief Information Officer.

He didn’t know at the time that he would be with the agency for one of the largest disasters in the agency’s history.

The day the towers fell, Hollister was in Washington, D.C.

“I was at Union Station, going up to New York to meet my wife for a social event,” Hollister recalled. “There were a lot of people who worked in government waiting for the train, and about five minutes to 9  a.m., pagers started to go off, including mine.”

Hollister said he didn’t know what was happening at the time. His pager told him only the barest information – there was a national emergency, and he needed to report to FEMA headquarters as soon as possible. But, he said, it was clear that something big was happening. As he tried to get back to headquarters, other government employees were also trying to get to their own home bases. There was not a taxi to be found. As he and other employees started to walk back to their workplaces, he overheard mention of a plane crash in New York City.

So he was not expecting to hear an enormous boom, coming from across the river.

It was a plane, striking the Pentagon.

But Hollister said he didn’t know that, until he reached FEMA, and saw the news.

Hollister lost two people he had come to know through his work that day, including John O’Neill, the head of security at the World Trade Center, who died while trying to evacuate the tower, and FDNY Deputy Fire Chief Ray Downey.

“We were dumbstruck. We were trying to get our heads around it – both our human heads and our emergency responder heads. It really was unbelievable. It was paralyzing,” Hollister said.

By 10:15 a.m., FEMA had mobilized specialized urban search and rescue teams to respond, and was coordinating relief efforts and aid. Hollister, on his way out of the organization, said it was the right time for him to leave the profession – though still a disaster response agency, FEMA has become increasingly poised to react to events like Sept. 11, he said. Hollister, who was part of the FEMA response to other terrorism events, including the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, said he’d seen the mission of the agency shift over the years.

“It was an act of evil, rather than an act of nature, which was my area of expertise and interest when I entered the field,” Hollister said of Sept. 11. “FEMA changed after 9/11. I went from an independent agency to being part of Homeland Security. I was a disaster guy, not an anti-terrorist specialist.”

The Aftermath

“The world had changed in that instant,” Wall said, of the events of Sept. 11. “They were on our soil now. They could hit again, any time.”

It was not only FEMA that shifted focus in the aftermath. President Bush had been elected on a platform with a domestic focus. But that could no longer be the case.

Wall’s first day at Ground Zero was just that – only a first day. He would remain at the site for the next eight months, assisting with the clean-up and continuing recovery efforts.

And the world was not the same.

“We gave up some of our freedoms after that day, there’s no denying that,” Card said. “The role of the FBI changed. The role of the TSA changed. No-fly lists, the monitoring of certain digital traffic, the screening or packages – there have been a lot of changes, most of them virtually permanent.”

But, Card said, those changes are in service of making sure Sept. 11, 2001, never happens again.

“Tens of thousands of police, EMTs, firefighters, soldiers responded to the call of duty. They stepped up to take care of the victims and cleaning up the rubble. It was a very painful time. It left a lot of trauma for the survivors. We can’t forget that,” Card said.

Wall, who moved to New Hampshire shortly after the conclusion of the cleanup, in part because of the impact of Sept. 11, still returns to New York City every year for a memorial for his fallen brothers. He said the maxim “Never forget” remains as steadfast in him as it was in the immediate aftermath. He said that despite his yearly health screenings remaining clear, he knows that at any time, he could join them.

“Every time, I’m thankful for another year,” Wall said. “It’s very emotional. Sept. 10 was a great day, and then the world changed. And we had  to live it.”




Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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