As the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is upon us, DeKalb County residents and elected officials reflect. Some comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity:
Mark Vicary, former Genoa mayor was working as an aircraft mechanic for United Airlines on Sept. 11, 2001, and said “it’s a very somber day for the airlines” because both airlines lost four aircraft, airline employees and loved ones in the airplane hijacking attacks in New York City, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
“When you’re attached to the aircraft themselves and the airplanes and the families, it resonates a little differently,” Vicary said.
Vicary had gone home from his midnight shift the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and recalled watching “The Today Show” with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.
Shortly thereafter, “the phone started to ring,” Vicary said.
“And people that I worked with were saying, ‘Hey, have you turned the news on? Something’s going on in New York.’ Then it was a big screen and the second plane hit the tower – and at that point you knew it was a jet. It was a big commercial airliner,” Vicary said. “And then everybody’s calling around wondering what company it was, what aircraft that went into the tower and the people in the news were crying. I remember it was Katie Couric or somebody let out a big yelp, like a scream, because ... at that point, they knew it was bigger than just, an accident..”
Vicary said he remembered his immediate reactions being “confusion, sad, angry, shock and disbelief.”
Right after the attacks happened, Vicary said he remembered “there wasn’t an airplane in the sky for like a whole week” after all the aircraft across the country was grounded by the FAA.
Jennifer Flores, 45, of DeKalb: Flores said she enlisted in the National Guard when she was still in high school and was already preparing to deploy overseas on a different mission.
On Sept. 11, 2001, “I was at work at the time. I worked as an estimator for an earth moving company in Elgin. My daughter was almost 4. My boss came barreling in and turned on the television from the office and the first tower had already been hit. And I didn’t know what to think, probably like a lot of people. And about five minutes after the first tower had been hit, my dad called me on the phone. He was still in the Army at the time. And he said, ‘I know you’re probably in shock, like everybody else, but you have another job to do.’ He said, ‘I want you to go home right now, make sure that all of your bags are ready to deploy because I think you’re going to be getting a call.’ ... Within an hour, I got a call from my unit. That’s when [the National Guard] told us that we were going to be brought down to our base and undergoing additional training too, because our mission had changed. Being a female, there was a lot of training about being in a Middle Eastern country during the time of Ramadan. That was kind of overwhelming just to think that who I was could be offensive to someone, just because I was who I was.”
Kimberly McClain, 46, of Sycamore: While McClain’s family lived in DeKalb at the time, “one thing that happened locally was that someone called the police and said they had planted a bomb at Tyler Elementary in DeKalb.”
“Right in the middle of hearing all of the news coming out, the towers coming down, they had to evacuate all of the children to Lion’s Park, so the police could come and sweep the building. The kids were none the wiser, but for the staff and parents, it was awful. ... My kids were in first and second grade at the time, and I used to eat lunch with them once or twice a week at school. ... When I got there and heard what had happened (there were no notification systems back then), I just took them home. Not because I thought they weren’t safe but because I just needed them home. ... It’s still heavy. Thinking about it now, I remember clearly the feelings, but I can’t name them. It was just this fear and grief mixture with an absolute need to be together. ... It is something that changed how so many of us feel about our safety.”
Janet O’Neill, 61, of Genoa: “I was working at United Airlines, World HQ in Elk Grove Village, just getting out of shower when first plane hit.
My husband was watching at work and called, then a second plane hit and I knew I had to get to work ASAP. When I got to the gate the first tower fell. ... The guard waved me in. The rest is a blur of phone calls, FAA directives and trying to ground our entire fleet. I worked in Air Freight, so we were handling customer calls along with everything else. The following day, Sept. 12, a bomb threat was called into our offices. I wound up outside, no phone, no purse, and had the “hitch” a ride with a friend to get home. Then it started, no planes, anywhere, really strange when you are used to living in a flight zone. This changed my life forever, right at the moment it began. [To reflect on this 20 years later,] it’s kinda nostalgic. I thought I would be with the airlines forever and retire. I am in a totally different place than I thought I would be. Widowed, living in the country, working two jobs.”
Jim Johnson, 66, of Genoa: “I flew into Logan airport in Boston the day before the terrorists got there. Woke up on 9/11. I was working in suburban Boston.
My boss texted me and asked if I was in the Boston area. Told him yes. He immediately told me to call national car rental and reserve the car for the week. ‘You’re going to have to drive it home to Genoa.’ Told me to turn on TV and it was all happening. I was so mesmerized I could barely leave the hotel. I went to work but it was a genuine blur. Finished up work and went to a local Walmart. I bought two American flags that I taped to the inside windows of the rental car. Drove home listening to AM radio with all of the analysis and speculation. Everyone’s life changed. Boss told us no one has to fly for awhile if they didn’t want to. This was a job that sometimes had me in eight cities in a week. We didn’t know if they were going to shoot planes out of the sky or what. Nerve wracking for sure.”
DeKalb Ward 1 Alderperson Carolyn Morris said the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were “a significant source of inspiration” for her to join the U.S. Marine Corps as a linguist.
Morris was in her first week at community college north of Philadelphia when she drove back to her family’s home nearby and debated with her parents whether to pick up her younger brothers from elementary school.
Morris said she and the parents at the elementary school remembered wondering if schools were considered targets for subsequent attacks.
“It really hit home,” Morris said. “It was so physically nearby that the impact was huge.”
Morris said she officially enlisted in August 2002, and while she didn’t serve in Afghanistan, she served as a linguist and a subject matter expert in Afghan culture.
Morris said she thinks, “As Americans, we so often feel such pride that we feel impermeable, impenetrable, and we think that we can’t be touched.”
”Part of the reason that we’ve come out of Afghanistan is because we don’t want to be nation builders,” Morris said. “And, sadly, Afghanistan was already a challenging space to consider trying to revitalize. But we really need to keep in mind that we’re no better than anywhere else and we are susceptible to attack.”
Morris also said it’s important to remember “the sacrifice has been huge” for so many in the past 20 years of the Afghan war.
“The people who’ve lost their lives aren’t the only people who suffered. They had children, they have families who all bear the burden of war,” Morris said. “And war is nothing to take lightly. It is the worst experience of my life and, I think, anyone’s life, who’s been a part of it. So I would really caution us as we move forward both to make sure we honor the sacrifices of the fallen and respect the sacrifice by not going lightly into another situation like that again.”
DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes served in the U.S. Army from 1987 to 1990 and was called back in for Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While he served “long before 9/11,” he said, his son Hank did a tour in Afghanistan years after the attack on U.S. soil.
Barnes said he was on his way to work the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 at the old Sundog IT office in Sycamore and was listening to the local National Public Radio station, WNIJ.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Barnes said. “It was just heart-wrenching, thinking of all of the people that were in those buildings. And I remember I drove right into work and we shut the company down and all of us that day just sat in front of the TV at the office and watched the whole thing unfold.”
Barnes said he remembered being “beyond angry” once it became clear the events 20 years ago were terrorist attacks and not a possible pilot error.
“And I know rational people should think things through more than that, but for me, as a veteran and a patriotic American, I was just really angry and it took a while to calm down and parse through things and think through things after that,” Barnes said. “I just wanted whoever did that to pay and pay immediately. I wanted them to feel the full extent of the United States military and the red, white and blue. I know that sounds corny, but that’s kind of how I am when it comes to stuff like that.”
Especially in light of U.S. troops being pulled out of Afghanistan in the previous weeks, Barnes said he “hopes we learn that lesson” that “it hasn’t been very effective” to go in and attempt to change a country with such an established culture vastly different from the U.S.
“Do we need to be keepers of peace?” he said. “You look back on World War II and what was transpiring there. We can be very effective in our role, and I think we should have that role when people need help and countries need help. The United States of America should be there to assist in that. But going in and trying to change them? That’s difficult.”