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Looking back on tragedy

Local residents recall horrific day

September 11, 2012
By BRANDON L. SUMMERS ( , Messenger News

It was 7:45 a.m. in Fort Dodge, Sept. 11, 2001, a Tuesday, when a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, North Tower. An accident?

Less than 20 minutes later, a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. This time, its South Tower.

And everyone knew, this wasn't an accident.

Article Photos

In this Sept. 6 photo, 1 World Trade Center, now up to 105 floors, rises above the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York. Eleven years after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the new World Trade Center now dominates the lower Manhattan skyline.

The rest of that morning was silent as the nation, one body and one heart, watched and listened in horror as still more information became available.

Everyone who was alive remembers that day, 11 years ago.

Rhonda Chambers had been director of the Fort Dodge Regional Airport for four years. It was the day after a commission meeting, she recalled.

"I remember waking up and looking outside and saying, what an unbelievable blue sky," she said. "In pilot terms, they call it 'severe clear.' That day, there was no clouds over the entire nation."

As an aviation professional, Chambers knew while watching the first footage of the initial crash more even than those reporters on the scene.

"They were saying they didn't know what kind of airplane it was," she said. "They said it was a general aviation airplane. I remember looking at the TV and seeing each of those stories of the World Trade Center building and the size of the airplane that hit it. I thought, that is not a general aviation airplane."

When the other plane hit, Chambers got her things and raced to the airport.

After an aircraft hit the Pentagon, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down all airspace in the United States, Chambers said. No one was allowed to take off, and all planes in flight were grounded. The airport started receiving calls from various FAA organizations, which were responsible for airport security before the creation of the Transportation Security Administration.

"What they were telling us was, the airspace has been closed. They're grounding every airplane and they're making them go to the nearest airport that is below them," she said. "Basically, we had to prepare for any aircraft that was going to be diverted. No aircraft landed here, luckily. But we had to be ready to handle that."

In less than three hours, 5,000 commercial flights with over a million passengers were grounded, Chambers said. International traffic was diverted to Canada.

"It was an incredible day for aviation," she said. "This was the first time that the controllers and everybody in the entire system had to do an unplanned shutdown and get everybody out of the air. It's just absolutely unbelievable they were that efficient with never having to practice that, and it was nationwide. And without any accidents."

Chambers reminds people still of a detail of that day often forgotten.

"The terrorists didn't breach security," she said. "They didn't get through a lax checkpoint. What they took on the airplanes and what they used were allowed at that time by security to take on the plane. A box cutter, and a knife under 4 inches."

Three miles away, Fran Long, a science teacher at Fort Dodge Senior High, heard about the attack after the school day had already started. It dominated the rest of the day.

"We ended up going into the library, and they had TVs on in there," he said. "Most of the classes went in. There was some coverage on the computers. There was just a lot of discussion about, 'Wow. What's going on?' It took hours for those events to unfold and so a lot of it then was TV coverage of the different events as they happened throughout the day. I was pretty much in shock."

The attack impacted Long in the days after.

"It was kind of scary, the unknown," he said. "It was scary to think about how a building that size could collapse and all of the people that were killed there. There were a bunch of blood drives around that time and such to collect blood to send out there."

While it affected Long personally, the attack did not affect what he taught. It only stopped his activities that day.

"You kind of had to debate. When events like that happen you say, do I carry on in the classroom or do we stop and see what's going on in the rest of the world?" he said. "And that was definitely one where you had to stop and see what's going on.

He added, "There were opportunities for discussions. Students had questions. Some of them I could answer and some of them I couldn't."

Long's students that day were similarly affected, in different ways, but affected no less.

"They were very puzzled by all of this," he said. "Not many of them had seen the Twin Towers personally. I don't know how many had ever been to New York, or follow the news on a regular basis. So it was hard for them also to comprehend what all this really means."

According to Long, thinking back, his role as a school teacher that day isn't relevant.

"I don't know that being a teacher on that day is different from being any other citizen on that day," he said. "It takes you back even further, but people that are old enough can tell you when John F. Kennedy was killed. It was kind of one of those moments."

Another two miles away, Sandy Mickelson was at her desk at the Fort Dodge Messenger. The headline the next day would read, "U.S. Attacked."

"When the news first broke about a plane hitting the towers, no one could believe it," she said. "When the second plane struck, the 'what if' theories started running rampant. The newsroom was the busiest place in the building that day, and not just from reporters trying to do their work."

The same disbelief brought the curious and terrified to the newspaper building that day, Mickelson said.

"Such a story draws crowds of disbelievers, all hoping against hope what they've just seen broadcast is someone's weird idea of a joke, a computer rendition of what might be," she said.

The nation's response that day, government and civilian, communities and neighbors, was, in retrospect, inspiring, Mickelson said.

"The aftermath of these terrorist attacks showed what Americans do in the face of danger," she said. "Americans banded together. Workers trying to save people, airline passengers trying to stop further attacks, reporters in newsrooms across the country trying to get the story told."

She added, "It's a story that will never be forgotten. Should never be forgotten."

Even as time heals and distances us from the attacks of September 11, 2001, they still inspire fear and awe. Everyone alive will forever remember that day, immortalized by its date. And remember how we endured.

To quote Martin Luther King Jr., accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."



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