New York, Washington far away, but 9/11 hit home

Emotions 20 years ago ranged from shock, to calls for normalcy, to patriotism and national unity

I had been in Sanpete County for six months when, on Sept. 11, 2001, as I was getting ready for work, an anchor on one of the morning news shows reported something strange was going on at the World Trade Center in New York. 

It appeared, he said, that a plane had crashed into one of the “twin towers,” landmarks I knew well from living and working in New York in the early 1970s. 

That was before news broadcasts were routinely live streamed on the Internet. I called the office to say that I was going to be late. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and wanted to watch the news a little longer.

It was also before the Sanpete Messenger existed. Our paper was called the Messenger-Enterprise, a combination of the names of our historic papers, the Manti Messenger and Ephraim Enterprise. We didn’t change the name of the paper until 2003.  

The next couple of hours are a blur. At the office, someone told me another plane had flown into the other tower. At some point, someone said, “Didn’t you hear? The towers have come down.” 

Holy cow. My head was spinning. Someone on the staff said it was a national story and we shouldn’t cover it. But my journalistic instincts kicked in. We were absolutely going to cover it. 

My lead on our page one story, written on 9/11, summed up what our paper was going to report for the next two weeks and beyond. 

“On a normal day,” I wrote, “New York City and Washington, D.C. are more than 2,000 miles away from Sanpete County, both geographically and psychologically. 

“But when two jetliners, apparently commandeered by terrorists, flew into the World Trade Center towers, and a third hijacked jet hit the Pentagon, everyone in Sanpete County seemed to feel the impact.”

Our subsequent coverage talked about local people who were directly affected, reactions of shock and disbelief, initial efforts to maintain normalcy, and finally, an outpouring of patriotism.

I worked the story by doing what journalists do when big things happen. I went after reactions. I checked with Snow College, people at the courthouse, and superintendents and principals in both school districts.

Local officials in New York

I learned 10 people from Sanpete County were in Buffalo, N.Y. for a conference on how to run drug courts. (Sanpete County didn’t have one at that time.) 

Buffalo is actually closer to Shanksville, Penn., than it is to New York City. Shanksville is where, because of passenger actions, a fourth hijacked jet that was apparently bound for the U.S. Capitol crashed into a field instead. As with the other planes, everyone on board was killed. 

Some of the people at the conference from eastern states wanted to go home so the training was cancelled. With all flights grounded nationwide, the Sanpete group was trying to figure out how to get home. They considered renting cars or buying cars and driving back to Utah. Ultimately, they were able to fly back.

I heard that Janice Blackham, 21, daughter of John and Darlene Blackham of Manti, and a 1998 graduate of Manti High School, was a student at John Jay College of Justice, located on 59th Street in New York, 5 miles north of the trade towers. 

That evening, I reached her by phone. She said she had been sitting in class at 9:30 a.m. when the first plane hit the first tower. Then students heard a second plane had hit the other tower. 

“Cell phones started ringing all over class,” she told me. “Everyone was trying to contact family and friends, trying to find out if they were okay.” 

She said the class moved into the foyer just in time to watch from the windows as the two towers fell down.

“It’s tragic,” she said. “It all seems so fake. To look out the windows and not see the twin towers is like something out of a movie…. It all seems impossible, like some kind of bad dream. I guess it’s really happening, though.”

We had another story on page one that week, written by Greg Dart, a Snow College student and our only reporter, that turned out to be closely related to the events in New York. 

It was about a house, a rental property owned by a Manti resident named Francisco Rivera, being destroyed by fire.

Rivera had moved to Manti to work for the Rivers West sewing plant, the plant located in the former Manti Business Improvement Association (MIBA) Building that made insignia wear for the U.S. Olympic team. 

A few weeks before the house burned, Rivera lost a prized horse when the animal got spooked during a thunderstorm, ran onto U.S. 89 and was killed by a car. Now he had a bigger crisis. His sister worked at the trade towers. 

“I lost my house, my horse and I am worried about my sister,” he told Dart. “I can’t get an answer at her home, and it is impossible to try her at work. I just pray she is okay. I just don’t know what I can do to make it through all this…. I will have to wait it out and see what I hear. I guess you just have to stay positive and count on God.”

Sister was safe

The next week, we reported that a day and a half after the attack, Rivera got word his sister was safe. She was never at the trade towers on 9/11. The week before, her start time at work had been changed to 10 a.m., which was after the first plane hit.   

“I am happier now,” Rivera said when interviewed for the follow-up story. “I have a sense of peace and feel a need to show gratitude.”

That first day, even the first week, there was a lot of emphasis on maintaining normalcy. “…there is little we can do that would not create further confusion,” Lynn Schiffman, dean of students at Snow College, said in a campus-wide email. “It is in everyone’s best interests to continue our activities as usual.”

Courtney Syme, superintendent in the North Sanpete School District, visited Fairview, Spring City and Mt. Pleasant elementary schools the afternoon after the attack.

“I didn’t see much reaction from the elementary students,” he said. “It’s so far away and a little hard for them to understand.” He suggested schools wait for more information, and “at the appropriate time, we can start talking with the children.” 

As we put together the paper that would reach readers on Sept. 13, two days after the attack, we tried to figure out how to illustrate our lead story. 

Someone on the staff got hold of someone at the Associated Press, the big national newsgathering alliance of daily newspapers. The AP gave us some of its photos and told us to forget about copyright or any fees for use. 

In my first years as publisher, I was working two jobs. I continued to work part-time at my old job in Salt Lake County and the rest of the time worked at the paper. So on Wednesday, after the paper went to press, I started driving north. 

Just beyond the Payson Walmart, as I noticed American flags on people’s side car windows and antennas, and thought about my own wonderful years in New York City, and about all the people who had died, the tears started to flow. I cried all the way to Orem.

Patriotism soars

Our follow-up story the next week (Sept. 20), written by Greg Dart, reported, “On the wings of the worst tragedy the nation has ever seen, patriotism has soared.”

The story described a memorial service the Fairview Fire Department held to honor more than 400 New York firefighters who had died on 9-11. 

Jeff Cox, the fire chief, said a few words and led his department in the pledge of allegiance. Four firefighters lowered the flag at the fire station, attached the firefighter flag below it, and raised the flag again. Then Cox invited members of his department to light candles and observe a moment of silence.

“Every firefighter knows he will someday be called on to go into harm’s way to help someone else,” Cox said, “but the thought of losing over 400 brave men and women is overwhelming.” 

As described, 9/11 happened on a Tuesday. Two days later, on Thursday evening, Snow College sent a medley of patriotic songs into Ephraim via its bell tower. 

The next day, Friday, the Mt. Pleasant Stake opened its building so residents could watch a morning memorial and prayer service broadcast from Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

Zions Bank teamed up with the Red Cross to set up a fund for victims in New York. Donations were accepted at 147 Zions locations in Utah and surrounding states. 

Businesses put up signs, such as one at Ace Hardware, next to Kent’s Market in Ephraim, (both now out of business) that said “Defend freedom” and a banner at Subway in Ephraim reading “God bless America.” 

Some of the sentiment found expression in letters to the editor. JoAnne Greene of Ephraim wrote, “As I pulled onto Main Street this morning, I was in complete awe…I had to pull over to the side of the road to gain my composure. 

“Main Street was lined with American flags. I assume the Boy Scouts of America did this. What a tribute it was. The leader of the troops involved should be commended….The honor and respect this showed in such a tragic time in America is humbling.” 

U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett (now deceased), who was quoted in Greg Dart’s follow-up story, summed up the response. “Americans have found out they love each other,” he said, “and will help each other to an extent they did not realize before the attack.”

As I reflect on the divisions in our country today, I don’t know what to think except to hope and pray that somehow, some way, we can find that same unity again.