A Lifetime Later: 18 Years After 9/11

Staff Writer

Eighteen years after thick black smoke darkened the clear blue skies over New York City, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, memories remain clear in the minds of those who watched the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 unfold. For a new generation, the date remains significant but the pain has dulled and was learned through the distance of time.

“These kids now, even most of the seniors, weren’t alive yet,” said Memorial High School Principal Jon Burke. “For them, it’s a different experience than it was for kids even five or six years ago. Now it’s based on what they read in a history book or what they find online.”

Publicly commemorated each year on the anniversary of the attacks, Burke noted that 9/11 is part of the school’s regular curriculum to teach students the lessons learned from that day. He said students are taught what it was like leading up to, during and immediately after the attacks to help them understand why things such as air travel have become restrictive.

“It used to be that the cockpit door would be open while you were flying and you could see the pilot throughout the whole flight,” he said. “Now they know why the pilots are behind that heavy, locked door because of what we learned in 2001.”

Now leading the staff at Memorial High School, Burke recalled watching the events unfold as he sat in his freshman social studies class and the principal added that he vividly remembers watching the country and the world change. 

“I remember sitting in class when Mrs. [Theresa] Riesen came into class and told him to turn on the news — and we watched as the second plane hit the towers,” he said. “I will never forget Mr. [Doug] Spencer’s face, those images or the silence that fell over our class. We stopped class and just watched the news and nobody said a word.”

While the attacks themselves didn’t change much for the education system, they did affect other aspects of American life. 

For first responders, the danger of their jobs became more apparent as they watched their brothers and sisters in service perish in the blink of an eye. From the youngest — 18-year-old EMT Richard Pearlman — to the oldest — 72-year-old FDNY Commissioner William M. Feehan — 403 of New York City’s first responders were killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Despite the large loss of life experienced by the first responder community, local leaders were quick to remind people that they are not the only heroes from that day.

“For us, it’s not just remembering the 343 (firefighters who died) but also remembering the real heroes — the ones who were on the planes, the ones who fought to take planes back,” said St. Marys Fire Chief Doug Ayers. “They didn’t ask for it, they were thrown into it unwillingly but they did their part. I think remembering them as heroes is just as important as remembering the firefighters.”

“It changed even the way local police departments operate because now we look at infrastructure security where we never used to have to worry about it,” added St. Marys Police Chief Jake Sutton. “We have cameras and security systems where there are potential targets for terrorists. What I think it has done is it has changed our preparedness to where it is no longer a reactive response but more about being prepared for what may happen. 

“It demonstrated the importance of Incident Command System in a Mass Casualty Incident. It’s very important for us to make sure we train for these high risk, low frequency events.”

Since the attacks, 443 additional first responders have died because of health effects linked to 9/11. Although the attacks lasted less than two hours, the effects and changes implemented since the largest attack on U.S. soil can be felt and taught to a new generation, a lifetime after that crisp, clear Tuesday morning.

“It’s important to remember our history or we will be bound to repeat it,” Ayers said. “I hope the pain of that day is something my daughters will never experience.”