It has been twenty years since that Tuesday morning at 8:46 when we heard with horror and disbelief that five hijackers had flown American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We immediately turned on the TV to see, in real time, the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crash into the South Tower at 9:03 and watched the tower collapse at 9:59. It was multiple scenes of smoke, fire, people panicked and running from the buildings, and the sick feeling that so many were trapped. What was yesterday’s office was suddenly a fiery, death chamber, inescapable from 100 stories above the ground.
It was a day that shattered this generation’s innocence. The idea that this nation was perfectly insulated and safe from foreign, meditated terrorist attack was forever gone—and perhaps had always been a pipe dream. Now we knew something we couldn’t unknow, and life, moving forward, would forever be stained by this day. For our security we would see new forms of surveillance and new sensibilities. We moved in our hearts from safe to not safe. Not since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has there been a day where people remember so clearly where they were when it happened.
We lived in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. at that time, in a neighborhood full of people who worked at the Pentagon. Five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37 am. and a pattern emerged. The terrorists wanted to undo America at its strengths—the economic center, the military center, and were it not for the passengers who wrestled with the hijackers in Pennsylvania and took down the plane, the Capitol or White House would have been hit. The hijackers’ numbers were few, but they seemed to know how to drive a nation to its knees. The heavy question on our minds that morning was “What’s next?”
Our daughter, Mariah, was in sixth grade in 2001, and a few of the students in her class had parents who worked in the Pentagon. Because of that, the school opted not to tell the children what was going on. Instead, throughout the day, those children were plucked out of school one by one as their parents came to get them to tell them the news.
Recess came and the children were not let out to play under dangerous skies. A rumor went around that the reason the children couldn’t play outside was because the gardener had used a poisonous pesticide. Just before school let out, the teachers told the children what was really happening. On the bus ride home, a fellow student told Mariah about what a Kamikaze pilot was, an entirely new and strange idea to her. She had never dreamed of such a concept before. Kamikaze—such a strange word.
Latter-day Saint Deaths on 9/11
All of the children’s parents in her class were safe, but the attack yielded 2,977 fatalities and over 25,000 injuries. Some of them were Latter-day Saints. Carolyn Beug’s twin daughters had scholarships to a design school in Rhode Island so she and her mother Mary Alice Wahlstrom were just returning from dropping them off at their new school, when their plane was hijacked and crashed into the North Tower. Ivhan Luis Carpio Bautista, was a young man and recent convert to the Church from Peru. He worked at Windows on the World, a famous restaurant on the 107th floor. It was his birthday and his day off, but he had agreed to cover a shift for a co-worker.
Rhonda Rasmussen was working at the Pentagon right by where the plane hit. Her husband, Floyd, worked on the floor above and went around calling her name, but couldn’t find her. Brady Howell was a civilian employee who worked for the chief of naval intelligence in the Pentagon. He was missing for a week, before his family finally learned that he had died when the plane dived into the building.
Up-Close and Personal
Other Latter-day Saints were up-close and personal on the scenes of 9/11. Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the church and Von G. Keetch had come to Washington D.C. to do some legal work. A special interest for them both was religious freedom. They were in a cab passing the Pentagon when they saw the hijacked plane nose in and hit the building. Airports were immediately closed that morning, and so they borrowed a missionary car that wasn’t being used and shared the ride home across the country in a Toyota, Corolla.
At Elder Keetch’s funeral, Elder Wickman said, “We were on the road for 48 hours,” recalled Elder Wickman. “That experience being together in the face of that catastrophic event under sobering circumstances and that long drive across the country was a profound experience for us. We talked deeply about the gospel and this country…and it was a great time of reflection and testimony. In that experience we truly became brothers.”
Victor Guzman had a grinding and long commute each day to his job as an attorney on the 85th floor of the World Trade Tower. He was working on his billing when, he said “as I’m going around my desk, I hear and feel this explosion. At that point I’m thrown forward. You feel the building is actually leaning forward to the point where I had to brace myself against the wall and the desk where I would have otherwise fallen on my face.
“At that point my heart starts racing and a thousand ideas are coming into my mind, but the one idea that stayed in my mind was get out. I didn’t know what it was, I knew it wasn’t good.”
He grabbed his knapsack and ran out of the office where “there’s nothing but an acrid smell and smoke everywhere. Things had fallen from the ceiling, books had been toppled over. Those few people who were in the office, you heard some of them screaming. There was one secretary who was outside my office, and I picked her, grabbed her and ran towards the nearest exit. As we got to that exit and opened the door, you couldn’t see anything. There was nothing but black smoke.
“Fearing what’s on the other side of that smoke, we closed the door and retreated back into the office. The office took almost the whole 85th floor. So we went around to the other side. We met up with a good 10 to 15 other employees who were there that morning.”
Guzman and the others made a line and he stood in back to make sure everybody was getting out in an orderly fashion. “We covered our faces and went through that black smoke hoping, you know, that we can get through it. We then went through the stairwell – it was hard to see, it was hard to breathe – but we went down.”
Obviously, the stairwell didn’t go all the way down in the World Trade Center, so they would walk down a few floors and then have to look for the next set of stairs. Elevator shafts had blown out. Glass was everywhere, and still that acrid smell was burning their nostrils.
Guzman helped people stay orderly and find their way down each new set of stairs. “I remember standing behind the guy who had the blind dog and everybody yelling like, “Hurry up,” you know, “Move, move.” And I’m like “Relax. There’s a guy in front of us, he’s blind.” The last thing I want to do was push him going down the stairwell.”
By the time he was on the 39th floor, his legs were rubber. His wife got a call through to him and he learned for the first time what was actually happening. Two planes had attacked the Twin Towers and maybe as many as six more are out there. It was getting tense. On the thirtieth floor, first responders carrying 80 pounds of equipment were going up the stairs, whom he will always remember as heroes.
Finally, when he was out of the building he looked up and saw two gaping holes with flames just coming out. “And it hit me,” he said, just how close it was to where I had been sitting…And at that point, as I look up, World Trade No. 2 starts crumbling and the noise was deafening. Crunching glass, steel, a roar, you see it toppling over.” He runs; he runs and runs through the smoke. How far does a 110 foot building fall? He is saved, but he says, “Sleeping was tough for awhile, a couple of nights of nightmares, you now, of flames, really bad nightmare stuff.” After this his priorities will change. He will never care so much about money again, and his family becomes even more important.
Rick Seeley and Mitch Butikofer
Rick Seeley and Mitch Butikofer were friends in the same ward and both worked at the Pentagon in offices that were directly in the flight path of the hijacked plane that morning of Sept. 11. The plane hit on the western face of the pentagon-shaped building, and, though they didn’t see each other at work, both their offices were facing the inside court on the east side, directly across from the place of impact.
A retired Air Force officer, Rick worked in planning and budgets for the space programs. That Tuesday morning, he and his co-workers had just gotten word about the Twin Towers being hit, and were sitting there in a bit of a daze, when suddenly they felt a big “thunk” hit their building, which reverberated and was obviously large. “We just got hit,” they said to each other, but they had no idea what it was.
The fire alarms began to go off and people began to fill the hallways with screaming, crying, and pandemonium. Rick and his co-workers left their office, made their way through the chaos, and were finally ushered out a door that led them right into the billowing smoke of the burning airplane. “The smoke was billowing above us and through our midst and I worried that it could be a chemical or biological agent that would harm us. What were they thinking ushering us out that way?
The seven or eight of them who were leaving together, came to the parking lot that was jammed with people, and so they made their way to the 395 freeway which runs past the Pentagon, stood on the edge and watched the fire. Unsure of what was happening, misinformation gusted back and forth among them. They heard another plane was headed their way. His boss came over and said they were definitely done for the day, and so Rick was able to hop on the metro and go as close as possible to home while it still ran. His wife, Cindy, was relieved when he walked into the home that he was safe, and his daughter Stephanie as a new EMT, still in the probationary stages would have a difficult introduction to her work, as she was one of those involved in the hours to come to help locate and help the injured and search for the missing. “Those were some tough scenes,” Rick said.
Mitch Butikofer, who was a Major at the time, was in an office without windows. As the news about the Twin Towers shot through the Pentagon, Mitch and his colleagues wondered how a Cessna plane could have done such damage. They had not heard that it was two airliners that had hit the Twin Towers, and it was beyond their imagination to conceive of that. After they turned the television on and watched the second plane go into the second tower, he turned to his workmates and said, “If they can do that, why can’t they hit us here?”
Not long after the Pentagon was struck by the plane, and he thought at first it was a truck bomb or a car bomb. Someone shouted, “We’ve been hit by something,” and the halls erupted with yelling and chaos as they tried to get out of the building. Before he left, he had to secure all the confidential papers they had been working on and “To this day,” Mitch said, “I have no idea how I got out of the building. I could not have retraced my steps,” I was in such a fog. As we emerged on the southeast side of the building, the smell of jet fuel was heavy in the air, and suddenly there was no doubt that, like the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, too, had been hit.
In those days, Mitch did not have a cell phone, and he had not been able to call his wife, Leslie, to assure her he was safe. It might not have mattered, anyway, because all circuits were jammed as millions of Americans were checking on loved ones.
He and a friend walked in an underground, pedestrian tunnel under the 395 to a mall across the freeway. The mall was shutting down, so he finally found a phone in an underground parking lot. When he couldn’t reach his wife, he called her parents, and asked them to relay the message.
On their way back through the tunnel toward the Pentagon, the people were streaming frantically the other way. It was chaos as they ran, and Mitch could see that if someone fell, they could be trampled. He and his friend, both in their Air Force dress blues, worked to calm and control the crowd. “Don’t run. You’ll be fine.”
Finally, they made their way up to the freeway where they watched the Pentagon burn. They saw the second, third, and fourth stories start to crumble on the west side. About that time F16s began to fly over that were scrambled out of Langley Air Force Base. “It was so emotional. It was just a surreal moment to watch the plane and see that side of the Pentagon collapse,” Mitch said, “How could they make sense of it?” When the F16s were gone, it was just eerily quiet. The sounds of planes flying overhead, which always filled the backdrop of their minds was stilled. All traffic on 395 was gone.
They walked down the middle of the freeway by themselves, taking it all in, and looking for a way to get home. “It was the most bizarre episode that I will ever have in my life,” he said. “It felt like Zombie Apocalypse.”
They were finally able to board one of the last Metros leaving the area and took it to the end of the line, even though it was a different direction than home. At the end of the ride, a driver in a Metro Van said to him, “Would you like a ride?” Mitch asked, “Where are you going?” “Anywhere you want me to.”
With that kindness, Mitch finally made it home, and found his wife Leslie and their twin girls calm and happy. They had been that way long before Leslie’s parents had called. Two days before, Mitch had mentioned to her that there had been a little fire at the Pentagon among the construction materials and had also mentioned that 25,000 people work at the Pentagon.
That morning Leslie hadn’t had the news on, but people started to call, frantic. “Have you heard about the fire at the Pentagon?” She said that she was sure it was just another little fire among the construction materials. When she saw the news and she realized the gravity of the situation she was still calm. When people began to call her to ask if she had heard from Mitch, she was still calm with a sure sense of peace upon her. Even when a friend called her, hysterical, whose husband is an airline pilot, she remained assured. Mitch was safe.
She attributed her peace to the fact that she was an engineer, with a mind for statistics and mathematics. If there were 25,000 people at the Pentagon, what were the chances that he was hurt?
It wasn’t until 5 days later at Church, she understood the truth. A friend sitting on the pew behind her, leaned forward and pointed out how the Spirit had blessed her with comfort and assurance as she lived through the hours, not knowing where Mitch was.
She was thunderstruck to see it. She had given credit to the grace she felt as her husband faced a real threat to her mathematical mind. In reality, it hadn’t been those large numbers and statistical possibility that had comforted her. It had been the Spirit all along. The Lord had been talking to her, and she hadn’t seen it was Him. It was a divine signature that she hadn’t read. Yet, she felt it, and, of course, it made sense. The Lord would talk to her in a language she understood—the language of the engineer she is.
Mitch said, after all he had experience, Leslie’s calm was the thing he remembered most about that day.
It is twenty years since we first glimpsed terror on such a large scale. Twenty years since our country came together in a common cause to buoy each other and say, “God Bless America” with such unity. It is our shared history, the event that permeates the memory of this generation. We are not invulnerable. Safety and freedom are not givens that we can take for granted. 9/11 means even the shiniest towers can be thrown down, the most impregnable fortresses penetrated. But God is good, and He will be there to calm the most troubled hearts when we need Him.