It may have been 20 years but the memories of that fateful day are still with everyone that watched the terrorist attack live on their Tv screens with two commercial airliners crashing at the World Trade Center, followed by another on a field in Pennsylvania and yet another at the Pentagon.
9/11 is a day that nobody alive will forget and the memories of those lost are not easily forgotten as were the feelings of helplessness, anger and fear. We all shared that common experience of loss and the realization that the country was not safe from terrorist attacks.
We asked some locals how they remember that day and their personal experience.
Pastor John Griffin-Atil of the United Methodist Church in Imperial Beach was living in West Hollywood after spending the previous six years in Imperial Beach. Earlier in the year he had traveled to New York and found himself at the World Trade Center. “I took one picture and thought ‘everyone does this,’ ” he recalled. Griffin-Atil took that sight in New York for granted thinking it would always be there. The morning of 9/11 when he turned the news on, one tower had already been hit and as everyone else he was glued to the Tv screen. “We were traumatized and continued to be traumatized by the planes going down at the Pentagon,and in Pennsylvania,” he recalled. Griffin-Atil remembers that Sept. 11 fell on a Tuesday and being a pastor his work was concentrated toward Sundays - but something happened on that day and the following days. “People wanted into the church immediately and it went on for two weeks…Everyone went in or near a church and I saw a sudden need for people to be in safe and sacred spaces to in their own way sort out what had happened,” he said. Griffin-Atil explained that the community of West Hollywood is a very tight knit community with 34,000 residents in a piece of real estate of 1.9 square miles, smaller than Imperial Beach. The community soon realized a few of their own had perished on one of the planes. “We found out a gay couple was on the second plane, Dan and Ron with their adopted 3-year-old son David. Every 9/11 I think of how old David would be. He would be 24 years old now. In 2001 there weren’t a lot of gay couples adopting. “I didn’t know them, but I knew people who did know them. The were from our community and it personalized the whole thing,” he recalled. In the weeks after 9/11 residents from his church also brought cakes and cookies to the fire department to show appreciation for first responders. Griffin-Atil also recalls 9/11 came after the 2000 presidential elections when people were not happy with the results and there was a lot of anger. “The thing that was amazing was the political divide literally disappeared, there was a type of unity, we were Americans more than anything else and it was really remarkable to see how connected we were,” he said. While it took that event to bring everyone together, he wonders how can we bring that connectedness now during this divided time without having a tragic event happen. “We need to revisit the lesson, not the event,” he said.
Former Councilmember and retired Naval Officer Mark West was stationed on the USS Princeton on that day. His ship was in port in Singapore when the towers fell, an event he watched from his stateroom. “Within 12 hours we were ordered to leave and go to the coast off Pakistan,” he recalled. As part of a battlegroup, the USS Princeton made preparations for an attack and was the first battlegroup to get there where it stayed for 111 days. For West there was not much time to dwell on the attacks. Some service members on West’s ship lost family members during the attacks and that brought it closer to home for him. But as an officer he put up a front for the enlisted men. “You are as good as your weakest link…We had many emotions we went through, we were ready, the ship was ready. We were focused on our mission. We were the defense commander of the battlegroup,” he said. From their location, West as the Officer of the Deck he launched multiple Tomahawk missiles against the Taliban. Although he wanted to catch the perpetrators of the attacks on the U.S. and missiles were launched, it felt hard to pinpoint the enemy and its definition. “We were constantly looking at intelligence and how these people were connected to the American attack…I have spent my entire naval career for an adversary that wasn’t here, not a defined enemy,” he said. When he returned home after those 111 days the mood of the country was strange. “We felt we had done many things, made great progress for the U.S., secured airspace for Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the mood of the country was weird,” he said. He remembers President George W. Bush encouraging Americans to shop to help the economy.
Native Imperial Beach resident Steve Berry remembers that day. “Just like everyone else I watched it on Tv,” he said. Berry called his dad to tell him to turn the Tv on. “My thought was, we were under attack. The first thing I remember was, I was very angry,” he said. Berry and his wife Deb had three young children ranging in age from 2 to 12 years old and he had just started his own printing business. “Business was shut down for the first solid week. I do business nationwide and it was closed similar to the COVID shutdown, airports were closed, businesses were closed. I do remember there was panic, ice and water at the store were gone as soon as that happened,” he recalled. His mom worked at North Island Naval Base and security became very tight, every single car was inspected, and dogs were used to sniff bombs “we were afraid of another attack,” he said. Berry remembers changes happening around him like the closure of the border with Mexico and the closure of the bike lane. Berry felt a lot of camaraderie in the country. In particular the baseball game played in New York just a few days after the attack. “Outside Yankee stadium you could see the skyline [without the towers]. It was a big deal the country was saying ‘we’re not quitting,’’ Berry said. “To this day I have on my wall a picture of the Twin Towers to remind myself.”
Diane Rose was the mayor of Imperial Beach when 9/11 happened. She had woken up early to go to a South County Economic Development Council meeting and turned the Tv on. When she saw the first plane hit the tower she first thought it was an accident, then the other planes crashed. She remembers the bravery of those on board the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania and remembers Todd Beamer’s bravery. Rose said she saw 9/11 as human being - with horror - and as a mayor she was worried about the safety of the city and its residents. “No-one knew if other attacks were planned. The border was closed and we had a meeting with the Secret Service…for a possible incursion across the border. It was very chilling… he told us how they could mobilize people if needed. It was a sobering, chilling meeting,” she recalled. Soon after the lieutenant governor for the state of California held a conference call with all the mayors in the state. “The concern was a possible retaliation against people of Middle Eastern descent. That did not happen. We are very tight, strong community and have a Chaldean community. I reached out to them and reassured them,” she said. Rose recalls one of her neighbors, a fire chief in a different city, was called to go to New York to attend funerals of firefighters who had died at the World Trade Center. Because the local New York firefighters were busy at the World Trade Center doing search and rescue, firefighters from around the country were asked to attend. “Him recounting [that event] to me brought it home at a personal level,” she said. Rose remembers a candlelight vigil was organized at Pier Plaza for the victims, not by a specific group, but as an “outpouring of the community wanting to get together as a community,”she said. A year later Rose was invited to St. James Church to read the Gettysburg Address during an anniversary service for the 9/11 victims and recalls the words, although written for a different event, seemed to fit.
Current Mayor Serge Dedina was at home that morning and watched the events unfold on Tv. He remembers dropping off one of his sons at school while his wife dropped off the other at preschool. “I remember being worried about him going to school…my worries were about my wife and my kids.. I was in shock, that’s all I remember. The day at work was like living a dream. We were shell shocked, nothing really happened at work, we were afraid. There were concerns about threats to the Navy base, since we are a Navy town,” he recalled. At the end of the day Dedina and his family, as well as his parents walked to the south side of the pier to reflect on what was happening to try to make sense of what was happening.