By JAYSON JACOBY,
LISA BRITTON and
Baker City Herald
Whitney Black remembers the horror and the fear and the disbelief.
But what she remembers even more vividly from the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is the frustration.
How helpless she felt, with most of a continent between her and New York City, where two great buildings had collapsed, where so many people had died and so many more were suffering.
“As soon as I found out, I felt like I should be there, helping people, protecting,” Whitney said on Thursday, Sept. 9, two days shy of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
“It drove me nuts.”
Whitney, now 49, was at home in Baker City that sunny late summer morning with her husband, Shannon, and their two young children.
They didn’t have a television.
She first learned of the tragedy when her brother-in-law, Chris Black, telephoned.
“Check the news,” he told her.
Whitney recalls watching on TV as the second airliner struck one of the Twin Towers. She thinks she was at her parents’ home in Baker City.
She’s not sure about that.
But she absolutely recalls her reaction to seeing that improbable collision, the fire and the smoke, the tiny dots on the screen that were people, leaping to their deaths.
“Surreal,” she said.
“We were all so afraid, just trying to sort it out,” Whitney said. “We got to see it in real time. Your heart aches.”
Later in the day, when the scale of the catastrophe became clear, she said she felt compelled to act.
She started by calling Baker City churches.
And she phoned other people she knew.
Her goal was to gather supplies that people in New York City might need, or that might offer them some meager comfort in a terrible time.
“It was a channel for my frustration,” Whitney said. “I think a lot of people responded that way.”
Within a day, Whitney was watching about 30 volunteers sort through donated items at the Baker City Church of the Nazarene, stacking them into piles on tables.
There were gloves and clothes and toys to brighten a frightened child’s day.
She remembers talking with a man in New York City who was coordinating the donations that arrived from across America.
She recalls how gratified she was at the sheer volume of donations that Baker City and Baker County residents collected, and how shocked her New York City contact was when she told him what the population here is.
She had to repeat the figure twice.
“It was amazing,” Whitney said. “We came together. We were all just devastated. How can you have any petty squabbles with anyone when you see something like that? So many people wanted to volunteer.”
Two decades later, it’s that community spirit that helps Whitney balance the sadness of her memories of what she, along with so many millions of Americans, saw that day.
She wasn’t born when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
And although she remembers Jan. 28, 1986, the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Whitney said 9/11 will always be the day that stands out.
She was an adult that day, and a parent.
“I remember being fully aware that these were parents and moms and dads and aunts and uncles,” she said.
“When you’re a parent you understand better the devastation that’s happening before your eyes.”
Bill Mitchell, retired teacher
Sept. 11, 2001, was a Tuesday, and every Tuesday Bill Mitchell played basketball at 6 a.m. before heading to his classroom at Baker Middle School, where he taught social studies.
As the time for school approached, he headed to get his mail at the school office.
“It’s just as clear as if it was yesterday,” he said.
Dana Blankenship, who taught science at BMS, met Mitchell at the stairs.
“He said ‘It’s Pearl Harbor all over again. Turn your TV on.’ ”
Mitchell did, and watched the chaos in New York City, a place he’d visited several years before with a group of middle school students.
And on that day, a Tuesday ingrained in so many American memories, he would stand before multiple classes.
“I remember thinking the lesson plan for today has changed drastically. It became a question-and-answer day,” he said.
Mitchell remembers two reactions from his students. First, they were picking up — and absorbing — the anxiety of the adults around them.
Second, they wanted answers.
“Their need to want definitive answers of what’s happening and what were the consequences. And there were no answers,” Mitchell said.
He did have one truth to offer.
“I told them things are going to change,” he said.
He has not yet returned to New York City.
Johnson, now 32, was one of the seventh grade students in Mitchell’s classroom that morning.
He remembers watching news coverage of the attacks on TV before he left for school.
When he got to BMS, Johnson said students, rather than dividing into groups of friends as they normally did, were congregated in one large mass, all of them, he said, “talking about what we had seen.”
Johnson said Mitchell helped him, and his classmates, understand the historic nature of what had happened — and indeed, what was still happening as they sat in their desks.
“I think Mr. Mitchell really recognized the gravity of that event,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we, as students, understood the full magnitude of what was happening.”
Johnson said the sober expressions on the faces of his teachers and other adults was at least as compelling, in terms of the significance of that day, as anything else.
“To see a building collapse, that’s pretty startling,” he said.
Johnson chuckles as he admits that he has a “terrible memory.”
But he also understands that one reason his recollections aren’t as vivid as they might be is that the situation changed so rapidly that morning — first the views of the towers on fire, then their collapse.
He’s still grateful for Mitchell for helping students deal with events that were unprecedented in their lives.
“I think he put it in context for us,” Johnson said. “He realized this was a tremendous moment.”
Clarke, a Baker City jewelry store owner, was in an unusual, and troubling, situation on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
His father and mother, F.B. and Zona Clarke of Baker City, were in an airliner.
And in those anxious minutes, when it was not clear how many planes might have been hijacked, and from which airports, this seemed a precarious position indeed for worried relatives such as Clarke and his brother, Nelson, who also lives in Baker City.
Tabor Clarke was at home that morning when his wife, DeeDee, heard something on the radio about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers.
They turned on their TV.
“There it was,” Tabor said.
At that moment he didn’t know exactly where his parents were — or even whether they were on the ground in Illinois, where they had traveled to visit F.B. Clarke’s sister, or already airborne.
As it turned out, the latter was the case.
The Clarkes were en route from Chicago to St. Louis when the plane’s captain told passengers about what by then was believed to be a planned terrorist attack. The flight was diverted from St. Louis to Wichita, Kansas.
Back in Baker City, Tabor and Nelson learned about 10 a.m., from a phone call from their father, that their parents were safe on the ground.
Kerry McQuisten, Baker City mayor
McQuisten submitted her recollections by email:
“I was living near Seattle at the time. I remember my mom calling me and telling me to turn on the TV. It was hard to believe what I was seeing. I started flipping through all of the news channels that were live from around Asia, and nothing is censored there in terms of footage, so I saw some scenes that definitely were not captured on mainstream media here.
“I have friends who ended up traveling to be on the scene during cleanup, and search and rescue. One of them developed severe lifelong health issues from breathing whatever was in that dust. The loss of life and other damage to people extended far beyond what happened that morning, and continued for years afterward. The only bright spot was that for a little while, people everywhere came together to support each other, and remembered what America felt like.”
Kassien, now 43, who grew up in New York state about three hours north of New York City, was at a friend’s house in Corning, New York, and watching NBC’s “Today” morning show, when he saw video of the first tower in flames.
Initially, he said, the presumption was that this was an accident, not a terrorist attack.
But Kassien, who said he frequently visited New York City, continued to watch. And he remembers how somber Matt Lauer, the “Today” show host, looked as he interrupted the program, his hand to his earpiece, to tell viewers that a second plane had slammed into the other tower.
“Instantly my stomach dropped,” Kassien said.
He had two friends who worked in the North Tower.
One worked on the 82nd floor, about 10 stories below where the plane struck.
Kassien later learned that that friend had missed work that day because he had attended a party the night before and had a hangover.
His other friend, whose office was near the bottom of the North Tower, also was supposed to be at work that morning but his cab was caught in traffic.
Kassien said he started trying to call many of his friends and relatives who were supposed to be in Manhattan that day. Cell service was sketchy, and in many cases he wasn’t able to reach his loved ones.
He continued to watch TV coverage.
He watched the South Tower collapse, followed, 29 minutes later, by the North Tower.
“I was sitting in the kitchen of my friend’s house in complete and utter disbelief,” Kassien said.
A few days later he traveled to New York City.
Kassien remembers staring at a display of photographs of the missing, posted there by relatives desperate to know what happened to their loved ones.
He looked at those photographs and knew that, most likely, all those people had died.
“That day changed the landscape of the city forever, but it also scarred the city mentally,” Kassien said. “I can’t put into words how those people felt.”
Lien submitted her memories by email:
“My husband and I had only been home a few days from having our second child at the local St. Elizabeth Hospital. On the morning of 9/11, we were up early with baby Eli and my mom called to alert us to what was happening. Turning on the TV, I could not grasp the evil that would inspire the events unfolding before us. I was holding the most precious gift life can offer anyone — our brand new baby boy. I remember thinking that the world that I grew up in would never be the reality for my two young children. Holding my kids throughout that day, gave me immense peace that my family was safe and at the same time, immense fear that I may not be able to protect them in a world where events like this can happen on any given Tuesday.”
Mark Bennett, Baker County commissioner
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bennett was the county’s emergency management director and planning director.
He was at his ranch near Unity, getting ready to drive the 50 or so miles to his office at the Courthouse in Baker City, when he got a phone call from Grant Young, then the assistant planning director.
“The nation’s under attack,” Bennett recalls Young telling him.
In those first few confusing hours, before the geographic scale of the threat to the country was clear, Bennett said federal and state officials were trying to get in touch with all county emergency management directors.
At one point, he recalls, there was a call to “lock down” all airports, including a privately owned landing strip near Richland.
By mid-morning it was obvious that there was no significant risk to Baker County, Bennett said.
At that point his role became not so much official as that of a citizen, watching and pondering the situation like his friends and neighbors.
“I just remember the shock,” Bennett said.
Perkins submitted her memories by email to the Herald:
“The strongest memory of what our experience was on September 11, is the complete normalcy in which the day began. We lived far from town and our kids always got up early to be ready for the bus. I remember them finishing breakfast with our two youngest sitting on the couch with their coats on watching a little TV before it was time to go. It was tuned into the news. And then the unthinkable happened right before our eyes.
“My husband and I wondered if we should allow the kids to go to school (which we did). So unsure of what might happen, I went to the grocery store to pick up some extra things — just in case — and I remember the utter silence in the store and nervous glances between customers who were obviously worried and scared. Me, too.
“A couple of days later when things were in the midst of turmoil, I remember attending a football game in Unity, literally next to a cow pasture, and how everything was so peaceful. It was very hard to imagine the suffering happening on the other side of our country. Flags were everywhere, including in the backs of pickups and on cars in the parking lot.
“What seemed to stand out the most was the noise of the kids playing and parents cheering seemed far away as thoughts drifted, again to what else might happen.”