Memories of September 11, 2001: 20 years has proved that our lives will never be the same…

September 10, 2021
By Staff Report

On the evening of September 11, 2001, there were many types of reactions taking place in homes across the country, and around the world. Whether you were in New York City, in the middle of Iowa or in Honolulu, you felt what happened on that day all the way to your core. The silence of the skies, the rising tally of deaths that seemed like it would never end … and one by one, people put their flags outside their home – some whom had never flown one before.

Aside from the horrific images played on the television continuously, John Seelie’s last wish was granted when he visited the 9/11 Memorial in May of 2016. He passed away at the age of 94 in 2017.

The Pearl Harbor veteran was a resident of Englewood and for years would ride his bike from his home to Boca Grande to have coffee or enjoy lunch on the island with friends.

Seelie, a Cleveland, Ohio native, was a 19-year-old soldier stationed at Schofield Barracks on the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He not only fought at Pearl Harbor but also at the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II.

The trip to New York was funded by the Denis V. Cooper Wishes for Heroes Foundation, a non-profit organization in Sarasota that grants wishes for military heroes. A crowd of 55,000 people gathered at the plaza on that morning in May, and Seelie was escorted with an umbrella of military leaders as well as a motorcade of police. He arrived at the memorial draped in a World War II 48-star flag and wearing his Pearl Harbor survivor cap and custom shirt.

At exactly 9:59 a.m., the time the south tower collapsed, Seelie saluted for nine seconds. He later saluted for 11 seconds, in remembrance of the north tower. It’s believed he was the only known Pearl Harbor survivor to visit Ground Zero, tying together the worst two attacks on American soil.

“It was absolutely historic,” Cahill said. “It was wall to wall people. To see the man who stood outside hanger one – who was one of the first guys to shoot back and defend our country at the beginning of World War II – it was truly an honor and a privilege for people.”

Seelie had dinner that evening with a retired head of the Pentagon and the New York Chief of Police. The white and blue lei he wore at the ceremony was freeze dried and will become a permanent part of the 9/11 Memorial as well as an acrylic painting of Seelie.

Ellie Young was on her way to work when the news broke of the attack on Washington. All of a sudden, it hit her: Her daughter, Kathy, was in Washington D.C. And the Pentagon was one of the stops on her itinerary.

She quickly called her husband Bob to ask if that day, September 11, was the day Kathy was scheduled to be there. It was not. While that gave them some measure of relief, she recalled also reading that the itinerary was subject to change without notice.

Kathy, who was 17 at the time, was in Washington D.C. with 20 other teens from around Southwest Florida as part of Congressman Porter Goss’ “Congressional Classroom.” Ellie called Goss’ office and was told the group had been touring the Capitol when the plane had hit the Pentagon.

Kathy recalled the smoke rising over the trees as they came out of the security from which they had evacuated. She described the scene as calm, though, as they were taken to Goss’ Washington home where they stayed for several hours before being taken back to their hotel … right next door to the Pentagon.

Kathy was able to finally reach her parents by phone hours later, and the group’s trip was cut short. They took a bus home, as all flights had been grounded.

Since September 11, 2001 Kathy has joined the Navy, served in Afghanistan, has become a mother of of three and is now a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy JAC Corps. She lives in Alexandria, Va. with her children and husband, Lt. Col. Joseph Paradis, whom she met while serving in Afghanistan.

– Bob and Ellie Young

Boca Grande

When I boarded the 5:38 a.m. Metro-North train in New Canaan for Grand Central Station on September 11, 2001, it was still dark. As I walked the 20 blocks from Grand Central to my office at 23rd Street and Park Avenue, the day dawned cool, crisp and clear with a deep blue sky – a magnificent early autumn morning.  I had been buried in paperwork at my office for almost two hours when my assistant rapped on my door just before 9am and suggested I walk over to the window to see the fire burning in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

We were on the 19th floor of the 30-story office building at 11 Madison Avenue and had a clear line-of-sight to the twin towers, two miles south of our building. We could see fire raging in the interior of the North Tower, about three-fourths of the way up the building. News and police helicopters were swarming. Shortly after 9 a.m. there was a huge fireball in front of the South Tower. We thought two helicopters had crashed into each other and burst into flames, but later realized that we had seen the second plane hit the South Tower.

The initial news reports speculated that a private airplane had lost control and flown into the North Tower. But the fire was far too extensive to be the result of a small plane crash … and two accidents within 15 minutes seemed impossible. The consensus of my 40-odd co-workers in the office that morning was that massive firebombs must have been detonated in the interior of both towers. As we debated the source of the raging fires and whether or not they were being brought under control, we uttered a collective gasp as the South Tower collapsed just before 10 a.m. We had no idea the damage to the building was so catastrophic and were dumbstruck to see it come down. Less than 30 minutes later, we also saw the North Tower (the first to be hit) come down.

After the second tower was hit, we channel-surfed across the local NYC media outlets and major cable news networks to try to understand the chaos that we were witnessing through the floor-to-ceiling windows in our building. I was the senior executive in the office that morning and gathered all staff around the widescreen TV in our lobby soon after the second tower fell. Standing on the receptionist’s desk, I told our people that we had witnessed an historic tragedy, that we didn’t yet have any idea who was responsible, and that we didn’t know whether the attacks were over or whether there were more to come. Believing that more attacks were still possible, I said that I felt much safer in our office building than at any major NYC transportation hub like Grand Central or Penn Station, which would be the likely targets of any new attack. I acknowledged that anyone who had a family member or close friend in one of the towers might need to go, but strongly encouraged everyone else to hunker down in the office for several more hours until we were confident there would be no more attacks.

Soon after 11 a.m., some staff who had been working at client locations downtown near the Trade Towers began to reach the office. Even after their two mile walk to our office, they were still covered with gray dust from head to toe and looked like zombies. The stories they shared about the pandemonium around the Trade Towers and people jumping to certain death from upper floors were shocking and devastating.

Around 2 p.m., local TV advised that trains had begun departures from Grand Central and Penn Station. Regular schedules were cancelled. Each train was filled to capacity, made all station stops from NYC to the end of its respective line, then returned empty and repeated the process.

At 4:30 p.m. I was last to leave our office. As I walked the mile back up Park Avenue South to Grand Central Station, the scene was surreal. The country’s largest and most vibrant city was completely empty. Random pages of newspapers were blowing across vacant city streets. I did not see another person or moving vehicle on my 15-minute walk. The trains were eerily quiet on the ride back to Connecticut.

I wasn’t prepared for the gut punch I felt when I stepped off the train at New Canaan Station … and surveyed the near-empty parking lot with only 15-20 cars … and said a silent prayer for the those who had driven them to the train station that morning.

Tom Cross

Island resident

“I remember being at Venice Hospital with Mom the day after she got her pacemaker. We were glancing at the news and saw the video of the first plane hit the tower and we didn’t believe it … thought it was a movie! Then the second plane hit. Then the panic and the pictures of people running. Very surreal.

We immediately thought of our friend Ruth, who worked in a building that was near to the Towers and called her. It took three calls to reach her. She was breathless and walking fast, being directed away from the Towers. She said the dust was bad and she was having trouble breathing and talking. We let her go so she could help some other people and then she promised to call us when she was settled and knew what was going on. She called back in a few hours after she made it to her apartment, and we were all in shock about what just happened. Trying to figure out how this could happen.

– Robin Melvin, shop owner and island resident

I thought at first it was a movie/film. Continuing to watch I suddenly realized that what I’m watching is real and happening! You couldn’t walk away or change channels. As the situation developed, we were watching the buildings and those involved in helping or fleeing.

Then I heard that because of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, DC was on total shutdown. My mind then went to thinking about my daughter who works in DC. Is she OK? Is she in harm’s way? Finally got her on the phone. She was OK! Her building is near the Smithsonian. She then continued telling me how she got back to her apt. Normally uses the subway to and from her job. Today it was on shutdown. She gets on /off near the Pentagon! She and some fellow workers started walking home together. And, walked. She told me about climbing a fence in a skirt and high heel shoes. This was a short cut through a golf course to home.

Was thrilled to know she was safe. Prayers for those lost. Prayers for those grieving.

The day after my birthday was not a good one that year.

– Len Tatko

Island photographer and

former island resident

I was in Fawcett Memorial Hospital that morning as a patient with chronic kidney stones when I heard about the first tower.  I turned on the TV to watch the events unfold. I was later released and went home to see the second tower fall.

– Milton Bell

Former (generational) island

resident

I was teaching in a school on the Jersey shore, an hour north of Atlantic City, NJ. I walked into the media room to make some copies as a TV was broadcasting the latest news. A young new teacher walked in with me to the silent room of onlookers. She immediately dropped her belongings, gasped and ran out of the room. I later learned her father worked in the first tower. I went home that to day to see the large plume of smoke in the sky and to wait for word from family working in the city.

Lynn Erb

Boca Beacon employee

I was at work in Greenwich, CT and watched the towers burning from Greenwich Point and on television.

– John Cooke

Former Boca Grande resident