Angie Klaassen was helping students pick out books in the Robidoux Middle School library when she noticed something on the television screen. Her eyes were drawn to breaking news banners and images of smoke pouring from the country’s financial center, where her brother happened to work.
“I freaked out,” she said. “I knew he was right down in that area. At that point, we had no idea what was going on or what was happening.”
She would find out, along with the rest of the school, the city, the country and the world. Few events in history leave such an imprint that those who are old enough remember exactly what they were doing and how their own lives unfolded in a new, unexpected trajectory.
Twenty years later, 9/11 has become part of our collective history, but on a personal level, it isn’t strictly confined to the past. The effects were felt in ways large and small, even in a place like St. Joseph that seems so far removed from an act of mass terror.
On 9/11, the world was wired, but information wasn’t quite instantaneous. There was no Facebook and Twitter. Klaassen got the principal to watch her students as she stood outside the school on St. Joseph Avenue, frantically trying to contact a brother who worked 1,200 miles away near the World Trade Center.
She later learned that he was in a conference room when he saw the first plane strike the tower across the street.
“They were evacuating when, for some miraculous reason, our phones connected and I was able to talk to him,” she said. “It was a tremendous relief.”
Her brother, an investment specialist for Goldman Sachs, was uninjured but deeply impacted by the experience. He eventually moved to Seattle.
“It shook him to the core,” Klaassen said. “He just had to leave.”
Dan Benz also found himself at a loss for information immediately after the attacks. A tank company commander in the Marine Corps, he had finished up exercises in California and waited two or three days without TV or newspapers before flying back to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
As the enormity of 9/11 dawned on him, Benz started to read. He didn’t choose any book. He picked up a copy of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” a series of vignettes on the Soviet military experience in Afghanistan.
“It became clear that we were going to do something,” said Benz, now a math teacher at Benton High School. “We started studying the Soviet war in Afghanistan, trying to learn their tactics.”
In the next decade, he would be deployed once to Afghanistan and three times to Iraq, including one tour during the heat of the insurgency. He spent a year as an adviser to the Iraqi Army, something he calls “one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
“You have to understand that back then what peoples’ perceptions were,” he said. “The mindset was, ‘OK, if we have to fight them over there, we don’t have to fight them over here.’ And yet, how do you really prove if that was effective or not? It’s hard to say.”
THE AIRPORT CHAOS
Kristy Schopf loved working at Kansas City International Airport, with its daily buzz of travelers heading to destinations across the country. In 2001, the Lafayette High School graduate was responsible for driving the jetway that connects the terminal to the plane for Vanguard Airlines.
Nothing prepared her for what she saw at KCI after all commercial flights were grounded.
“It was insanity,” she said. “People were stranded. All the rental cars were rented out. I remember there was a mom stranded with her baby. They were sleeping on the airport floor.”
THE AID WORKER
In New York City, everything about Ground Zero overwhelmed Karla Duncan when she arrived as an aid worker just four days after the attacks. It was Sept. 15, her 41st birthday.
“It really took in all your senses,” said Duncan, at that time the director of emergency services for the American Red Cross in St. Joseph. “You could smell the fire. You could hear that the sky over New York City was full of planes and helicopters, military flights guarding the city. And just seeing the hundreds and hundreds of rescuers who were there, many with dogs, hoping that it was a rescue mission.”
Duncan had worked relief operations before, natural disasters like the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California. This was her first mass-casualty event. In providing meals to rescue workers, she learned that you didn’t serve anything red or anything with bones. It was too painful for those sifting through the rubble for human remains.
It’s easy to look back on those days and see the big historical actors, like President George W. Bush with a bullhorn on the Ground Zero rubble. Duncan recalls the tragedy on a more anonymous level.
“I had people walk up to me showing me posters of their family members that they were looking for, saying ‘Have you seen them?’” Duncan said. “They were just so desperate.”
There was dust from the towers everywhere, as if a volcano had erupted. Sometimes New Yorkers would write messages in the dust, usually things like “God Bless the USA.” For Duncan, one hand-written message was especially poignant.
It said, “Dad, I was here. I won’t stop looking. I love you.”
Duncan stayed in New York until Oct. 10. Looking back, she remembers being part of a nation that came together when confronted. It’s a spirit she would like to recapture.
“We weren’t Democrat or Republican. We weren’t Black or white. We weren’t Christian or Jewish,” said Duncan, who still works for the Red Cross. “We were Americans. I wish we could just remember that. We are so divided now.”
Schopf took a job at another airline after Vanguard filed for bankruptcy. That other airline also went out of business, so she went back to school and now owns her own salon and spa in Kansas City.
“I wanted to work for the airlines forever,” she said. “It changed everything.”
Benz never stopped trying to learn about 9/11 and what could happen next. He figures he’s in the minority of St. Joseph residents who took the time to read the entire 9/11 Commission report. Like many Americans, he’s trying to digest the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power on the 20-year anniversary of the attacks.
“It’s troubling that a year ago most people didn’t know a lot about Afghanistan,” he said. “There was just a lot of indifference among Americans on what was happening. All of a sudden, we’ve got Afghanistan experts all around us.”
As she walks the halls at Truman Middle School, where she now works, Klaassen is amazed to encounter students who have no first-hand recollection of 9/11. She no longer teaches English but instead works as a behavior interventionist who specializes in students who experience trauma. She said the brain can shut down and go into survival mode if someone endures a traumatic event.
She knows that her brother, who lost friends when the towers collapsed, may have experienced something like that. Asked if she would have taken this career path without 9/11, she said she isn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It definitely impacted him in ways that you would have never imagined. I know it has given me a totally different perspective in what I do.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, then-19-year-old Joseph Marmaud turned on the TV just in time to see the second plane crash into the South Tower, where his godmother, Donna Wilson, worked.
“I realized that Aunt Donna was in the buildings,” Joseph said. “I kept calling my parents like, ‘Do you guys realize that?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we know, but everything’s going to be fine.’ Then everything started collapsing.”
Joseph grew up in Brooklyn, New York, which his sister, Jessica Jones, doesn’t remember because by the time she was 3, the family packed into a station wagon and moved 1,000 miles to St. Joseph. People came out to visit, including Donna — their mother’s best friend.
“We called her Aunt Donna,” Joseph said. “She wasn’t Donna or Ms. Wilson, she was just Aunt Donna. It was just like they were family. They weren’t just friends.”
Donna wasn’t married and didn’t have children of her own, so she spoiled Joseph and Jessica, who described her as giving, loving and outgoing.
“If I wanted something and my parents wouldn’t get it, she got it for me,” Joseph said. “It didn’t matter how much it cost.”
Donna was vice president of Aon, an insurance company, which operated out of multiple floors in the World Trade Center. On that day in 2001, people said she actually made it to the ground floor before the towers collapsed.
Jessica was 12 at the time, and much of that day didn’t register.
“(My dad or Joseph) turned to me and said, ‘Hey, you know Aunt Donna worked in the South Tower, and we can’t find her.’ But nothing ever hit me,” Jessica said. “I was like, ‘Oh, she’s going to have quite a story to tell when she calls later.’ It never clicked that she’s not coming home.”
For the rest of the family, realization began to sink in. Other friends and family members called to let them know they were OK. But they never heard from Donna.
“Once the North Tower fell, I had this feeling that she didn’t make it out,” Joseph said. “Because at that point, of course, you didn’t know how many people were in the building still. But you’re like, the odds are not good if you haven’t heard from them yet.”
It wasn’t until six months later that her body was recovered from the rubble and identified.
“There’s so many that’s not accounted for, so I’m just thankful that we got that closure because there’s always that ‘what if,’” Jessica said.
But it really didn’t sink in for Jessica until she visited the memorial in 2010 with her husband, parents and Donna’s sister. They were taken to a special room for family members of victims, and the walls were covered with tributes.
“I was looking at the construction,” Jessica said. “We were maybe on the seventh or eighth floor, so we weren’t that high up. But I was like, ‘I should be in her office looking out the window right now. I shouldn’t be here.’ I think that’s kind of when it hit me the most. Wow, this is real, like seeing that, that really happened.”
Joseph calls September the worst month of the year. The anniversary brings forth memories and emotions that are usually tucked away.
“For a lot of people, you’re watching history on TV, but I’m watching basically my relative die over and over again,” Joseph said.
But they try to focus on the positive. Joseph and Jessica like to read stories of the people who weren’t in the towers, because of lucky circumstances — a doctor’s appointment or a traffic jam.
And both talk about Donna to keep her memory alive.
“I tell my kids about her all the time,” Jessica said. “My oldest shares a middle name with her and she knows that. She’s proud of the fact.”
In favor of a new way of public engagement, certain advisory panels have come to a halt on what to do about St. Joseph school buildings and classwork.
Last month, the Board of Education embraced a plan by consultants Rod Wright and Don Schlomann. They represent Creative Entourage LLC, a St. Louis firm, retained for roughly $100,000 by the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce and Mosaic Life Care. Superintendent Doug Van Zyl publicly invited for people to join the process on Thursday.
Board President Tami Pasley pledged constituents will lead public meetings set up by Creative Entourage. What exactly will be talked about, and the name of the group, are to be determined.
The district’s governing body voted 6-1 in favor on Aug. 23, with board member Kenneth Reeder voting “no.”
“We need to detach from the study immediately,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, to stop it now before it goes any further.”
Pasley said the process will be open to everyone in the district.
“The board is going to step back and the administration is going to step back,” Pasley said. “Because we’ve heard from the community, time and time again, that ‘We don’t trust the board. We don’t trust the administration.’ So now we have an opportunity for a third party to come in and, hopefully, build some consensus and move our school district in the right direction.”
The goal is to get things going by the first week of October, but no exact dates have been set.
“We leave these big-picture decisions up to the community group,” Wright said.
Reeder, elected in April, objects to what has been done on at least two points:
1. The school district is not paying Creative Entourage. Reeder said that is because Wright and Schlomann are direct hires. No open bid took place.
According to Gabe Edgar, when the board spends money, it can do so up to a $50,000 limit. Beyond that, by rule, it has to seek out sealed bids from competing service providers or merchants. Edgar, assistant superintendent, leads all district finances.
Reeder, citing how Creative Entourage has been hired at $100,000 without a bid, said the $50,000 rule has been broken, at least in spirit.
2. A new community engagement process is unnecessary, Reeder said, because the Facilities Planning and Academics committees are always open to the public. But now, those committees are shut down. There are fewer chances to engage elected leaders in an official setting.
In truth, Reeder argued, the public will not direct this process; it will be in the hands of the consultants and their employer. The outcome will be “predetermined.”
“I need to speak up now,” he said. “And I’m already building a coalition. It was at the end of a four-hour meeting (on Aug. 23). They brought this forward, free money and hocus pocus. And, you know, they can do a real sales pitch on you at the end of a four-hour meeting. So this is wrong, the way they went about it.”
Pasley referenced the 6-1 vote in favor as evidence the idea has broad support. Since Aug. 23, she and Reeder have been the only board members to speak about the matter.
“This was an offer free of charge to the district to do some amazing work and to hopefully unite the community behind a vision for the school district,” she said. “And you know, as far as I’m concerned, there’s not another board member other than Mr. Reeder who has a problem with how this came about and/or how it’s going to work.”
For his part, consultant Wright offered assurances that in the job of organizing the Creative Entourage panel, he and Schlomann report to Van Zyl and no one else.
“I’ve done this kind of work for a long time,” he said. “And you know, I, our company policy is, we work through the superintendent of schools. That’s our boss. And I think that’s really an important thing for people to understand about this process.”