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Tampa Bay residents remember that day, 20 years ago

Some were in New York, others watched horrified from across the country.
Published Sep. 9
Updated Sep. 10

The Tampa Bay Times asked its readers to reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Here are some of their submissions, which have been edited for clarity and brevity.

At sea when the word came

I was a co-chief scientist on a small (110-foot) research vessel way out on the west Florida shelf, 250 miles from St. Petersburg, conducting a geophysical survey. We had a scientific crew consisting of about nine graduate students.

Ship-to-shore communication back then was by shortwave radio. We got a message that the World Trade Towers had been struck by commercial aircraft and that the buildings had fallen over. That was all we knew for many hours.

We were instructed to come back into port ASAP. As we got closer to shore, we picked up a weak TV signal and watched with horrified amazement what had actually happened, including that the buildings had collapsed, not fallen over, as well as all the horror of people jumping out of buildings.

On the way in, the research vessel’s captain was told that the Coast Guard had closed off Tampa Bay to all incoming vessel traffic. But we got permission to dock back in St. Pete. We arrived the next day, offloaded the vessel and went home, all still in shock.

Al Hine, Seminole

Chasing the news

I was a working photojournalist for Newsday at the time of 9/11. I was doing advance pictures of candidates for the primary election. When it was confirmed, I went directly to Graboski airport, home of the Air Force Reserve with whom I had a relationship. Did not get on the base. I ended up in the bunker with Suffolk County officials.

Next day, I was in the city at the morgue. I can never get the smell of the air out of my memory.

John H. Cornell Jr., Spring Hill

‘How are they going to fix that?’

I was living in New York City, where I am from, and working across the street from the trades, as an aviation attorney with Holland and Knight. When I came up from the subway that morning, I saw the north tower on fire. It never crossed my mind that it had been hit by an aircraft. All I could think about was “How are they going to fix that?” As I walked down the block and out of harm’s way (or so I thought), the south tower was hit.

Wendy Pardew, St. Petersburg

A child’s perspective

I was 12 years old on 9/11, going to school on the Upper West Side. I was in science class. My teacher Ms. Bell, acknowledging the stress permeating the hallways, said, “I don’t care if they don’t want me to tell you all, because you’re all going to find out, a plane just hit the WTC.” The first reaction out of all the kids, boys especially, was to treat it like a joke, “Which idiot flew a plane into the twin towers!?”

It became apparent quickly that it wasn’t a joke.

I think I spoke to my mother on the phone, and she said she was coming. I learned soon after that she hadn’t spoken to my father, who worked in the financial district. She was no doubt trying her best to hold it together and come get her two sons.

I remember one kid sobbing…his dad was dead, he said. A tower had collapsed…”get the f--- out of here, they didn’t collapse…” I bumped into my friend Maria. She hugged me and told me her brother had died. (It turns out that he did die, and I think that other kid also lost his father.) Those two interactions I remember clearly. Eventually, my mom turned up. She had had to walk through Central Park to get to us. And we were going to have to walk back to get home.

I’ll never forget the snipers on every bridge in Central Park. There were what looked like tanks rolling through where the crosstown bus that took me to school and home usually drove. We finally got to the East Side.

My mom took us straight to the church on the way home. We sat a few pews behind a man covered in dust and blood. He looked like my dad. I was worried. My mom still hadn’t heard, phone lines were jammed. We’re not particularly religious, but we bowed our heads and prayed, needing something to turn to. Eventually, my dad got through to us. He was coming home.

Today, I work for Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, a Florida based nonprofit whose mission is “repairing homes, revitalizing communities, rebuilding lives.” I know that some part of my experience on 9/11 led me to do this work.

Justin Coles, St. Petersburg

Dealing with trauma years later

As a first responder who was there that day, I felt emotions that didn’t settle in until years later.

The initial months, all those working at the sites and in support roles were too focused on the tasks at hand to take time to grieve and react.

As we live further and further from the day, I’m amazed how lackadaisical our country has become in underestimating our enemies. Our delegates now were mostly teens or pre-teens when this occurred. Politicians now mostly react around the anniversary date, then move back into normal routines. They forget the sacrifices of so many from the day of the attack through the wars and conflicts.

These are my thoughts, but they resound with the hundreds I served with that day and in the years that followed.

Gary Rosenfeld, Ruskin

A challenge coin representing three agencies that came to the rescue on Sept. 11, 2001.
A challenge coin representing three agencies that came to the rescue on Sept. 11, 2001. [ Courtesy Gary Rosenfeld ]

Finding shelter and safety

I sat at LaGuardia Airport on a bright, sunny morning, waiting for my flight to Tampa. A trip to New York Fashion Week was interrupted when my precious godson, Andrew, had been lost to leukemia. At 9 a.m., I had no idea that I would not reach his funeral, would not have a chance to mourn his life, because thousands of other lives were about to be lost, and the city would come to an eerie standstill.

There was no television at my departure gate, so I was surprised when airline representatives asked all passengers to walk to the ticket counters. Another announcement came a short while later: LaGuardia was being evacuated.

An elderly man from my flight asked if he might use my cell phone to call his daughter. Strangely, my phone had stopped working. As we spoke, a burly security guard walked up and demanded we leave the airport immediately. I remember staring at her blankly and asking, “Where shall we go?”

Her expression softened for a second, and she suggested a Holiday Inn across the street.

A line of travelers dragged carry-on bags across a six-lane highway that was devoid of noise or traffic. The scene was surreal — like being in a strange sci-fi movie. Yet the deathly quiet outside was in marked contrast to the chaos inside the hotel lobby. No rooms were available, but the manager grabbed a microphone and graciously assured crowds lining the walls, floors and furniture that everyone would be given a pillow and a blanket for the night.

I settled on a couch in the bar and stared at the people around me: pale faces, wide eyes. If they spoke at all, it was in hushed tones, and most were weeping. While I’d heard mutterings that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, it wasn’t until I turned my attention to a big-screen TV that I saw the full horror unfold, over and over again.

I thought of my children — one in Nashville and one in Kalamazoo — and decided those cities would be safe. I thought of my brother-in-law, who had an office at the Pentagon.

Several times, I ventured from my seat to a pay phone by the hotel elevators. Quarters and dimes spilled from the coin return: a testament to countless attempts to contact the world outside New York City.

By late afternoon, I finally reached my husband’s office. His secretary was afraid to transfer the call and risk disconnecting me, so she ran to find him. It helped to hear his voice, to let him know that I was fine. But it didn’t solve the problem of escaping from a city under siege, with all its transportation systems shut down.

Sitting back in the hotel bar, I began to eavesdrop on a conversation between three co-workers. They had just heard that the subway was running on a limited route and planned to go back into the city. I introduced myself as a newspaper reporter from Florida and politely inquired if I could join them.

If I could find my way to my photographer’s home near Union Square, I’d feel safer. They paid a limousine parked outside the hotel to drive us to the nearest subway station.

The trip turned terrifying once we boarded the train: young men resembling the cast of Deliverance sat across from us. Evidently, they didn’t see people dressed in business attire/carrying briefcases very often and studied us, mouths agape, for the entire ride. I turned my wedding rings around, avoided eye contact and prayed that I’d live long enough to get off the train. Even more frightening than the train’s occupants were the scenes framed by its windows. Billowing plumes of smoke from the twin towers spiraled skyward, though we could smell the fire even when we couldn’t see it.

When we reached Union Station, an exceedingly kind woman boarded a bus with me and pushed me out at a stop near my photographer’s home. I still regret not thanking her properly, with flowers, a letter, hell — a trip to Disney World. In my stunned state, I’m not sure I even asked for her name, but I remember her face to this day and remain indebted.

When I reached my friend’s apartment, I grabbed the first bottle of beer I saw and let my knees buckle, as I slid into a chair.

I awoke the next morning to a shockingly quiet city: Roads were barricaded, traffic stopped and pedestrians absent. The silence was deafening.

My photographer friend wanted to get closer to ground zero, so we walked the deserted streets until our throats began burning from particles in the air. Stopping at tiny Korean grocers (the only stores open) to buy water, we met countless police, fire and rescue people. They nodded and smiled at us, and in a city once known for its rudeness, I felt an overwhelming connection to its residents that day...a sense of humanity amid the horror. Each of us was grateful to be alive and perhaps, to be able to help.

Trucks loaded with tired, dusty rescue workers ending their shifts drove past police barricades, and I watched in amazement as people on the street burst into applause. I still cry when I think of it.

Renee Garrison, Hillsborough County

The flight school

I moved to Florida a few years later from Chicago and drove by the pilot school where one or more of the terrorists took flying lessons down near Caspersen Beach. What a dichotomy, knowing what happened but seeing a peaceful-looking airstrip.

Dave Hinz, Clearwater

Flying into N.Y. that day

Destiny had it that on Sept. 11, 2001, my wife Kathy and I traveled by air to LaGuardia Airport from Tampa, landing at approximately 8:45 a.m. This was supposed to be a joyful trip to see family and celebrate the coming weekend on Long Island.

After landing, we were picked up by relatives and proceeded to our destination. Looking out the back window of the car, we could see huge clouds of smoke rising in the sky from Manhattan.

Frank Arno, Hudson

Ready for duty

I was the VA director at a local college, and I was talking to a Kosovo veteran, who asked me if he could walk perimeter guard duty with his rifle around our building on this tragic day. I said that I did not believe our campus would be attacked and thanked him for his offer. I admired this veteran and all veterans for offering help.

Phil Gotner, Tampa

‘This means war’

We saw the first tower burning and then live, not a repeat, the plane hitting the second tower. One of the guys said: “This means war.” It was strange not seeing or hearing any planes in the sky in the days that followed.

My husband, who was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force for five years, was finding it hard to sleep. He kept imagining flying a plane directly into that building.

Barb Masson, Clearwater

Paint and purpose

I was dressing to go to a golf game. The TV was on, and everything changed. I called our Israeli-born daughter-in-law who encouraged me to play golf. “That’s what they want to do, to stop us from living our lives.” I went, and halfheartedly hit the ball as our group commiserated about the event. As soon as I got home, I started to paint.

The Sept. 11, 2001, paintings were created within the first days after the attacks. They were an outcome of my emotional reaction to the terror of terrorism, the entrapment of an entire population and the massive crushing of lives. I spent a great deal of time cutting and tearing up pictures of people, furniture and other objects to represent the reality of the attacks. The dark black gridwork represents the imprisonment of people in the WTC and the Pentagon. In each of the other two pictures, there is a candle, a symbol of light and hope for the future.

To see these paintings, go to Click on artists, and then on B for Bregman, my professional name.

Ann Bregman Rascoe, St. Petersburg

One of Ann Bregman Rascoe's paintings inspired by Sept. 11.
One of Ann Bregman Rascoe's paintings inspired by Sept. 11. [ Courtesy of Ann Bregman Rascoe ]

First, planes, then the mail

I arrived at my USGS office in the old Studebaker building just in time to see my colleagues clustered around a TV they had placed in the hall. I joined the group and was told what had happened. We were watching smoke rise from the first tower. Thinking it was an accident, I remembered back when a plane accidently crashed into the Empire State Building. I was about to tell that story when we all witnessed the second plane crash into the second tower. This clearly was no accident.

I was standing next to microbiologist Christina Kellogg. I remember turning to her saying, “I wonder if there is anthrax?” Why did I say that? Chris was part of our USGS team formed to investigate microbes, and other toxins, coming across the Atlantic in dust clouds from North Africa. I was nervous. I had just read Biohazard, the book by Russian defector Ken Alibek. Alibek’s book claims tons of anthrax had been manufactured during the Cold War. Fortunately, our group never found anthrax.

However, one week after 9/11, letters containing anthrax powder killed five Americans, and anthrax letters were received by U.S. senators. Soon, all mail destined for Washington, D.C. was being radiated to neutralize any anthrax they might contain. It was a scary time.

Eugene Shinn, St. Petersburg

An unsettling connection

Watching the news coverage the next morning, I saw a familiar sight, which quickly caught my attention. A police officer was interviewing the owner of the oceanfront Panther Motel in Deerfield Beach. I stared because I recognized the owner and the apartment my husband and I had stayed in during a visit just weeks earlier in the summer.

It was later confirmed that the hijacker of one of the 9/11 planes and a couple of other men had stayed there. The whole thing began to feel eerie and more personal.

Elaine Ticotin, Spring Hill

Escaping Manhattan

I was working as a consultant and was at an investment firm on 57th Street and 5th Avenue, with a clear view of the twin towers.

When the second plane hit, management walked around and told their employees that they could leave work if they wanted to. A little later, tower one came crashing down, and we were all told to evacuate. Then the second tower came down. I called my wife and told her that I was on my way to the railroad station to catch the train home to Long Island. I then realized that I left my cell phone in the car, so I could not communicate with her once I left the office.

As I was walking to the station, I was told that all railroad and subway service was suspended. I immediately turned around and headed up to the 59th Street Bridge, to walk over to Queens and then walk down to the parkway, to see if I could find a ride.

I had never seen New Yorkers so quiet. The only noises we heard were the fire engines, ambulances and some military trucks coming into Manhattan. Walking across the bridge was the worst feeling in my gut I had ever felt. Looking downtown, all you could see was the smoke from the towers.

When I got over the bridge, I spotted a truck from a nursery near my house and asked the driver if he could give me a ride. Since his cab was full, he told me to jump in the back. By the time we were able to start moving due to the terrible traffic, about 10 of us were standing there.

He dropped me off at the exit for the Long Island Expressway, and I walked to the office where my wife worked. When I got to the lobby, the security guard saw me and said that my wife was a nervous wreck, waiting to hear from me. I walked into the credit union and one of the employees screamed out, telling my wife that I was there. She came running over and gave me the biggest hug, and she was shaking and crying.

We left the office shortly after that, and I was pretty okay until I got home and my daughter, who was a senior in high school, came running out of the house and was crying terribly and gave me a big hug. That is when I lost it and realized how lucky I was.

Chuck O’Donnell, Clearwater