After the Twin Towers collapsed — mangled steel cascading down, clouds of dust billowing across Lower Manhattan — a business card fluttered onto the 17th-floor window sill outside Peter Wells’ apartment.
He opened the window, pulled the card in, blew the dust off.
“It was a guy who didn’t make it,” Wells recalls now, 20 years later. “He was at work that day.”
The Denver resident still has the card, a tangible token of the morning he was jolted awake in his bed two blocks from the World Trade Center by the opening salvo of what would become the deadliest terror attacks ever carried out on American soil.
A wide-body airliner hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists slammed into several high floors of the north tower, setting off a massive blast seen and heard for miles. Wells, 60, is still haunted by what he witnessed while standing on his building’s rooftop on a day that would end with nearly 3,000 people dead at three sites.
His visceral memories are part of Americans’ collective experience of a tragedy that is slowly fading from the national consciousness as the years, and now decades, tick by.
Each anniversary sees a subtle shift, with a growing share of the population too young to remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, firsthand. Family members of several victims from Colorado who award scholarships in their honor each year now select between high school students all born after the attacks — teens who learned about it as a defining episode in modern American history, but didn’t experience it.
Craig Woodall, the principal of Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, thinks about what it means for a day so seared into his memory to be passing slowly into a historical frame. His older brother, Brent, then 31, was killed in the World Trade Center, where he worked as an equities trader in the south tower.
“People forget the immensity of the disaster — I know I do,” said Woodall, now 48. He will be reminded anew of the hugeness of the site, and of the horror that played out there, when he attends Saturday’s annual commemoration ceremony on the memorial plaza in New York City with one of his daughters.
He appreciates that a major milestone will bring more attention this year.
“It being the 20th year is not necessarily significant to me over the 19th or the second — because it’s still the anniversary of the day that my brother died,” Woodall said. “But it holds greater significance, when you hit numbers like this, to the rest of the country.”
Colorado was touched by tragedy at nearly every step of what unfolded. More than two dozen people who died had documented Colorado ties: They were aboard the hijacked planes that hit each of the towers and they were at work inside both buildings. They died on a third plane that hit the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., as well as inside it.
On United Airlines Flight 93, which investigators concluded was headed for the White House or the U.S. Capitol, the captain was Jason M. Dahl, a flight instructor who lived in Jefferson County. After hijackers took control about 46 minutes into the flight, passengers, who learned in phone conversations about what had happened in New York, rushed the cabin. The plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all aboard.
In the days and weeks that followed that day, dozens of Colorado first responders traveled to ground zero in New York, digging through rubble initially to find survivors and then, aided by dogs, to recover human remains.
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Three months after 9/11, when Deborah Dahl’s days were still heavy with the fresh grief of losing her brother-in-law in the attacks, she witnessed the birth of a granddaughter.
“They handed her to me and said she weighed 9-11,” Dahl, 71, said, and paused. “I swear, it was like the hand of God touching me on the shoulder and saying, ‘You cannot be so busy grieving that you miss all the gifts I’ve given you, and I’ve given you many.’ I believe it was no coincidence.”
Now, that granddaughter will soon turn 20, and as time has passed, Dahl’s continuing grief has morphed into something less sharp, but always present.
“It’s amazing that for many, many people now, this is just history,” she said. “It doesn’t even seem like that long ago. Twenty years is a long time. But because it’s a part of our lives, it will never feel like history to us.”
Her brother-in-law, Jason Dahl, 43, lived in Ken Caryl and was working as a flight instructor for United when he chose to pilot Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco on Sept. 11 — he had to fly occasionally to keep his pilot’s license active. His widow, Sandy, spoke often about him and was a vocal advocate for honoring the heroism of those aboard Flight 93 until she died in 2012.
Deborah Dahl and her husband, Lowell Dahl, 74, who live near Austin, Texas, drove to the site of the Pennsylvania crash to mark the anniversary this week, a ritual they’ve repeated every five years since the attacks.
“I think about him just about every day,” Lowell Dahl said of his brother, adding later, “I’m worried that this will be a footnote in a textbook somewhere and over time people will just forget about it.”
The nation has already changed, Deborah Dahl said. The sense of national unity that followed 9/11 has disintegrated.
“After 9/11, I don’t care who you are, strangers on the street cared for one another,” she said. “It really united, and it’s shocking to us that 20 years later that is completely gone.”
On a personal scale, Jason’s death shifted the way the couple approached life, she said. They made plans to retire earlier than they likely would have, she said, so they could enjoy their time together. They reconnected with family members.
“We decided (after 9/11) we were not going to let life just slip us by,” she said.
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Sept. 11 does feel like history now to Peter Wells — horrific history that he watched unfold from his close vantage point in New York, just two blocks away.
He compared that day to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into World War II. He considers himself a student of that war, and he grew up hearing his parents talk about what it felt like to be alive in 1941 and to live through that national shock, long before live TV or the Internet.
Only after living through 9/11, he said, could he truly imagine what that was like.
“Unless you’re there… unless you were alive, it’s just one of the things that you can’t impart how dramatic it really was for the world, for individuals — and nothing can really prepare you,” Wells said.
A day after witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center, Wells, then 40, chronicled what he saw, heard and felt in a detailed account that he sent by email to friends and family, many of whom had reached out to him. That email and others he wrote in the ensuing months spread widely, and he credits talking about what he saw with helping him to process its effect on him.
After the first plane’s impact woke him, he wrote in 2001, he stood atop his old 18-story building, unsure what exactly was happening. Building debris and body parts were on the roof. As he looked up at the smoke plume rising from the north tower, he heard another Boeing 767 approach low — and then watched it burst into the south tower.
He sought cover as shards of glass flew toward him.
Later, Wells watched as people who were trapped above the north tower’s impact point, facing a growing inferno, jumped to their deaths. He was back inside packing a bag when the first collapse shook the ground and sent a thick cloud of smoke and dust racing past his window.
Hours later, he trudged through several inches of dust and debris on the streets to evacuate Lower Manhattan, crossing the Hudson River to New Jersey on a large tugboat.
The Denver native had moved to New York City in 1999 for his job with Cisco, a technology company. After 9/11, he spent four months living with his sister’s family in New Jersey until residents were allowed back into his building.
But he wasn’t long for New York, which was deeply changed by 9/11. He sought a job transfer to Denver, moving back in early 2003, and he said what he experienced had bred a desire to return home.
Wells views the fading memory of 9/11 as part of a historical cycle that helps people cope. Younger generations may face their own shock, he said.
“Historically, we look at the wars that we’ve gone through, we look at the sudden JFK assassination — something will happen in their lifetime that will knock them for a loop,” he said. “And then I think they can understand what 9/11 was all about.”
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The plane that Wells saw strike the south tower — the morning’s second impact — carried Kathryn Yancey LaBorie. The lead flight attendant on United Flight 175, assigned to first class that morning for the long haul between Boston and Los Angeles, was among 65 people on board.
That moment ended 44 years of a life that had taken LaBorie through Colorado as she developed a love for air travel.
“It doesn’t seem like 20 years at all,” said her father, Gene Yancey, who lives in Colorado Springs. “It’s still very raw in our minds and hearts. We miss her so much. It just seems like it was a couple years, if that, since she was taken from us.”
Kathy’s mother, Flo, grew emotional remembering that day in a recent interview.
“I think of it all the time,” she said. “And now with what’s going on over there, it’s even worse,” she added, referring to the U.S. military’s troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan, after a nearly 20-year presence that was a direct result of 9/11.
LaBorie lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and had married her husband Eric about two years before 9/11. She graduated from Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs. The school has provided comfort to her family in the form of an annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony in honor of LaBorie and other victims, put on by its large Air Force Junior ROTC chapter.
The Yanceys, both 86, planned to attend the ceremony Friday, scheduled for the last school day before the anniversary. The relationship has been reciprocal, with the Yanceys working to raise money for an ROTC scholarship.
“The junior ROTC cadets are just wonderful, and we enjoy being a part of it,” Gene Yancey said.
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In a similar way, the sprawling Faughnan family has adopted Broomfield’s 9/11 memorial ceremony as their home base each year to remember Christopher. He was 37 when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower.
He worked near the top as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald Securities, which lost 658 workers in the attack, the most of any employer. Back in Colorado, worried family members had gathered at the home of Chris’s parents, Tom and Joan, in Arvada. Cramped in a room together, they watched, shocked, as the building fell to the ground.
Chris’ widow, Cathy Faughnan, moved their three young children from suburban New Jersey to Colorado, where both had grown up, to raise them.
“Chris was a fantastic dad,” recalled Faughnan, now 57, who lives in Lafayette. “And at the moment he was lost, he was probably the happiest he had ever been, because he really found himself in having three kids. I just remember how much joy the kids brought him.”
She said it was the needs of their daughters and son that propelled her forward. And in 2006, she remarried, to David Green, with whom she shared a kind of kinship: He had lost his girlfriend in a fire several years earlier. Both are close to Chris Faughnan’s family, and Cathy still speaks in memory of her first husband at 9/11 events.
She appears in a new documentary called “Finding Daylight,” about how the Faughnans and another 9/11 family grieved their losses. Before a recent phone interview, Cathy had spent the morning at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York with her daughter and one of Chris’ sisters.
She finds the museum’s exhibits meaningful, she said, but she steered clear of the section recreating the attacks and the aftermath.
“It’s almost too painful,” she said. “We spend time remembering Chris instead of that terrible day.”
Chris’ younger brother, Michael, who lives in Denver, considered him one of the greatest influences on his life. They were close in age in a family with eight children and stayed tight into adulthood.
He echoed family members of other Colorado victims in hoping for a return to the national unity that prevailed after the attacks, if only fleetingly.
“We are divided on many things,” he said. “We face this pandemic with 600,000 people lost, and we’re divided on should we wear masks, and should we get vaccinated. Once again, there’s a devastating challenge, and we’re divided. Going back to 9/11, what was so special about the immediate days and weeks that followed was that we became united on how we come together to get through this horrific act that was really brought against our country.”
Twenty years on, both Cathy and Michael, now 56, say grieving in the glare of a national tragedy has been tough. But it also has provided comfort.
“When the whole country understands, you’re able to keep his spirit alive,” Michael Faughnan said.
Cathy Faughnan says she often thinks, “If I had a choice, I’d rather have this — rather than someone passing away from an accident or from cancer, and you’re all by yourself on a birthday or an anniversary. … When a collective community grieves with you, I think it lightens the burden.”
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Craig Woodall, the high school principal in Fort Collins, speaks of the looks he gets on each anniversary, “the sorrow that people give you that kind of takes you back to that moment.”
After spending much of his teaching career as a social studies teacher, he hopes for more public discussion of 9/11, not less. He accepts nearly every request he gets to speak about his brother and his family’s experience.
“It seems that those requests are less frequent now — when in my mind it would make sense to be more frequent as we get further away,” Woodall said.
When Brent Woodall died in the World Trade Center, his wife, Tracy, was pregnant with their daughter. Brent had called their parents in San Diego after the north tower was hit, Woodall has said, to reassure them that he was in the south tower. After the second plane struck below his 89th-floor office, he left a short voicemail message telling them he would try to get out. He later called his wife and said he and coworkers could not get below the 87th floor.
It was the last they heard.
When he speaks to younger people, Woodall said, “I do get a sense that it’s the first time they’re hearing this much of a personal connection. … It’s one thing to hear stats. But … sitting in front of the TV for two days and hoping I’d see him? That’s not part of the history book.”
He finds talking about it therapeutic, he said, much the same way his sister channels her grief through art.
“I’m hopeful that the many stories people hear about 9/11 this year add to their understanding that tragedy or pain in your life doesn’t have to be a life sentence,” he said. “It can be something you can turn for positive and for good — it’s simply in the way you embrace it and live your life.”
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Ann Wichmann also finds comfort in speaking to groups about the solemn task she performed for about 10 days at the World Trade Center site — work that helped provide some finality or healing to victims’ families.
The longtime Coloradan, who got involved in search and rescue as the state’s first woman to be a park ranger, teamed up with her black Labrador retriever, Jenner, to search for human remains. They arrived well after the operation had shifted from rescue to recovery, since there were few survivors of the buildings’ collapse.
“When we first walked out, it was probably 12 stories high, and parts were still burning,” said Wichmann, 72. “It was just this huge pile of burning, smoking metal. I will never forget — my first thought was, ‘I’m not putting Jenner on that pile.’ It was just so beyond anything that the dogs had done.”
But 9-year-old Jenner, who five years earlier had found the remains of a buried worker after a sugar plant explosion in Nebraska, was up to the task. So were dozens of other dogs that aided in the search effort, despite the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s lack of a human remains detection program at the time.
The dogs sniffed out remains, sometimes leading human responders to small body parts. Even some single bones or fragments could be identified through testing.
Wichmann said she was gratified that training standards she’d helped develop during the 1990s worked so well.
She moved her dog-training operation from rural Colorado to Oregon two years ago. She figures she will spend this year’s anniversary making an annual check-in call to Matt Claussen, a fellow dog handler who deployed with Colorado Task Force 1 and worked with another of Wichmann’s dogs, Merlyn.
Since then, health troubles have followed many of the first responders, with about 10,000 people who were near ground zero receiving cancer diagnoses. Wichmann, who’s developed a persistent cough, wonders about the effect of the toxic air on the dogs, too, though their shorter lifespans make any conclusions difficult to draw.
Jenner made it to age 12, a full life for a Labrador, but Wichmann said he died of cancer.
She remains proud of the role she and the dogs played. It continues to resonate in chance encounters when 9/11 comes up — as happened recently with a physical therapist who told Wichmann she’d cried the night before while watching a 9/11 documentary.
“It’s interesting just how much of a ribbon of remembrance there is,” Wichmann said. “It just kind of sneaks around and you bump into it at the least-expected moment.”
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