‘Everything was surreal’
On 17th anniversary, Alpena first-responders remember 9/11
ALPENA — What started out as a warm and sunny morning in Alpena on Sept. 11, 2001 quickly had a shadow cast over it as news of terrorist attacks in New York, in Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania circulated.
The hustle and bustle of the day came to a halt as people paused their daily routines to find the nearest television, so they could see for themselves what was unfolding at the World Trade Center towers, at the Pentagon, and where Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pa. Many people’s eyes remained glued to the news for several days and followed the aftermath of the attacks.
Alpena Fire Marshall and Alpena County Commissioner Robert Adrian said he was teaching a vocational public safety class when the attack happened. He said students were talking about it while they were in the commons area and everyone began to monitor the developments. Adrian said his firefighting experience told him there would be many casualties from the impact of the first plane, but as the attack continued, he knew the number of deaths would be in the thousands.
“When the first plane struck, you wondered if it was an accident, but then the second one hit and you realized it was much more than that,” Adrian said. “When the towers came down you just knew there were going to be a lot of fireman and police officers who weren’t going to survive and that hit pretty close to home for me.”
As morning turned into afternoon in Alpena that fateful day, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center was placed on high alert and local police and fire departments kept a close watch on the community for any unusual activity. Once news began to surface that the likely mastermind of the attack was Osama Bin Laden and people held their breath in anticipation of another round of attacks, gas prices spiked in Alpena and went from $1.66 a gallon to $2.45. There were long lines at the pumps as people prepared for the unlikelihood that there could be a gas shortage or military action taken in the Middle East.
Lines of automobiles waited at the gas stations, but the prices stayed high for only a day or two before they inched back down. There was also a special church service held at Trinity Episcopal Church that was widely attended, where local religious leaders spoke about the events and prayed for the victims and their families.
Alpena County Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski, who was a sergeant in 2001, said he learned of the attack while at home in the morning and got updates from a television at the courthouse. He said he remembers while he was on patrol how emotionally exhausted and confused he felt.
“There was very little traffic that day and you could just feel something in the air, it’s hard to explain, and it became more evident as the day went on,” Kieliszewski said. “There was a sense of unease and everything was surreal. There was no panic or no sense that the sky was falling, but it seemed as if the community was in shock.”
Alpena Community College President Don MacMaster, who was then dean of workforce development for ACC, said he was off work the day of the attack and at the hospital with his father. He said the two of them watched the attack play out and his father compared it to another dark moment in American history. In the days and weeks afterward, he said he remembers how people around came together.
“We saw the second plane hit and the towers collapse and he told me it was worse than Pearl Harbor, which he had lived through,” MacMaster said.
The day after the attack, MacMaster gave the reading at a mass at St. Anne Church in Alpena. He said the message was a powerful one and seemed to ease some of the emotions people were feeling.
“You could just sense the fear and uncertainty, but there was also a sense of resolve and togetherness,” he said. “There was a strong sense of unitedness and patriotism that was very powerful and everyone was in agreement the attack was horrible and there needed to be a response. That patriotism lasted for quite a while.”
After the initial shock and anger from the attack settled, people still tuned in to the news for updates on the search for survivors and details about the plot. Despite all of the death, destruction, fear and anger, the nation and the world rallied together.
Alpena City Police Sgt. Chris Johnston said he was not at work the day of the attack, but said he remembers the day well. He said that, as horrible as the event was, emergency management services as a whole improved. Johnston said some of the lessons learned from 9/11 will help save lives well into the future.
“Since that time, training has gotten a lot better and maybe become a little bit more of a priority,” Johnston said. “Communications between departments, whether they are police or fire, has also opened up. September 11 has also made us all aware of what is going on around us and aware of our surroundings. It took everything to a whole new level.”
Alpena Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner said he was teaching a class at Lapeer West High School and was watching the news, which was reporting on the first plane crash into the towers. While he was watching, the second plane hit and he knew then it was a purposeful attack. He said that, the rest of the school day, the students did little in terms of class work. Looking back, VanWagoner said, the day changed how America viewed itself and how it needed to protect its citizens.
“I remember everything at the school just stopped and most of the classrooms just had the kids watching history unfold live on TV,” he said. “It became a whole new ball game after the attack, especially the way we secure schools. Life as we knew it changed from that point on.”
Steve Schulwitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 989-358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.