Where were you on 9/11? The Church News staff shares what they remember

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, members of the Church News staff share personal recollections of that day and its aftermath.

Sarah Jane Weaver: A letter to my daughters

Sarah Jane Weaver
Sarah Jane Weaver Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

I could not sleep on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, so I penned a letter to my young daughters — 2 years old and 8 weeks old. “I am writing to tell you of this day, a day you will not remember but has changed the world you live in forever.”

I wrote of watching on live television as terrorists crashed two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and a third into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and about a fourth airliner that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

“The day brought with it feelings of grief and fear — grief for those that died and fear that as a result of this day others will die. … Looking off our back deck it seemed as if the world had stopped; even the streets in Utah were quiet.”

For my daughters it was an ordinary day; my older daughter played with toys and on her grandparents’ swing set. For my husband and me the day was marked by desperation to do something and the reality that we could do very little. My husband, a Delta Airlines employee, was told not to report for work. I was a Church News reporter taking maternity leave. We thought about giving blood, but the lines at the Red Cross were three to four hours long.

So we listened. 

“We listened to President George W. Bush speak to the American people and assure us that the terrorists would be caught and punished. We listened to President Gordon B. Hinckley speak at a special memorial service in the Tabernacle during which the Tabernacle Choir performed patriotic anthems and songs of peace. We heard statements from the governor of Utah and countless national congressional leaders. We talked to friends and family on the telephone. We listened to continuous press reports. We watched video on the TV that showed the disasters over and over again.”

Ultimately, we found peace in one sure place — turning to the Lord in prayer. That upward looking is reflected in the last paragraph of my daughters’ letter. “Tonight we don’t know why or how this has happened or if it will happen again. All we know is that we love each other, both of you, and this country. Tonight we pray for the victims. Tonight we pray for this nation and its people. Tonight we pray for you and your future.”

Valerie Walton: An imagined catastrophic scenario that suddenly became real

Valerie Walton
Valerie Walton Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

On Sept. 10, 2001, a few of us students in Mrs. McCarthy’s sixth grade class carried some boxes filled with the class project on decomposition to the basement of MillCreek Elementary School. We were going to see what the heat from the HVAC system and the lack of light would do to the mason jars of dirt and rubbish in a few weeks time. 

The usually off-limits place felt impenetrable with its thick cement walls deep underground — like a bomb shelter. I wondered aloud to my friends, “What would happen if a bomb was going to go off?” The basement didn’t look big enough for the entire elementary school if we needed to hide there for protection.

The next morning, my dad watched the news while he got ready for work. I caught a glimpse of the Twin Towers on fire. When I got to class, Mrs. McCarthy also had us watching the news. She said she needed to be careful about letting us watch the nonstop coverage so we wouldn’t become desensitized to the attacks, but she didn’t turn the TV off.

I couldn’t help but think back to my off-handed comment the day before, imagining a catastrophic scenario that suddenly became much more real.

Deseret News front page Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks by terrorists.
Deseret News front page Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks by terrorists.

David Schneider: Immediate concerns sometimes hinder view of larger events

David Schneider
David Schneider Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Sometimes more immediate concerns hinder our view of larger events. Such was me on Sept. 11, 2001. 

With three elementary school students and two preschoolers in the house, getting three of them prepared for school was top of mind. Listening to radio news and hearing that an airplane had crashed into a World Trade Center tower, I thought three things: “That’s a horrible accident,” “That will be a major part of the news today” and “I gotta start getting kids up.” Even after the second plane hit, I was consumed with my household.

Not until I was driving into the office and an airplane crashed into the Pentagon did the enormity begin to weigh on me. Deseret News editors made plans to publish an “extra” edition, to place on newspaper racks during the lunch hour for people who wanted to read about the day’s events. In the 19 years I’d worked at the newspaper, it was the first time we did that.

Just last month I visited New York City for the first time since before 2001. At the museum and reflection pools, now without any young children, the somberness of what happened weighed on me again, two decades later.

Rachel Sterzer Gibson: Putting small anxieties into perspective

Rachel Sterzer Gibson
Rachel Sterzer Gibson Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I was late for carpool that morning. As a self-absorbed 16-year-old, I spent too long in front of the bathroom mirror attempting to cover a blemish on my chin and agonizing in front of my open closet about the day’s outfit.

When my Uncle Jim, who drove my cousin and I to school every morning, honked the horn of his old Chevy pickup, I had to scramble to throw on shoes and shove my homework into my backpack before dashing out to the car.

I vaguely remember hearing bits and pieces of new reports being delivered over my uncle’s car radio and his normally affable demeanor replaced by a grimace. But I paid little attention and instead stressed about a half-completed English assignment and an upcoming physics quiz.

The entire day, however, I never cracked open a book or even picked up a pencil. Instead, I sat transfixed along with my high school cohort to the TV news coverage of what was happening on the other side of the country.

I’ll never forget sitting in Mrs. Aalen’s English class when the first tower collapsed, and we all gasped and cried out in horror.

When I finally went home that afternoon, I found my mom listening to her favorite Show Tunes CD, oblivious to the news that had been blaring nonstop over every TV and radio station. She quickly tuned into the local news radio station. She cried as she heard details of the horrific events of the day. She expressed fears of war and the futures of my two older brothers.

My life and anxieties suddenly felt very small and very insignificant.

Visitors to the National Sept. 11 Memorial walk around the two reflecting pools, Sunday, April 1, 2012 in New York. The names of the victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are etched in bronze panels around the pools. The Survivor Tree, left, is a pear tree that was heavily damaged in the attacks, was salvaged and replanted at the memorial.
Visitors to the National Sept. 11 Memorial walk around the two reflecting pools, Sunday, April 1, 2012 in New York. The names of the victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are etched in bronze panels around the pools. The Survivor Tree, left, is a pear tree that was heavily damaged in the attacks, was salvaged and replanted at the memorial. Credit: AP

Vanessa Fitzgibbon: Love for and from the Savior

Vanessa Fitzgibbon
Vanessa Fitzgibbon Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It had been just two weeks since our family had moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where I started pursuing a doctorate degree. That Tuesday, when I took my 2-year-old to the daycare, I saw the first plane hitting one of the towers on TV. As I learned more about what had happened, I felt no one had an entire grasp of what was going on.

The next day, I was called to translate some documents from Portuguese into English related to the attacks. This experience took me very close to the reality surrounding the events, and I saw firsthand the hate we have in the world. At the same time, I wondered how to explain to my young kids the concept of a terrorist attack and the evil that destroyed so many lives.

A few months later, I traveled to New York and had the chance to see the 9/11 spotlights. Despite the terror that it symbolized, I immediately felt a great love for and from our Savior. Notwithstanding the tragedy, the two beams of light pointing to heaven displayed the American people’s faith, hope, and courage. It was also an assurance to me that the Lord is and will always be in command.

Twin beams of light form the "Tribute in Light" at the World Trade Center site on the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 in New York. The photograph was made from the Empire State Building. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)
Twin beams of light form the “Tribute in Light” at the World Trade Center site on the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 in New York. The photograph was made from the Empire State Building. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey) Credit: AP

Megan McKellar: Hope in God’s plan for His children

Megan McKellar
Megan McKellar Credit: Thane Zeeh

I was 6 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. My understanding of the day’s events and their implications was shaped gradually as I grew older through family discussions, school lessons and college classes. 

I visited the 9/11 Memorial as a missionary in New York City on multiple occasions. At the memorial, water flows over and into the two stone craters, and the sound blocks out the chaos and noise of the city. Each time I was there, I felt grief for the lives lost and a world in conflict, but also hope in the message that I, a full-time missionary, worked hard to share: God is a loving Heavenly Father who has a plan for each of His children, and that that plan makes it possible to be reunited with loved ones who pass on; the message that “all that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

I am grateful for the way that tragedies shape us, unite us and engender compassion and connection; and I pray that the solidarity we feel as we collectively reflect on the events of 20 years ago will permeate all other aspects of our lives today.

Sydney Walker: Fear giving way to remembrance, respect and humility

Sydney Walker
Sydney Walker Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

I was sitting in Mrs. Lunsman’s second grade class in Cincinnati, Ohio, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. My classmates and I were doing an activity when Mrs. Lunsman turned on the TV. I saw two very tall buildings with thick clouds of gray smoke. Tears rolled down my teacher’s face.

I felt scared. I didn’t know what or where those buildings were or why there was smoke around them. But I could tell from my teacher’s reaction that something bad had happened. 

I came home from school that afternoon and found my mom in front of the TV holding my 6-month-old brother. She was watching the same scene I saw that morning, her face red, stained with tears. 

The next year, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, I went with my mom to a memorial at a local church. The grass was lined with nearly 3,000 small American flags, representing those who were killed. 

As I grew older and learned more about that scene I saw on TV, the fear I once felt gave way to deep feelings of remembrance, respect and humility. The American flag became a symbol of hope and unity to me and still is to this day. 

More than 3,000 American flags honoring the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are pictured at Utah's Healing Field outside Sandy City Hall on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.The massive display, a tradition since 2002, will be open to the public through Wednesday.
More than 3,000 American flags honoring the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are pictured at Utah’s Healing Field outside Sandy City Hall on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.The massive display, a tradition since 2002, will be open to the public through Wednesday. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Christine Rappleye: Appreciating others’ experiences

Christine Rappleye
Christine Rappleye Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I heard snippets about planes and the World Trade Center’s towers falling as I was hustling from an early morning religion class across campus to an online reporting class I was hoping to add. The instructor put us to work reviewing websites from a variety of news organizations to see how quickly they responded to the breaking news. 

Afterward, classes opened up time to share or talk about what happened. I appreciated hearing others’ perspectives, including one student who shared how he had been in New York earlier that summer and had previously been on chaotic streets being broadcast.  

When I arrived back at my apartment, I found two of my roommates — sisters from India. They were Hindus and knew many of the students who were not members of the Church. As we talked, they shared their concerns and those from friends who were Muslims — and keeping a low profile. These concerns felt more immediate and different from my own — a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise realized. 

I’ve since covered a variety of 9/11 remembrances. As I’ve heard and appreciated others’ experiences, I still continue to learn things I wouldn’t have on my own. 

Scott Taylor: A personal spiritual moment while sending off a missionary

Scott Taylor
Scott Taylor Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A sunny Tuesday morning. A friend called, asking if I was watching the bizarre plane crash in New York City — I wasn’t. Greeting my wife on the driveway after her morning run, I shared with her sparse early details of what would be known as 9/11.

Those are my first memories of Sept. 11, 2001 — then being glued to TV and newspaper reports that day and for weeks to come, hoping accounts of honor and heroism would help balance out the horrors.

Months later, 9/11 still had its claws into our collective psyche. The same June 2002 day we dropped off our oldest son at the Provo Missionary Training Center, I remember being consumed with anxiety.

“He’ll be serving in Ukraine, halfway around the world,” I thought. “What if there is another international incident that impacts transportation and communication. Who will care and watch over him? I’m his father, that’s my role — what if I can’t reach him?”

A personal spiritual moment kept me from revisiting such panic-fueled worries the rest of his mission.

Years later, those memories magnified my admiration for the missionaries and their families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the early releases, returns and reassignments across the globe.

President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses the memorial service in honor of those who died in the terrorist attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001.
President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses the memorial service in honor of those who died in the terrorist attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

Ryan Jensen: ‘Enjoy more fully the sunlight’

Ryan Jensen
Ryan Jensen Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Having recently returned home to Utah after serving a mission in Colombia, I was excited to attend a live devotional for young adults at the Conference Center. 

President Gordon B. Hinkley was the president of the Church, and he was scheduled to speak. The devotional would take place on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001. 

The title of his message that night? “Be not afraid; only believe.” 

While the terrible events of 9/11 were still two days away, some of President Hinckley’s words rang as true in the immediate aftermath as they do today. 

“Stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight,” he said. 

The storm that came in the days, months and years that followed made it difficult at times to see the sunlight. That makes his words — spoken as a prophet — that much more impactful and important to me. 

In 2011, I visited the site where the World Trade Center’s two towers had stood. Clouds enveloped the top of the nearly-complete One World Trade Center building. Lightning lit up the inside of the memorial fountains. Rain washed over the names of those who died there. All of it reminded me to “enjoy more fully the sunlight.”