20th Anniversary 9/11 Commencement

Article by Mary Alice Murphy

On a “severe clear” morning, as we learned the term later in the ceremony, participants, veterans, first responders, and supporters gathered at Old James Stadium to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the day Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists violently changed the United States of America with attacks.

Jason Quimby, Western New Mexico University veterans’ affairs officer, with the help of university staff and Elaine Haynik and Linda Pecotte of the Grant County Republican Party, planned and organized a moving ceremony.

The display included small flags arranged in a triangle, and seven fallen soldier displays, which include the shoes/boots, the rifle and the helmet.

Tony Trujillo served as master of ceremonies. The event began with a prayer from Pastor Sarah Guck, followed by the raising of a large American flag flying on the Silver City Fire Department ladder truck. A color guard consisted of members of the American Legion Allingham-Golding Post 18, Marine Corps League Gaffney-Oglesby Chapter 1328, and Vietnam Veterans Chapter 358. Mariachi Plata de Western New Mexico University sang the National Anthem.

New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales led off the speakers. “I am here today to honor those who died on 9/11. Why did I want to start my day here before going to Deming and Las Cruces for more ceremonies? Because I wanted to be home. On the day the first airplane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I was on my way to my job at Cobre schools. It was the first time in my life I felt the sadness and shock of such an attack.” He asked every member of the military in the audience to stand and many in the audience did. “I carry my dad’s military tags today to remember his service. I have family members who expressed the hurt they still feel today from this attack. We must remember the importance of taking care of one another. The one thing that remains true is love.”

Trujillo thanked WNMU for hosting the event before introducing WNMU President Joseph Shepard.

“It’s a delight to have all of you here to celebrate this solemn occasion,” Shepard said. “When it occurred, we had no idea what would happen, but it brought us together. The real question is: was it in vain that we fought for 20 years in Afghanistan? It’s up to each of us. Are we going to allow them to kill democracy? We as a country, we believe it is okay to disagree, but we must be together and unify in this defining moment that is trying to undo our country.”

Trujillo also thanked the WNMU Officer of Veterans Affairs and its director, Jason Quimby, and staff for organizing the event.

Quimby said he is a veteran of conflicts in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, the last of which particularly affected him. He then went on to recognize the members of law enforcement, first responders and fire fighters who had lined their vehicles behind the podium and displays. Quimby said the five fallen soldier displays behind three in front represented recent military campaigns. The three in front represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is to put hope to stop the 22 lives of veterans that are lost to suicide every day. He noted the flowers have the names, date of death and service of every New Mexico who lost his or her lives in service since 9/11.

Grant County Commission Chair Chris Ponce, a retired law enforcement member, read the proclamation the county had recently passed. It was titled: We Must Never Forget. The proclamation stated the history of how Sept. 11 became Patriot Day and National Day of Recognition and Service.

Just before 8:46 a.m. the time that American Airlines Flight 11 stuck the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Trujillo called for a moment of silence, which was followed by the ringing of a bell three times, followed by a short pause, three more rings, pause and three more rings. The same ceremony followed each moment of silence.

Jim Dines played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes.

New Mexico Senator Siah Hemphill said: “It was a quiet Tuesday morning. The sun was coming up as I got up to wake up my daughter. I turned on the TV and heard that a plane had just hit the North Tower. Right then, as I watched a plane hit the South Tower. Everyone knew at that point that it was not an accident. I called my sister-in-law. She hadn’t heard the news yet. We were just trying to make sense of what was happening. I took my daughter to school and hugged her extra hard.” She continued and said that every fabric of everyone’s lives was changed. “But the nation came together in shared grief. Over the next 20 years, we have continued to come together to share the pain. I think everyone should stand together in shared unity. When we come together in shared pain, it is a unifying experience.”

She thanked Quimby, Shepard and all those who helped create the ceremony. “I honor our first responders and our veterans. Today is a day of contemplation. That day I had anger and wondered if it was reality.”

Trujillo offered attendees the opportunity to tell their stories of Sept. 1, 2001.

Dines said the night before he and his wife had taken their son to dinner as he went into the service at Fort Eustis, Virginia. “I remembered that after the planes crashed into the towers, the birds weren’t flying. They were just sitting on the ground. I think they were used to hearing airplanes overhead, and, of course, there were none. Everything was grounded. Remember that freedom is just one event away. But always also remember that we are just one event away from the best that humans can be and do.”

A former Gila Regional Medical Center chaplain said that morning he was a chaplain at the hospital and was meeting with other chaplains when the hospital was locked down. “We were trying to offer compassion to staff and patients. The next day, we chaplains, including Wanda Hall, who was doing hospice at the hospital, were back in the hospital in a room set aside for us to be there for people who needed to talk about what had happened.”

Trujillo welcomed local dignitaries, including Commissioner Billy Billings, Mayor Ken Ladner, WNMU Regent Mary Hotvedt, Town Councilor Guadalupe Cano and Councilor and Mayor Pro Tem Cynthia Bettison.

At 9:03, another moment of silence commemorated the American Airlines flight 175 striking the South Tower of the World Trade Center, where as many as 14,000 people were evacuating the building. After the moment of silence, the bells rang three times, pause, three rings, pause and three rings.

Judy Ruth sang “God Bless America,” and on the last chorus, she invited everyone to join in.

New Mexico Rep. Luis Terrazas said: “When something tragic happens, a lot of us run to our Lord, as well as to our families. As a funeral director, we often receive someone who was just going to work that day not knowing that it was his last day.” Terrazas said he had been to Ground Zero. “About 100 yards away from the collapsed towers is St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church. The chapel was not damaged in any way.” He acknowledged the “beautiful job” that Jason has done with the flags also set into a triangle representing the Trinity. “We came together that day and the following days. If there was any light in the tragedy, it was that it brought us together. My daughter is in the U.S. Air Force. She just called the other day and said she was going to Japan. She said she was nervous. I told her just to follow God. I appreciate the chance to speak and every chance I get to speak I talk about wanting us to come together.”

Quimby introduced Linda Pecotte and Elaine Haynik who had also helped with organizing the ceremony and would present certificates of appreciation. “I want to recognize the Vietnam Veterans who are here, as well as the helicopter from Air Methods, the Tyrone Volunteer Fire Department and Western New Mexico University campus police.”

Gail Langsner said she was in Downtown Manhattan when the planes struck the towers. “Where I worked was next to the fire station closest to the towers. New York City lost 343 fire fighters, 23 police officers and 37 Port Authority personnel that day. But they succeeded in evacuating 16,000 people. I couldn’t return to my office for 18 months. My company gave me two patches to remember the day. They recognize the Fire Department Memorial Wall. I want to present one of the patches to the Silver City Fire Department. That day, the 343 fire fighters left more than 500 children without a father or mother.”

Armando Aguilera said he was headed to his home station in the National Guard. “That was the day the National Guard went away and became the U.S. Army. We answered the call to protect every one of you. We scattered across the world. When we came back together, we had lost a lot of our friends.”

Quimby noted that a large generation of children born that day and 20 years since have no recollection of that day. “I was 17 years old when it happened. My brother was yelling at me that we were being attacked. All these emotions ran through my body. I was raised as a conscientious objector, so going into the service was not something I ever thought I would do. But I knew I needed to. More than 18,000 service members and civilians died in support of our country. And another 13 just died from a suicide bomber.”

Karen Whitlock said she was driving to work at Tyrone that day. “I heard it on the radio. I thought it was an accident. I got to work, and a TV was on. I didn’t even know we had a TV at the office. My brother-in-law was working at the Pentagon that day. He survived; he still works there. Five days later I was in a prayer service at Gough Park. A good friend I hadn’t heard from called me. She told me a mutual friend of ours was in her second day of a job at the South Tower that day. It made us all feel attacked.”

Trujillo noted that before a plane hit the Pentagon, President George W. Bush had declared the attack terrorism.

At 9:37 another moment of silence took place for the American Airlines flight 77 that hit the Pentagon. Again, it was followed by three rings of the bells three times with pauses in between.

New Mexico Rep. Rebecca Dow said although the attack was hundreds of miles away from New Mexico, “at that moment we were united. President Bush said freedom was attacked that day by terrorists. We were all attacked. I honor the fire fighters, the first responders and the police who ran toward the attack to save people. I suddenly understood their calling. We have men and women who serve. Today we honor you. During the past year, no one has been working harder than health care workers, so I want to honor them, too. We are not quite as united today as we were that day but let us never forget how fragile our freedom is.”

More certificates of appreciation were presented to the Bayard Police Department, GRMC Emergency Medical Services and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office. Quimby noted that Holloman Air Force Base had intended to come to this ceremony, but they could not due to the huge influx of Afghan refugees to their base.

GCSO Capt. and Undersheriff Jess Watkins said on that day he was giving a training at Gallup. “We’ve been training ever since.”

Trujillo noted that the American Legion was providing food around the corner from the ceremony. “They are grilling hamburgers and hotdogs and the Iron Door Grill came out this morning and made breakfast burritos.”

Tom Kavanaugh said on 9/11, John and Rochelle “Rocky” Thomas were vacationing at their home in Mimbres from their jobs at the New York Police Department. “They drove straight back. John has since died of complications of the work at the site of the collapsed towers. Grant County can stand up and be proud.”

Trujillo said by the time the South Town collapsed at 9:59 the White House and Capitol buildings had totally evacuated, along with other Washington D.C. buildings.

Another moment of silence followed by three bell rings three times.

At 10:07, the Flight of Heroes, United Airlines flight 93 had crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA, due to passengers mounting an attempt to abort the flight toward D.C.

The moment of silence was followed by the three rings of a bell three times with pauses between.

Trujillo noted that a TV special the previous evening had included the phone calls made during the flight. “It was very touching.”

David Morrison sang a song he composed right after 9/11. “Remember 9/11” “I am an Air Force veteran who was at Arnold Air Force Base that day. Two weeks later, I wrote the song. Two months later I was deployed.” The repetitive line in the song states: “Whenever duty calls, Americans will stand tall.”

[Editor’s Note: The Beat didn’t write down who read this article about Rocky Jones, but here are tidbits of it.]

Rochelle Rocky Jones was the first women to be named battalion chief of a New York City Police Department. The article had the title of: “How being in Grant County, New Mexico, saved my life.”

She and her husband were on vacation in the new home they had built for retirement in Mimbres. Her husband, John Thomas, a retired New York Fire Department captain, was awakened by the phone ringing.

The article noted that Engine 4, which they had been assigned to was not far from the World Trade Center.

“As we watched the second tower collapse, I told my husband that everyone I worked with was dead,” the article quoted her as saying.

She tried to call some of them, but phones were not working in New York City that day.

“Fourteen of those men died,” she said. “The Captain who was taking my place and the lieutenant I worked with a lot both died.”

“We drove back to New York City,” the article said. “I was able to see the support across the country. We weren’t alone. Our next vacation in New Mexico was in 2002 when we retired. John became a volunteer Grant County Sheriff’s Office deputy. Having a home here saved my life.”

Silver City Mayor Ken Ladner said he had just gone into the class he was teaching at Western. “The TV was going, and I didn’t know why. I walked over to see and got there just in time to see the second airplane hit the South Tower. It’s something to remind us of how fragile our democracy is. We must treat everyone with respect.”

Haynik, one of the planners, said: “We’ve been planning this for about three months. 20 years ago! It’s a shock.” She also invited everyone to visit the Silver City Public Library where a visual display is a memorial of 9/11. “The image of people jumping from the tower was one that got to me. The display will be up for another week or so. We must pray for peace. God Bless You.”

Certificates of appreciation were given to New Mexico State Police District 1, to Silver City Police, the Gaffney-Oglesby Marine Corps League, Chapter 1328 and the Silver City Fire Department.

J.R. Calkins, a member of a USDA Forest Service Type 1 Incident Management Team that mobilized in New York City on Sept. 12, 2001, served as guest speaker. They went to assist with the search and rescue of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Calkins didn’t return home to Grant County until late October. He warned everyone that the language in his talk might be rough.

“It was a hard day,” Calkins said. “But just like today, it was what air traffic controllers call ‘severe clear.'”

He described the monumental size of the piles of “stuff” as covering an area comparable to from the north corner of the Besse Forward Global Resource Center to the Fine Arts Center Theater down to Light Hall on College Ave. “The only thing that I saw that told me it was an office building was a bent stapler. It was just piles of ‘stuff.’ No day shall erase you from the memory of this day. We’ve gone through it before with World War II, and we may see it again, I hate to say.”

Calkins said one of the survivors had inhaled so much “stuff” that it had to be vacuumed out of his lungs. Another survivor said he suffered a great deal of trauma from surviving the collapse of the towers. A total of 2763 died at the World Trade Center, 37 of whom were Port Authority personnel. Another 125 died from the plane hitting the Pentagon. And then to add to it, the 43 passengers on the United Airlines Flight 73 died in a field in Pennsylvania.

“That compares to the death toll at Pearl Harbor of about 2300,” Calkins said. “But the greatest day of loss of life was in 1862 at Antietam where 17,300 combatants lost their lives.”

On 9/11, almost 3,000 lost their lives within three hours. “But these weren’t combatants like at Pearl Harbor and Antietam. These were just people going about their regular lives. Not one of them knew that anything was about to happen.”

When Calkins went into a subway and saw the sign: “New York Closed” he said it was an eye opener. People were walking across bridges on Sept. 11 to get home. The ones that lived in New Jersey had no way to get home until boats and ferries showed up from all over to take them home to New Jersey.

He said on Sept. 11, 2001, he, who was usually at work by 6 a.m., had said that morning: “Screw that. So, when I got there about 8, everyone was watching TV. It was weird. At 9 a.m., we were called to the conference center. We had a family meeting. I and others got called by Dispatch and told we’re headed east. I told my wife I’m headed east, and she said to me and whoever she was talking to on the phone before she hung up ‘You’re shitting me.’ They had sent my wife home from work. So, I went home to pack and within about three hours we left Silver City at 1 p.m. and were in Albuquerque before 3 p.m. There was no one on the highway. No contrails in the sky. Every flight was grounded. We got to Albuquerque and were told to bed down. It was state fair time and it was hard to find a hotel. We found one and had a two-hour expensive nap.”

Calkins said on Sept. 11, all flights in the air were told to land within 10 minutes at the nearest airport.

“So, we’re waiting for a flight,” he said. “The one we went on the squawk box was not working. We were flying east. We got to D.C. and nothing was moving. We off loaded some of the team before we headed to New York. We all had a sense of wanting to be with people like us, but then this little guy with a goofy golf hat shows up. And then the roadmaster comes in. I didn’t like him instantly. He didn’t feel like one of us. There were two teams available that day in the whole U.S., just like right now, in California there are two teams fighting fires, us and a team from Alaska.

“Remember the squawk box wasn’t working, so we couldn’t tell anyone who we were,” Calkins said. “On TV, they are showing our plane with two F-16s on our tail, because they didn’t know who we were. My wife was losing her mind because she knew it was the plane I was on. Nothing was moving except for us. When we headed to New York, all of us were on one side of the plane gawking at what was left of the towers. The pilot kept telling us to sit down for landing, but we didn’t. Still at noon on the 12th, clouds of smoke were rising from the remains.”

The teams went to the Javits Center and started supporting the efforts just after noon on Sept. 12. “We got up every morning at 4 a.m., had breakfast and worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. First, we were going to be there 21 days, then 30, then 35. It was one of the most rewarding assignments I’ve ever had and one of the most horrible.”

He said when he was still in school, World War II Bataan Death March survivors Tom Foy and Nick Chintis talked to the students. “They talked to us about their service with pride. Then at age 41, I got it. If we can get through this, we have to get back to Sept 11 and 12, when we saw unity. I want to start an initiative: ‘Remember the 12th.'”

Calkins said 4627 people are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program. “I’m one of them. 410,000 people responded and helped at the site and around the site. More than 4,000 of them have died from their service there.”

At a belated 10:28 a.m., the last moment of silence took place for the collapse of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The sound of three rings of the bell, pause, three more rings, a pause and three more rings rang out.

Don Spann of the Marine Corps League played Taps.

Then as a final tribute to all the first responders, fire fighters and police officers who died on Sept. 11, 2001, the last call came over the police, fire and ambulance radios from Grant County Central Dispatch. The recording is below.

Trujillo ended the ceremony by saying: “For whatever reason you are here today, we appreciate your being here. God Bless America!”

This article appeared in the Grant County Beat