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  • Writer's pictureJoseph F. Berenato

Memories of Sept. 11, 2001

Hammonton Independent Volunteer Fire Company No. 2 held a Tribute in Lights at the station house on the White Horse Pike on September 11 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. A second hijacked airplane—United Airlines Flight 175—crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.

At 9:37 a.m., a third flight—American Airlines Flight 77—crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

The South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. after burning for approximately 56 minutes.

A fourth flight—United Airlines Flight 93—crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa. at 10:03 a.m.

The North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m., after burning for approximately 102 minutes. At 5:20 p.m., 7 World Trade Center began to collapse, and by 5:21 p.m. it was completely destroyed.

The attacks resulted in 2,977 fatalities.

Hammonton resident Elsie Bakley was in New York City that morning.

“In some ways, it seems like yesterday. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years,” Bakley told The Gazette.

Bakley had traveled from Hammonton to New York City the night prior and stayed the night at the Millenium Hilton, located across from the World Trade Center and which suffered extensive damage as a result of the attack.

“I never go to New York. Our company had been sold, and the company that I worked for had a lot of centers in different cities all around the United States. We were all going there for a two-day training session,” Bakley said.

As part of the training session, Bakley and her cohorts were scheduled to have cocktails at 5 p.m. on September 11 at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the North Tower’s 106th and 107th floors.

“My son Dan was driving me to the train station. When we were driving there, he pointed out the Twin Towers, because you could see them as we were driving. He said, ‘That’s where you’re going to be,’” Bakley said.

On the morning of September 11, Bakley and the others had a continental breakfast at 8 a.m. and began the training at 8:30 a.m.

“At 8:46 a.m., the first tower was hit, and there was an announcement that came over the loudspeaker that just said that something had occurred, but there were no details. It didn’t say a plane hit or anything; it just said ‘something.’ At the time, the trainer said, ‘If you want to go call your families, because if it turns out it’s on the news they’ll be concerned, and you can tell them that you’re fine.’ Some people called their families; some didn’t. I called,” Bakley said, noting that was the last time she was able to communicate with her family until close to 9:30 p.m. that evening.

Bakley said that the team eventually made its way outside, where “the trainer was so concerned about the training.”

“She said, ‘If we can’t go back in there, we have to find someplace else to get this done.’ We’re all standing around, and she wanted to keep us together; I guess she felt responsible for us ... Some of us were inching our way to the corner. I remember looking around the corner, and then the horror to see this whole building aflame. That’s when it struck how serious it really was, but we still didn’t know what was going on. Then, when the second plane hit, that’s when the trainer said we had to go,” Bakley said.

Bakley said that the group walked through the city to Central Park.

“There was a hotel there and she tried to get us in, and of course they weren’t letting anybody in. We sat there on the steps, and it was a beautiful, beautiful day with a clear blue sky—and there was all this horror going on around us,” Bakley said.

The company that had arranged the training, Bakley said, had arranged for a bus to transport the group out of New York City.

“We had to start walking to where the bus was, and it was around 5 p.m. We were going across the 59th Street Bridge, which is a Simon and Garfunkel song. I always liked Simon and Garfunkel, so I knew that song, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the 59th Street Bridge.’ We looked over where the towers were—by then, they were both gone—and it was just the plumes of smoke and debris, and I thought, ‘That’s where we were supposed to be.’ We would have been at the top of the tower in the restaurant,” Bakley said.

The bus took the group to Port Jefferson, N.Y., where they took a ferry to Bridgeport, Conn. A representative from the company arranged for lodging at a hotel, where the group stayed for the night.

“My son came right up that night. They got there in the middle of the night and spent the night in the room. We stayed there until the morning, then my son drove me home. We drove past New York City on the highway, and you could see all the plumes of smoke in the air,” Bakley said.

Bakley said that, in remembering the day 20 years later, it “seems like it was a movie.”

“The whole day was so surreal, that something like that could happen ... I often wonder why I was there that particular day. How that happened. And how horrific it was for all those people who went to work that morning, just a normal day—a beautiful, gorgeous day, a picture-perfect day—with all that horror going on around you,” Bakley said.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Hammonton resident Arthur Orsi was in his accountant’s office when the news broke on television.

“It terrified me ... I quickly ran home; at that time I was caring for my mother-in-law. We both watched it, and she was trying to figure out what happened. I told her that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, and that they were collapsing and that there were a lot of people that were going to die,” Orsi said.

Orsi said that the attacks on 9/11 were something he never thought could happen in the United States.

“I never thought that terrorists would do something like that. It never dawned on me. It changed my life in the sense that I’m much more aware of my surroundings ... It made me more aware of what the possibilities that terrorists will go to to strike us, and what we do, some of the incredible things that people do behind the scenes, and we’ll probably never know what they do to keep us safe. I thank them in my prayers, that they are on the job, and they are protecting us,” Orsi said.

Orsi said that 9/11 “is a day that will live in our lives for a long, long time, with so much loss of life.”

“It’s just senseless; I just find it senseless. To this day, I can’t figure out why we just can’t sit down and talk about the problems we have. The radicals, I don’t know how they think. I guess I just think differently, raised in America, having a good life. I don’t know the struggles they’ve gone through, but to kill innocent people? I just don’t think that’s the answer to solving our problems,” Orsi said.

One aspect of that day that has stayed with Orsi is the “incredible effort that the police and the firemen and the first responders who ran into those buildings to try to save people.”

“I’m an average citizen; I would have run out. I would have told everyone else to get out. I’m not trained to run into a burning building. I’m not trained to help people who are injured. That’s why it was amazing what they did, and their sacrifice has always stayed with me,” Orsi said.

Hammonton Fire Chief Sean Macri said that 9/11 showed a “different side of the fire service.”

“It really showed the emergency services working together, and they did what they were supposed to do, regardless. They knew what the outcome was going to be; it didn’t matter to them. Everything was the job. They had to do it. It didn’t matter if they were volunteer or career; they didn’t do it for a paycheck or a pat on the back; they did it because it needed to be done,” Macri said.

The work of the first responders that day and in the aftermath, Macri said, is a source of pride for members of the “firefighting family.”

“That includes our brothers and sisters across the country. They did what they had to do, period. There was no discussion. There was no fighting. All that went away. It gives you sense of pride, but it also gives you a very tall order to fill, walking in their shoes. There’s a high benchmark we have to come up to. We’re expected to do things, and we do them,” Macri said.

Macri said that, while not much has changed with firefighting, there are some additional security measures that have been put in place as a result of 9/11.

“Now we do more training with WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. We don’t always park or stage in the same spot in case somebody is testing us. Our radio protocols and stuff like that are all different now ... It was something that nobody was ready for; nobody knew what to do. Now, if something happens, we’ve been through it; everyone knows what to do, so the mobilization has been upgraded,” Macri said.

Macri said that 9/11 is a “defining moment.”

“That was our generation’s Pearl Harbor. It let everyone know that, hey, we think we’re in this nice, neat little glass bubble, but no; we’re not. Things can happen here, too. It puts you in a state of perpetual readiness,” Macri said.

That perpetual readiness also extends to law enforcement.

“It made a total reevaluation of safety in air travel, safety in public transportation and really brought about ‘If you see something, say something.’ That encouraged citizens to report things to law enforcement prior to things becoming a problem,” said Hammonton Police Chief Kevin Friel.

Friel said that, as a result of the attacks, information-sharing between law enforcement agencies has been vastly improved.

“It increases officer and public safety by real-time sharing of pertinent information. What before used to be something that was on a federal level has migrated down to information-sharing to the point of a municipal and county level, which helps to increase everyone’s safety with any type of threats or any type of dangers,” Friel said.

Friel was on patrol that morning, and can “remember the day like it was yesterday.”

“It made everyone aware of everyone’s mortality, and how an act of that nature could impact so many lives all in one moment. It made you thankful for the people that you had in your life. I think everyone who had any family members or friends that worked anywhere near those areas were calling and trying to make sure that everyone was OK,” Friel said.

Friel recalled that the immediate aftermath “brought everyone in our United States together. It made everyone more compassionate for each other ... To some extent, some of that initial part of it has faded for some, but I think that, for most people, that moment will stay etched in their memory forever and have an appreciation for the first responders—the police, the fire and the EMS—that gave their lives to try to save and protect the people that they could. Some of that has faded for some individuals, but for others that remains in their heart and in their mind,” Friel said.

American Legion F.A. Funston Post 186 Commander Dave Colofranson, who was on active duty in the U.S. Army on 9/11, noted that “monumental engagements of murder and destruction” like the attacks are “always a hard thing to digest.”

“We want to live in a peaceful world. But, we also know that it would take soldiers to always maintain the focus that this world we live in sometimes can be very cruel and hard ... Everybody thinks that, because you serve and you have a weapon, our only job is to kill—which is the furthest from the truth. We try to preserve life. We take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. When any veteran takes that oath, they give that oath freely to sacrifice their lives in the interests of democracy and the freedoms that we have in this country,” Colofranson said.

Colofranson said that it is hope that his service made a difference “as did the other members in my platoon, and the military across the spectrum.”

“Even though people may not understand this, this country is protected 24/7 by men and women—and even civilians and local police—to try and keep us safe. The world we live in, in many different places, is very harsh and cruel. I’m blessed, but I’m more blessed to be a member of the armed services who once protected this great land we live in,” Colofranson said.

It is important, though, to be cognizant of what lessons—if any—have been learned from the past, Colofranson said.

“I think that’s the question that needs to be asked and answered: have we learned anything from the past? Do things move forward, and we wait until the next 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, or the sacrifices across Germany and France and around the world? ... This remembrance is not going to heal the country; it never will,” Colofranson said.

The Rev. Anthony Parise, pastor of Victory Bible Church, also noted the importance of remembering the lessons from that day.

“I think many of us felt the need to be with family, and then, as the people of faith, it was important to be together with our church family. The initial reality of what happened caused our church to see a great uptick in attendance, not only on Sunday but also at our midweek prayer meeting. People just felt the need to seek the Lord because of the events that took place on 9/11. In seeking the Lord, you can find peace and solace in troubling times—and they certainly were troubling times. I think as a nation the event drew us together,” Parise said.

The increased church, however, was short-lived, Parise said.

“As things got back to some form of normal, many of the people who saw the need to attend church went back to their normal activities, and no longer saw the need to attend church—but the faithful remained faithful,” Parise said.

Parise contrasted the behavior of people then with that of people in 2021.

“Currently, as a nation, we are facing many problems. We are living with a pandemic that just won’t go away; we are seeing problems in our cities, and communities and in our homes. Our nation is becoming more and more divided on the lines of race and political affiliation ... Sadly, with everything going on in our nation, and with the world as crazy as it is, you would think that people would run to the Lord, but instead, there seems to be very few who are truly seeking the Lord today—in comparison to 20 years ago after 9/11. My hope and my prayer is that people will turn to the Lord and seek him as they did after 9/11, because I believe the Lord is the only one who can heal our troubled nation,” Parise said.

The Rev. Eliot DeNick, the pastor of Hammonton Baptist Church, also noted a temporary increase in church attendance.

“Immediately after that, there seemed to be a great interest in God and in the church, and that lasted for a few months and then it kind of tapered off again. For many of us, brought to mind in Timothy where it says, ‘In the last days, perilous times will come.’ In 2 Timothy 3, it gives a description of what that’s going to be like, and boy, that seems like what followed after 9/11. 9/11 was almost like a call to say, look what’s happening—to people, to society in general. For many of us, we see that in the scriptures as far as what God says in his word. That was a wake-up call for us, I think. We’re seeing our world just becoming more violent and more ungodly, to be honest about it,” DeNick said.

DeNick said that he was at the church on the morning of the attacks.

“Somebody called me and told me what had happened. I came home, and I turned on the TV just as the second airplane hit the second building. It was a shock: can this really be happening? Is this for real? Here we are in the United States of America; is this really happening? Yes. It did happen. In that sense, the lasting impact was that anything can happen. Anything can happen,” DeNick said.

For DeNick, the lasting impact of 9/11 is “an awareness of what can happen in life: the unexpected and the terrible.”

“We should be prepared for that; that’s really where we have to go. Day by day, we’ve seen a continuation of things—like with COVID, people dying suddenly—that life is very simple and it can pass very quickly, and we have to be ready for life as we go through it each day ... God told Israel, ‘Your strength is not in your chariots and your swords and your horses. It’s in me.’ America has to look within itself. We’re fighting a lot of battles right now, and we have to look within ourselves and see where is our strength,” DeNick said.


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