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Napa Valley residents recount shock, fear of attacks on 20th anniversary of 9/11
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Napa Valley residents recount shock, fear of attacks on 20th anniversary of 9/11

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Twenty years ago Saturday, terrorists carried out an attack as unexpected as it was deadly, hijacking four passenger jets that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a remote field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In a few hours on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, two of the world’s most famous skyscrapers were destroyed, the seat of the U.S. armed forces grievously damaged, and nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.

The shock and fear of that day has remained a vivid memory two decades on, as images of the Sept. 11 attacks — seen on television by most Americans, but in terrifyingly real life by others — have stayed with us as perhaps no event since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, or the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

A variety of people with Napa Valley ties shared their memories from 9/11 and its aftermath with the Register ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks.

On that late-summer morning in 2001, Heather Stanton, then the Napa flood control manager, was in Washington with then-Napa Mayor Ed Henderson and a small delegation to lobby for federal funding of the Napa River flood control project. As she prepared that morning for the group’s planned visit with Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Capitol Hill, news already was emerging of the attacks in New York — but with no clue of the threat that soon would come near to her.

“That morning, getting ready for our appointments, I had the TV on in my hotel room and saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Center,” she said in a recent interview. “The initial reaction was that it was an accident, but by the time I left my room the second plane had hit, so clearly it was not an accident … When the crashes occurred, we were on alert that something (else) was wrong.”

A car shuttled Stanton, Henderson and the others from the Hay-Adams hotel to Feinstein’s office when at about 9:40 a.m., “a very low-flying plane went overhead, when we were almost up to the Capitol entry, she recalled. “Our driver realized this was just not right, and made a U-turn and immediately took us back to the hotel.”

That plane was American Airlines Flight 77, whose hijackers would pilot it toward a fiery end into the side of the Pentagon, and the deaths of more than 180 people inside the compound and aboard the jet.

Back at the Hay-Adams, the Napa delegation joined other guests in watching TV coverage of the aftermath, including the collapse of the twin towers in Manhattan. With federal workers being evacuated amid fears of attacks on the White House or Capitol, the Napans rented a van intending to find an airport with available flights to California, only to learn through payphone calls of the federal government’s grounding of all flights over the U.S. following the hijackings.

Instead, Stanton, Henderson, Yountville Mayor Mary Lou Holt and Napa’s flood project engineer Bob Peterson would drive their rental van the full 2,800 miles west to Napa over the next four days and four hours.

The journey was marked by the silence of skies suddenly without aircraft, and of a constant search for updates — and some measure of peacefulness.

“The whole thing about that drive that stands out to me was us singing, making jokes, just trying to lighten the mood,” said Stanton of the drive west. “Ed Henderson is quite a singer, so every state we went, he tried to sing the state song, which was quite enjoyable.

“We had the radio stations going, and every night in a hotel we were glued to a TV. When we went to a restaurant, the TVs were always on.”

Elsewhere in the nation’s capital, Mike Thompson, the St. Helena native who had been elected to represent Napa County in Congress three years earlier, was in his headquarters at the Cannon House Office Building when a TV broadcast reported the crash of the first plane in New York. After a meeting in the Capitol, he walked out and saw a trail of smoke — and a general emerging from a staff car.

“I asked the general, ‘Is that the Pentagon?’” he recalled recently. It was, and the congressman and an aide evacuated to Thompson’s home in Washington.

“I can tell you that walking out of the Capitol and seeing a plume of smoke coming from the Pentagon was chilling,” said Thompson, now in his 12th House term. “It sent a shock wave through the system; we had never had an attack on our soil until that point since Pearl Harbor.”

Other people, whose lives later would lead them to the Napa Valley in years to come, were in Manhattan that day as the borough’s most famous and imposing landmark burned, then collapsed.

Kenneth Moll, now an Angwin resident, was at his desk at Madison Avenue and East 53th Street talking with a friend who was working with Moody’s Investor Services in the city. A soft explosive sound came through, seeming to him somewhat like a backfiring city bus.

“Did you hear that?” the friend asked Moll, and the two men turned toward a window — and spotted a growing billow of smoke toward the south.

“At which point I stood up on the floor of my office in midtown and announced to everyone within hearing distance that the World Trade Center was on fire,” Moll recalled in a recent letter to the Register. “… Without question, I was one of the first people in NYC who knew how the day was starting minutes before everyone else in the world would soon know.”

Dozens of blocks south of Moll’s office, George Mauze actually was in the World Trade Center’s south tower, as the senior vice president of an outplacement company based on the 21st floor.

At 8:45 a.m. EDT, an explosion rocked the tower, followed by an enormous shudder and the sight of debris falling nearly 100 stories to the ground.

Instantly knowing some catastrophe had struck but not its cause, Mauze immediately told the 35 workers and various clients to grab their belongings and rush down the stairs. Less than 10 minutes after the explosion, they were outside — and witnessing a fireball erupting from three sides of the north tower’s upper floors. He told his employees to get out of downtown as quickly as possible, then rode a subway to another company office in Midtown.

“Still not knowing what had happened when I arrived at our (other) office, I asked the receptionist if she knew,” said Mauze, who now lives in Napa. “She told me a plane had hit 1WTC (the north tower), and that a plane had hit my building, 2WTC (the south tower), as well. Not believing what she said, I looked downtown and saw flames coming out of both buildings.”

“I did not know it then, but I would lose more than 100 friends and acquaintances that day, and my life would be changed forever.”

In the Register’s downtown newsroom on Second Street, Kevin Courtney and his fellow reporters crowded into a photographer’s darkroom around a small TV displaying video of the first hijacked plane striking the World Trade Center. When the second jetliner struck — and made clear the first crash was no accident — the newspaper sent out four reporters to rapidly gather the local reactions to the unfolding disaster.

“I went to the Marriott hotel where they had set up a TV in the restaurant,” remembered Courtney, who retired in June after 48 years as a Register reporter and city editor. “You had hotel guests gathered around the TV in astonishment. The most memorable quote from that visit was of a man who said, ‘We’re going to war.’

“I didn’t appreciate at the time how prophetic that was, that we were indeed going to war. We all had a sense this was historic. I don’t know that I thought of Pearl Harbor, but that analogy seemed appropriate for the times.”

Register reporters told of the closure of Napa County Airport, the suspension of airport buses to San Francisco, even a brief bomb threat phoned in against the Napa County courthouse on Coombs Street.

Upon recently rereading the paper’s coverage from that day, said Courtney, “I was touched by the county and law enforcement officials issuing a statement to reassure the Napa public that in all likelihood, the county was not going to be an A-list target. Thinking about it now, the thought that the planes that had attacked the World Trade Center might have been part of some giant fleet that would make life dangerous in the Napa Valley seems preposterous but at the time, the nature of the threat was not known.”

On Coombs Street, work at Gordon Huether’s art studio came to a virtual halt as he and about two dozen staff members focused on the scenes of destruction playing out on a TV.

“I just remember this deep sense of shock,” he said of that day. “Everybody was just super-quiet, you didn’t know what to say, what to do. Everyone was kind of paralyzed; work stopped.”

On the opposite coast, a Napan found herself stranded in New England with America’s airspace fully locked down and all flights grounded.

Janet Perry had traveled east for the enrollment of her eldest daughter, who was to start college that day in New Hampshire. After seeing the second hijacked plane crash into the twin towers on TV, she realized her scheduled flight home from Boston two days later would be canceled and went to a bookstore in Nashua to make arrangements for a longer stay — only to find two women tying up the phone.

“When I interrupted them and told them why I needed to use the phone, one said, ‘That's where they will hit next!’ recalled Perry, who now lives in Vallejo. “Obviously, they had never visited our county of vineyards and low-rise buildings.”

Eventually, rather than wait for airports to reopen, Perry rented a truck to make the long drive west to Napa. Along the way, she stitched a pillow, which she still owns 20 years on and calls Stars of Sorrow.

In Napa that morning, Brad Wagenknecht didn’t hesitate to turn his seventh-grade social studies class he taught at Redwood Middle School into a time for students to talk through their anxieties, even as fresh news of the attacks played out on TV screens on campus.

“They wondered about going to war; they were asking, ‘Are we going to war? What are we going to do about it? What can we do about it?’” Wagenknecht, a Napa County supervisor who had taught full- or part-time in the Napa school system since 1977, remembered.

“We spent the day talking about what was going on, what we knew at the time, and the stories were changing minute by minute because we didn’t have a clear idea what was going on. As the day went on we had better information, but I was answering a lot of questions that day.”

“Over the years I ran into a bunch of kids I had that day. I had 165 students at that point. They’ve said, ‘Mr. Wagenknecht, do you remember talking about this?’ It’s always amazing to hear their take on my take of 20 years ago. It’s amazing.”

Farther north, faculty members at St. Helena Primary School discussed how to break the news of the attacks to students younger than Wagenknecht’s. In the staff room, the principal advised teachers not to volunteer information on the events in New York and Washington, but to listen to children’s questions and directly answer them, teacher Ana Canales told the Register.

“I was scared, parents were scared, children were scared,” wrote Canales. “Adults were crying; children, ages five through seven, were clinging; everyone looking for answers as they arrived in Room 10.”

To calm the pupils and quell their fear as best as possible, Canales had children sit on the rug and, in the calmest voice she could manage, explained the facts and misinformation from the fast-moving disaster out east, before sending them off with a group sing and hugs.

“It was up to me to assure them that planes were not coming to our school to dive into us, that our families were not being attacked, that they would not be killed, that they were safe with their parents and at school,” she wrote the Register.

Though Canales’ students on that day are long since grown, she described a bond with them that has not faded. “I hope that what we did that morning together — when we weren’t sure of the future of America — serves us all as we continue to face a world of uncertainty,” she wrote.

Huether, the sculptor, would go on to receive half a dozen steel fragments of the destroyed twin towers to incorporate into monuments dedicated to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, with memorials of his design dedicated in Napa and Yountville for the 10th anniversary in 2011, and in American Canyon five years later.

In a Register interview, he described the immediate weightiness of mood he felt upon seeing the 35 tons of twin towers inside a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where the material was stored for memorial projects across the U.S. and worldwide.

“As we walked into that building, the whole vibe changed,” he remembered. “You saw trains smashed, fire engines burned, boxes of shoes, twisted steel, massive pieces of twisted steel, and they actually had a curator, treating it like a crime scene, which it was. Every little scrap of anything from the twin towers was cataloged and stored there.”

All three memorials will play host to remembrances of 9/11 Saturday morning. Ceremonies will start at 11 a.m. at the Napa and American Canyon sites, and an earlier, 7 a.m. observance in Yountville will include a moment of silence at 7:28 a.m. — adjusted for time zones, the moment when the second and last of the World Trade Center towers fell.

“I would think locals might well want to visit our own memorial and have a moment of reflection,” said Courtney, the longtime Register newsman. “For a little town on the West Coast, that gives a good concentration of a sense of loss, and of respect.”

The images of the Taliban patrolling the streets and Afghans desperately trying to climb aboard planes are especially difficult for Gold Star families.They're the families of the over 2,400 U.S. service members who died serving in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. Craig Gross, who lost his son Frank, says one question has repeatedly come to mind over the past few days: Did our soldiers die in vain? "Our sons did not die in vain. No one will ever be able to take away from our sons what they did for our country. No one will ever be able to diminish the sacrifice that they made. And the sacrifice that Gold Star families made," said Craig Gross.Gross and other Gold Star families Newsy spoke with said its time to heal, not blame. They say their mission is to keep their loved ones memories alive.

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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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