Area residents remember Sept. 11, 2001
September 07, 2011 - By The Citizen staff
Bob McArthur watched the events of Sept. 11, 2001 unfold on television, with an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
At that time, he was the Brandon Fire Chief and had spent his career in service to others. At Fire Station #1 in Ortonville, it is typical to leave the television tuned to a news station and on that morning that would turn out to not be typical, McArthur and his fellow firefighters drew around the television after someone saw on the news that an airplane had struck one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
"The first plane, you wondered, 'How in the world could they hit that?'" McArthur, now 64 and retired, recalls. "When you saw it hit, the first assumption is that it would be contained to the top part of the building, but as soon as we saw the second plane gliding at it, I knew it wasn't an accident, it was something deliberate. The disbelief just makes you ill."
They watched in shock the subsequent collapse of the towers on television and the horror continued as reports came in that a plane had struck the Pentagon and another hijacked plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks that a decade later is remembered in detail by millions of Americans.
"It was a hard time for everyone, but for firefighters, we just wanted to help, knowing how devastating it was," McArthur said. "As the day progressed, you start checking with your own family, your kids, knowing things would escalate and get worse... It's amazing, it doesn't seem like it was that long ago. No other news event sticks out in my mind as much or was so overwhelming."
At Harvey Swanson Elementary in Ortonville, Principal Helen Clemetsen had just walked into the office, around 9:15 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001. CNN was on the television and Clemetsen remembers that Secretary Pat Tryska said to her, "Helen, a plane just flew into one of the twin towers at the trade center."
As they watched, the second plane hit and they knew it must be a terrorist act.
"We were stunned and shocked and felt so bad," said Clemetsen. "It was very, very scary."
The decision was made to keep the students inside for recess on the clear day and while Clemetsen went to every class and talked to each teacher to inform them of events, the children were not aware anything was wrong.
Clemetsen had an additional emotional burden of learning that her cousin Peggy's husband, New York Firefighter Glen Perry and father of two children, was missing in the collapse of the towers.
"We knew he might not make it, and he didn't," she said. "He died in that and his body was not found until March the next year."
A statue now stands in the neighborhood where Glen and Peggy Perry lived with their two children that memorializes the lost firefighter, as well as several other firefighters who lived in that neighborhood and perished in the collapse of the towers while trying to save the lives of others. It is a comfort to the families, Clemetsen said.
Jessica Heminsen, a Goodrich High School student who is now 17, lived in California at the time of the attacks. Even though she was just 7-years-old at the time, she remembers she was getting ready to go to the babysitter's house when her neighbors came over and took her to their house. They watched as the plane flew into the second tower. The experience, she said, made her more aware of what was going on in the world.
Ten years ago, Ken Tison was the youth director at Ortonville Baptist Church (now Hillside Bible Church, where he is executive pastor). He was getting ready to go to his full-time business job when his wife told him a plane had hit the first tower.
"It seemed like a crazy half-hour drive in to work," he said. "The news was all over the place— a plane had hit the Pentagon... there were crazy reports, too, not all of them accurate... It just seemed like in my mind, that it was war. Obviously, we were being attacked and on the humanity side, people were being hurt and dying. I prayed for the people in those situations and that God would watch over the people responding. I was praying for everyone and everything in general."
At his office, he kept the television on all day, and like McArthur, was overwhelmed. He knew the world for America had changed.
"Other than Pearl Harbor, it was the first time in the modern era we had to deal with something on our shores. I knew it was a call for people to look to God for wisdom and guidance. We should do it all the time, but we tend to forget until we are in times of need."
The next day, Tison led a youth group meeting in which he had roughly 50 teenagers with reactions to the events of the day before that were all over the map— upset, angry, confused, scared.
In general, Tison believes it was a wake-up call to what is important in life.
"We live in a country that cherishes freedom and liberty, and in those times, you realize what is important in life-- relationships with family and God," he said. "At those times, work is not important. Other things are more important, not what I wanted to accomplish at work that day. For me personally, it has definitely changed me."
Tom Fikes was on active duty stationed in the Detroit Army Arsenal when he watched the events of Sept. 11 on television.
"We all realized the attack was not an accident," said Fikes, an Ortonville resident. "There was a lot of apprehension and concern—the military looked to the scope of the attack. My job function and the pace of my work did change—the immediacy became a lot more relevant."
Fikes said attacks were not new to the military.
"The USS Cole was attacked on Oct. 12, 2000—that was still fresh on the minds of the miltary," said Fikes of the attack on the American guided missile destroyer, USS Cole, in Aden Harbour, Yemen in which seventeen people died and 39 were injured. "We still thought we were safer on American soil than other parts of the world—now the dangers may be at home."
Soon after the attack, security was beefed up at various miltary installations, including Selfridge Air Base, Warren and recruitment locations, added Fikes.
"There were new dynamics that had to be taken into consideration," he said. "We had to determine what the correct response was—it all was a big surprise. The entire nation was not immune. I can't speak for all the military, but security is tighter."