Planes, towers and 20 years: the day that changed America
Western New Yorkers who experienced the September 11 attacks
recall a morning when terrorism altered our country — and the world
Twenty years ago, on a clear late summer morning, one of the darkest days in American history unfolded.
People of a certain age recall events of September 11, 2001, with striking clarity. The iconic date marked the only time since World War II that the United States was attacked on its home soil by a foreign entity. In the wake of the nearly 3000 lives lost at the World Trade Center, and additional injuries and deaths caused by a plane crashing into the Pentagon, along with the crash of Flight 93, events from twenty years ago changed how Americans viewed themselves and how the world operated.
We now recognize that the fight against terrorism is perpetual, ongoing, everlasting. National security is a way of life. Strangers seem more suspicious. Regulations are tighter everywhere, from borders to public spaces.
Everyone who was old enough to remember that September 11 has a story. Two decades later, these are just a few.
Daybreak in Syracuse
As morning dawned, Hamburg native Bill Bates already knew that that Tuesday would mark a milestone. His son, Augie, who had turned 3 in July, was beginning preschool in Syracuse, just a few blocks from where Bates worked at the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Defense. Abbreviated DCIS, he was part of a team that was experienced in investigating diverse crimes, from murder to white-collar fraud.
“As a dad, Augie is my only child, so I was happy and proud but also sad and worried,” said Bates, acknowledging the conflicting emotions that many parents experience when their child undertakes a new phase of life.
Bates, now 61, remembers clear details about the hours when planes were hijacked. Augie’s mom, Tracy, taught at the preschool their son would attend, and after seeing them both inside, Bates sat in the school’s parking lot with idle time before the DCIS office opened. Absently, he organized his cluttered car. There were napkins and papers, and he found a box cutter under a seat. It didn’t mean much then, but in weeks to come, he reflected on the odd coincidence: he held the same weapon that the terrorists had used to impose their will on pilots and passengers, almost at the same time.
Bates arrived at the DCIS office before 9 a.m. Before settling in to work, he wanted to connect with a friend in Washington, D.C. An avid baseball fan, Bates’ friend had attended high school with Jeff Manto, a star hitter for the Buffalo Bisons.
“It was Jeff Manto Night in Buffalo and I had a poster of him that I was faxing to my friend,” he said. “As I came back down the hall, one of my co-workers had a radio on. He said a plane just hit the World Trade Center. I thought it was big news, but I went back to my desk.”
Colleagues in his office located an old black and white TV and moved it near one of the few windows, hoping for better reception. Someone bent a wire coat hanger to serve as an antenna, and soon everyone huddled around a static-filled screen to watch smoke pouring from the 80th floor of the North Tower, where the first plane had crashed. An office secretary wondered aloud if what they were seeing was an accident.
“That’s no accident,” Bates declared. “You don’t accidentally hit one of the tallest buildings in the world with an airplane.”
As everyone watched, a second plane approached the South Tower.
“I thought, oh, that’s good,” Bates recalled. “It’s going to drop fire retardant on the building. Then we saw the giant poof of smoke. I said what everyone else in the country said, ‘We’re under attack.’ It was such a horrific thing. Of course, you knew it was terrorists because of what happened a few years before when a bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center.”
What Bates didn’t know was how events unfolding before him would shift his investigative focus in the next few months — and over time, the direction of his career.
Eyewitness at the South Tower
For Scott Farmer, who witnessed the attack while standing at the foot of the World Trade Center, memories are more sensory. He heard and saw the second attack, and immediately felt a rush of heat. He smelled the destruction.
At 8:46 a.m., shortly after Farmer began his workday on the second floor of Liberty Plaza, he felt an unfamiliar thud. He had no idea that a plane had hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower, whose footprint was only a few hundred feet from where he sat.
“My office was an open floor,” he explained. “My desk happened to face east, onto Broadway. I couldn’t see any of the World Trade Center from where I sat. Everyone was working by then. [The thud] wasn’t dramatic, but was noteworthy enough that I looked around and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.”
Shortly, people on the far side of the room gathered at a floor-to-ceiling window. Hearing concerned tones, Farmer crossed the room to join them.
“To our left, you could see both towers,” he recalled. “I looked up and saw smoke billowing out of the North Tower. There was a lot of uncertainty. People wondered if it had been a bomb. Some of us wanted to go outside for a closer look.”
Farmer, a Hamburg native, is a 1996 graduate of Frontier High School. After earning a degree from Syracuse University, he moved to New York City in 1999 to begin a career in finance. On the morning of September 11, he was 23 years old, only two weeks into a job as a risk analyst for RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) in Liberty Plaza.
He and several colleagues descended a single flight of stairs and left through an emergency exit, hoping for a fuller view. From where he stood, Farmer could see both the North and South towers. In the wake of the first explosion, papers drifted through the air like confetti. A crowd grew. Sirens were heard as fire trucks and ambulances arrived.
“Nearby, someone said, ‘I think that’s a person,’” Farmer recalled. “I looked up and focused, and over the next 10 minutes, I watched people jump from the North Tower. You could hear the crowd react. I thought about that awful decision those people made: whether to jump or burn.”
As Farmer weighed whether to return to the office, he heard an unfamiliar, frightening hum, but couldn’t identify its origin.
“It was the harrowing sound of the second plane coming in,” he said. “It sounded like a missile really low to the ground. I only heard it for five seconds, but it was so slow the way it echoed off the buildings. It was paralyzing. At that point, I was concerned for my own safety. When the plane hit the South Tower, there was a huge plume of smoke. Standing where I was, I felt the heat from that fireball.”
Debris rained down. People on the pavement were peppered with flying office supplies and building parts. Floor-to-ceiling glass panes shattered on the ground floors, so bystanders were cut and bleeding. Observers pushed and ran away.
“People were ducking for cover,” he said. “It was dangerous to be standing there. Some went back into Liberty Plaza, but they couldn’t go through revolving doors because those were filled with broken glass. So they simply walked through the broken windows. It was such a strange sight.”
He began heading up Church Street, removing himself from the scene. A few blocks away, Farmer saw what appeared to be an airplane engine lying in the middle of the street. After a few turns, he was in front of City Hall when he pivoted back to witness both towers smoldering, erupting thick white smoke. Along the trek, he joined people gathered around radios or watched live coverage on TVs that played in bodegas.
“I was constantly stopping to get updates along the way,” he recalled. “I made it to East Village when the South Tower fell. By the time I was back in my apartment on 53rd and 2nd in Midtown, the North Tower had fallen and I learned about the attack on the Pentagon.”
Farmer, his roommates, and their friends remained in his apartment most of the afternoon. He had a new cellphone, but couldn’t get service that day. Phone lines were jammed. It wasn’t until 6:30 p.m. when he finally connected with his mother in Western New York, via land line, assuring her that he was okay.
“I had just started a new job, and she didn’t even know my work number,” he said. “She didn’t know if I was in the World Trade Center or the building next to it. That was a very important conversation, to let her know that I was all right.”
Because he was new to the company, Farmer was unsure how to report back to work. Was Liberty Plaza damaged? Would it open anytime soon? He recalls that RBC set up an emergency hotline, where he learned that a core of workers would be transferred to an offsite building in Queens.
“They only had enough seats for essential personnel,” he recalled. “Being the new guy, I was not essential. I did not report to work until after the new year.”
Farmer recognizes that he witnessed a historical event. Twenty years later, he remains grateful that he avoided immediate danger.
“I had a front seat to the tragedy,” he said. “As you went outside during the next few days, you could smell the burning and smoldering pile at Ground Zero. I can’t really describe it. It wasn’t quite like burning tires, but a mixture of metal and burning bodies. That consumed the city for a good week. I’ve never smelled anything else like it in my life.”
Investigating the World Trade Center attack
In the Syracuse building where Bill Bates worked, a nearby financial firm had a color TV with clearer images than the DCIS’s fuzzy black and white screen. As morning progressed, Bates and his colleagues watched from there when the first tower collapsed. Silence and disbelief filled the room.
“It was a horrifying concept that thousands of people just died,” Bates said.
Businesses across the country shut down; workers were instructed to go home.
“I went back to the school and picked up my son on his first day, which became his last day for a couple years,” Bates said. He and Augie’s mom pivoted, deciding that rather than start their son in school early, they should keep him home as long as possible to shelter him from potential dangers. It would be another three years before Augie set foot in a classroom to begin kindergarten.
“We took Augie home, and his favorite thing to do was ride the swing set. As he did, I looked up at the sky, and there were no planes. That was unheard of. It was such a weird and creepy feeling, like the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Empty Sky.’”
Television programming immediately shifted to news reports, as most networks devoted round-the-clock coverage to the terrorist attacks.
“The one exception was ESPN Classic,” Bates said. “They were playing a tape of Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter. I was thankful for that moment when I could see something else, because it looked like the end of the world.”
The following day, two agents from Syracuse’s DCIS office were dispatched to Pittsburgh to help with the investigation into Flight 93, which had crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. That flight had been hijacked, believed to be heading toward the United States Capitol. Bates was disappointed to have not been chosen for the investigation.
“There was a very smart female agent in the office, and she and I both felt like we had just been cut from the football team because we didn’t get selected,” he said. “Not an hour later, the call came in that we were both going to New York City. We went home and packed, then left immediately. As we drove down along the edge of New Jersey, it was getting dark, but you could see the skyline, with all the work lights and searchlights. You could see fumes rising off what used to be the World Trade Center. It looked like War of the Worlds.”
Bates viewed the wreckage during sunset on September 12. He wasn’t a first responder, he claims, but “a last responder.” For him, the work was just beginning.
In the wake of the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered planes across the country to land immediately and remain grounded. Authorities could not anticipate whether there were more secret plans. Could other terrorist cells lay in wait, ready to highjack the next aircraft?
Tim and Tina Malone of Lancaster learned of the attack while honeymooning at a ranch in rural Wyoming. Eager to begin a life together, they were among the first to recognize how events of September 11 would alter the way businesses and individuals operated. After the attacks, they found themselves unable to fly home.
The couple married on Saturday, September 8, and the following day flew to Yellowstone National Park. They spent Monday sightseeing, and on Tuesday afternoon, ventured into the small town of Cody to buy postcards.
“Everyone was acting kind of weird,” Tim said. “Someone asked where we were from and we said ‘New York.’ They said, ‘Oh. Sorry.’ We said, ‘Why? New York’s not that bad.’”
A clerk informed them of the attacks, then invited the Malones behind a counter so they could view images on the TV there.
“We had just visited the World Trade Center on Memorial Day of that year,” Tim said. “That made it very real to us.”
“We purposely went on our honeymoon to a place that didn’t have TVs or phones, to get away from everything,” Tina reflected. “We were up in the mountains and had been totally clueless, until we went into town.”
In the hours following the attacks, confusion reigned. The Malones wondered if they should hurry home. The couple did not own a cellphone, so they drove to the airport to ask if their Saturday flight was still scheduled. But the parking lot was blocked by an array of Humvees.
“We went back to the honeymoon suite and got on the phone trying to figure out if we could fly home. We got no good answers.”
Amid the uncertainty, they experienced a moment of tranquility on September 12, while contemplating their next step. Tina bought cheap watercolor paints while Tim purchased the daily newspaper. Stopping in a field overlooking a mountain range, Tina painted the panoramic scene while Tim unfolded the paper to read about what had occurred.
“It was complete, unobstructed beauty,” she said. “There were no telephone lines, just mountains and field and clouds. The air was so fresh and clean and sage-scented. You could smell it in the breeze. In the distance, there were elks making a bugling sound.”
They brought Tina’s painting home, and later had it framed, where it still hangs in their living room, a visual reminder of their honeymoon’s short serenity — contrasting with the chaos of the world.
“At least we had a couple days of joy before the long journey home,” Tina reflected.
Early reports from the World Trade Center were that 20,000 people might be dead. In the face of a national emergency, the couple was uncomfortable being away. Knowing that they would lose money by leaving the ranch, they decided to return to Buffalo as soon as possible.
“We knew we had to get back to work,” Tim said. Since 1988, he has volunteered with Twin District Fire Company in Lancaster. He wondered if the fire company would be sent downstate to help comb through debris.
Tina’s sister, aunt and uncle lived in New York City, which added another layer of concern. Fortunately, all were okay.
They decided to drive home. But the Wyoming office of the car rental agency wouldn’t allow them take their rented Oldsmobile back to Buffalo, suggesting that they would be stealing the car. Tim got on the phone with corporate headquarters, where he was assured that this was a national emergency. They were granted permission to take the car one way. The local branch then relented, exchanging the Oldsmobile for a smaller Honda.
“It wouldn’t hold all our luggage quite the way we wanted it to,” Tim recalled. “We weren’t driving in comfort.”
Because they were passing nearby, they stopped at Mount Rushmore. Security was tight; they were not allowed to linger in the parking lot. When they finally arrived home to Lancaster on Saturday, they had driven 2000 miles.
“It was certainly a memorable honeymoon,” Tina said.
Back in New York City, less than 48 hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, Bill Bates was part of a DCIS team whose role was to sift through rubble, search for clues, and seek evidence of what had occurred.
“Being law enforcement agents, we had to do an investigation,” Bates recalled. “What happened? What caused this? Nothing has ever been more obvious to me what caused it. Still, we had to walk the perimeter and look. It was a step that had to be taken.”
On the night of September 12, Bates slept in a Long Island hotel. The next morning, he joined a caravan of investigators who rode into the heart of New York. The scene was surreal. Normally bustling, “the city that never sleeps” had come to a dazed halt, so there was little traffic. People on street corners cheered whenever law enforcement drove past.
“I remember feeling guilty, like I can’t really do anything to make this all right,” Bates said. “But people needed some happiness in the midst of something so awful. There was a gravity to everything. There were no jokes. Nothing was going to make this okay.”
Bates’ team was assigned to the FBI operations center on the USS Intrepid, a World War II-era aircraft carrier that has been permanently docked on the Hudson River since 1982. Bates recalls an armed presence around the ship, which was wired for computer use.
“They needed volunteers to work at the morgue, so I said I’d do it,” Bates said. “They set up a D-mort, or disaster mortuary. The FBI did a great job organizing this. We went to Staten Island, to the Fresh Kills Landfill. We were given hazmat suits, masks and booties.”
Piles of rubble were transported to Fresh Kills from the World Trade Center site. Agents were tasked with combing through debris to find anything that might contribute to the investigation. A spot was set aside for airplane parts; another was reserved for human remains. Eventually, components of an airplane began to take shape.
“We went through on our hands and knees trying to find anything that would help,” Bates said. “I remember seeing parts of smashed aquariums and other things that would be found in people’s offices. We were finding jewelry and wallets, things that might identify missing people.”
Working in teams of approximately two dozen agents, giant spotlights were erected on-site so the search could continue throughout the night. Bates discovered human remains: a darkened fingertip that was carefully set aside.
After two days searching at the landfill, he and other agents saw their quarters moved again, this time to a hotel in Times Square. From there, he was deployed to Ground Zero.
“We were as close as could be,” he said. “I saw buildings filled with gray dust. We smelled horrible electric wires with an odor like burning plastic.”
By the weekend, he was rotated home to Syracuse, although scheduled to return soon. The memories of those first few days after the attack, when chaos seemed to rule every moment, made an immediate impression. Bates hoped his heavy feelings wouldn’t trickle down to his son.
“I went home and was so thankful to have my life and so sad that other people didn’t have theirs,” he remembered. “Before I got home, I stopped at a train store in Liverpool and bought Augie a toy train. I wanted him to have something wonderful, to have a good thing instead of thinking that the world was such a bad place.”
Having witnessed the terrorist attack as a young man, Scott Farmer confessed that he has experienced his share of bad dreams over the years. But events of September 11 never consumed him or impacted his ability to live a decent life. Now 43, he is the father of four boys, and lives with his wife in Monmouth Beach, New Jersey. Farmer has had several jobs in finance during the past two decades. He is currently head of electronic trading for StoneX Financial, and remembers fondly his formative years in Western New York.
“I revisit the memories of September 11 once a year,” he reflected. “I try to remember those who lost their lives. I was new to the city at that point. My network of people wasn’t as vast as it is now, so I didn’t know any immediate friend who passed away. But having been on Wall Street for the past 20 years, I’ve met many friends who lost loved ones. I’ve been back to Ground Zero a few times. There’s a memorial there now. It’s a quiet inner experience. You walk around and feel like it’s sacred ground.”
For Bill Bates, memories remain sharp from that fall of 2001. Between mid-September and October’s end, he made three trips to Ground Zero, completing different assignments each time.
While working cleanup at the World Trade Center, Bates inspected trucks that entered the site to haul away wreckage. Nearby was a viewing platform where surviving family members could visit. It was an emotional time as relatives saw the location firsthand. Bates watched their expressions as they processed the attack.
“It was the saddest, most awful moment of their life, to see this place where the person that they loved was gone,” Bates said. “They might never be found again. The look on those people’s faces just destroyed you.”
Their base of operations was moved from the USS Intrepid to a warehouse, and Bates was part of a team that tracked down individuals and searched for clues.
“After a few weeks, the investigation started to run like more normal law enforcement,” he said. “We’d be told to interview a certain person. There were so many leads because everyone was calling in with things they thought were suspicious. People would see someone who seemed different and contact the authorities. We had to check every lead and leave no stone unturned. Most everything turned out to be nothing of substance.”
Investigators learned that one of the dead terrorists had stayed overnight in a New York City hotel room several months before. Bates and his team were assigned to search that room, even though many other guests had cycled through afterward. Unsurprisingly, they discovered no clues.
Bates tried not to let emotions overwhelm him. During his deployments in New York, he sought to balance the difficult work with moments of grace. During his off hours, he bought a single ticket to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. He attended a New York Rangers game. He ice skated at Rockefeller Center.
After returning to the Syracuse office, the focus of his job quickly shifted to counterterrorism. He transferred to Buffalo in 2004, and left the job in 2017, when he reached mandatory retirement age.
“There was always so much to process and go through,” he said. “In my career, the nature of what we did was different after that day. It added a whole other layer onto investigations. The most important thing was to stop any terrorist-related activity. It was clear that we needed to preserve our country. September 11 changed everything.”
© 2021 by Jeff Schober
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