Community Leaders Around Dane County Share Their Memories

It feels like only yesterday when the world woke up to the unfolding horror of hijacked planes deliberately being flown into the twin towers at the heart of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, New York. In fact, it was 20 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001.

In all nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, and more than 6,000 others were injured. Twelve people who perished that infamous day had ties to Wisconsin, according to news reports. Many stayed glued to the airwaves for days, feeling a mixture of helplessness, anger and anxiety.

Ground zero crews — including police and firefighters — tasked with the heartbreaking mission to sift carefully through the debris in search of the missing, inked their names and social security numbers on their forearms in case they fell victim amid the unstable debris,

There’s no shortage of people who can vividly recall where they were that day and how it changed their life. 

Here are some of the memories from community leaders around Dane County:

Dr. Ruben L. Anthony Jr.,
President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison 

I was in Wisconsin at the Hill Farm State Office Building working as the division administrator for the Transportation Investment Management Division. I was the highest-ranking government official available in the building at that time and people began running into my office crying. We had a conference room there with a TV and people were waving for me to come and see what was happening.  So, I quickly ran into the room and saw the building being hit by a plane and collapsing. 

I also remember seeing people covered head-to-toe in white dust. Still, I did not realize what was taking place.  As a government official, I had to quickly shut down our buildings and go into emergency mode. I had state patrol block off vehicle access to the building and lock all doors. 

When Anthony was asked how the events of that day changed his life, he said it affected him personally because he was born in New York and still has close relatives living there.  “This really hit me hard.  It was emotional seeing your hometown being attack in the way that it was.” 

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway 

I was teaching undergraduate biology at the University of California-Irvine when my alarm sounded off.  I then remember turning on the radio hearing the NPR host describing the plane hitting the second tower.  Like many of us, I was in shock.  I remember going to work and to a small vigil on campus.  As the day progressed, and in following days, I remember the sick feeling in my gut that this horrendous tragedy was going to be used as an excuse to take the U.S. into an unrelated war.  

Renee Moe, 
President and CEO of United Way of Dane County 

I remember being in a board meeting chaired by Dave Stark.  Suddenly, the cellphones of the Madison police chief, superintendent of Madison schools and many other business and nonprofit leaders were going off at the same time.  It was eerie and indicative of something big happening.  A TV was brought into the room so we could see the news coverage and I remember watching with disbelief, numbness and heartache.  

This opened my eyes to others’ perceptions of our country.  It showed the violence and devastation that comes from fear and hatred and reminded me of the humanity in each of us to come together to help make things better.  

Madison Police Chief Dr. Shon F. Barnes 

On 9/11, I was attending a military drill as member of the United States Marine Corps Reserve in Greensboro, North Carolina. We had just completed a trail run when we were in route back to the base. We were divided into three vans, and I was in the middle van with the commanding officers. I recall the lead van abruptly stopping. The lead van driver sprinted to our van and emphatically requested that we turn on the radio. We were all frightened to hear the first-hand accounts of the towers in flames and the sounds of emergency vehicles and screams in the background … We rushed back to the drill center, and arrived just in time to watch in horror, as the first tower fell. We then began to receive calls from Marine headquarters to begin lock-down protocols. These protocols were practiced in years past, however this time; the lock down was not a drill. We all knew what no one said, our country would soon be at war.   

I remember a heated conversation I had about the response our nation should have to this event.  I remember the debates on military versus diplomatic responses.  I recall stating that we should not rush to judgement and that we could possibly use the goodwill and instant affection we were receiving from the world and do something good for a change.  As a police officer, I was educated to believe that the police are not in the punishment business.  We are in the justice business.  I wanted the same for our country.  I remember the conversations most of all.  The politicians, news reporters, political commentators, and average citizens that all wanted something other than the exercising of patience. 

Madison College President Dr. Jack E. Daniels III

I was in Houston, Texas at Houston Community College.  I remember seeing the World Trade Center implode; the video of the plane crashing into the world trade center; the path of the plane heading toward the Pentagon; and, watching with disbelief that this was happening in real time ꟷ not a move.  I remember seeing people scattering ꟷ and, yes, the multiple TV reports.  

This made clear the vulnerability of this country. …  We live in a global society, and we need to understand differences in beliefs and collaborate in addressing global issues. 

Terry Birts, 
Construction Manager for the Urban League of Greater Madison 

I was headed to a safety meeting with my workgroup at Metro North Service Center at WE Energies. I remember after the meeting was over one of the guys turned on the TV.  Somebody from the office ran into the room and announced that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York.  We figured it was a single engine plane that had engine trouble and just fell into the building by accident.  As we turned on our local news channel, we saw that no one had an explanation for such a large fire in the building.  Then we saw another very large plane slam into the other side of the World Trade Center building! That’s when it dawned on us that New York was under attack. 

We all stood there in disbelief with no words spoken among us.  What use were words now? How could this happen on our soil? … They begin to cancel all flights in the United States, no air travel allowed.  I went outside to where our work vehicles were staged to issue a stand-down order to my crews. Just then we heard jet engine noise.  As we looked up in the air, we saw three jet fighters escorting another large plane.  I later realized that Dick Cheney, who was vice president to George W. Bush at the time, was due to speak at a gathering in Milwaukee that day.  What we saw was Air Force One being escorted to a secure location. 

Brandon Jones, 
Sable Flames Chair

I was in the 10th grade in science class. Our teacher abruptly left the room and came back in tears. A television was wheeled into the classroom and for the next hour we watched the news coverage, including the final collapse of the towers. As fear, confusion, and a host of rumors spread on whether the attacks would move to other cities, we were given the option to leave school early with the permission of our parents.

I called my mom and asked to go home. I watched the skies as I walked home. The events changed a lot for the world. The cancer of modern terrorism had finally spread to U.S. soil. The world as we knew it would never be the same. Personally, these events showed me that in the event there’s a threat to us all, and not just a one specific race or demographic, only then are we able to unite as one. When that threat is no longer present, we revert back to systemic approach of putting some above others.

Dr. Darrell L. Williams, 
Administrator of the Division of Emergency Management in the Department of Military Affairs

I was just pulling in the driveway to Whittier School of Excellence in Milwaukee, where I was the principal. I remember one of my staff bursting out of the door and yelling, ‘Mr. Williams, they just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.’  I tried to calm her down and let her know that everything was going to be alright.  Then came the announcement that a second plane had hit the pentagon.  As you can imagine, everyone in the school was worried about what was going to happen next.  All my staff knew that I was military and that we were about to go to war.

Immediately after the attacks, from the highest level of command, discussions started to take place on how to respond.  As a result, I, along with many other men and women were deployed to Iraq. 

All of this has taught me to appreciate the small things in life.  It reaffirmed the importance of helping people and treating people with respect.  It showed me how important it is to try problem solve by talking to avoid fighting.  Despite the challenges, I would not have changed a thing.  Serving in Iraq and later in Afghanistan are two of the proudest moments of my life.  Being able to serve this country in combat during two conflicts was and is an honor.  It is one that I would do again! 

Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett 

I was a sophomore in college at the University of Wisconsin living in the Regent Apartments on campus. I remember waking up to someone calling my room phone and my cellphone nonstop.  After about 10 missed calls, I finally answered. It was my girlfriend in San Diego.  She was crying hysterically, and I knew it was something serious as I could hear her family in the background crying as well.  She told me to turn on the news, that a plane crashed into the World Trade Towers in New York, and that the United States was under attack. 

I immediately turned on the TV and saw the news coverage of the plane crashing into the first tower.  I got dressed and ran down the hall to my teammate’s apartment where Jonathan Clinkscale and a host of UW Basketball athletes were.  I ran into his room to wake him up and tell him what happened.  I remember my voice being very high pitched.  I will never forget the look on his face when I suddenly woke him up. 

The tragic attack on Sept. 11, 2001, will always be on my mind as I lost a family member that day.  My father’s sister, Rene Barrett-Arjune (Aunt Rene to me), was working as an accountant for Cantor Fitzgerald and was on the 101st floor. Aunt Rene sustained severe burns from the attack and escaped prior to the Tower collapse, but she succumbed to her injuries a month later.