‘Like Watching a Horror Movie’: Reflecting On 9/11, 20 Years Later



By Jonathon Sadowski

September 9, 2021

More than a dozen UpNorthNews readers shared their memories of the terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans 20 years ago.

It was 8:46 a.m. and Elie Gendloff stared out at the aftermath of a terrible accident.

Gendloff watched in horror from his office as smoke curled out from the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Another man in the office, located a few miles from the Twin Towers, told Gendloff he thought he saw a plane fly into the building. 

As Gendloff and his coworkers gazed out their office window and tried to process what was happening, a second plane flew into the South Tower. It was then they knew that it wasn’t an accident at all; the nation was under attack. 

They couldn’t look away.

“I saw the first building crumble and I thought at the time, ‘Thousands of people are just dying before my eyes right now,’” said Gendloff, a patent attorney who now lives in Eagle in Waukesha County.

Almost 3,000 people died and another 6,000 were injured between al Qaeda’s attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and the rural Pennsylvania crash of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93. The ensuing War on Terror resulted in an estimated 929,000 further deaths in the Middle East, sending shockwaves around the world that are felt to this day. Gendloff was one of more than a dozen UpNorthNews readers who shared their memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in interviews and emails ahead of the tragedy’s 20th anniversary on Saturday. 

'Like Watching a Horror Movie': Reflecting On 9/11, 20 Years Later
Oconomowoc resident Sue Hoefs’ daughter, Kendra, traveled to the former site of the Twin Towers with her parents about a month after the 9/11 attacks. (Photo courtesy of Sue Hoefs)

The scope of experiences shared with UpNorthNews ranges from people like Gendloff who were nearby, to others who were inspired to travel to Manhattan and visit Ground Zero in the days and weeks after the attacks, to others who were on vacations disrupted by the tragedy. While their individual relationships with the event vary greatly, they are all unified in the profound impact the attacks made on their lives—and modern international history. 

“Now I know how my parents and grandparents felt the day of Dec. 7, 1941,” wrote reader Kate Winslow, referring to the Pearl Harbor attack that prompted the US to enter World War II.

Tom Mall, a Green Bay native who is currently retired in Sturgeon Bay, was working as a psychiatric social worker in New Jersey at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He arrived at one of his assigned nursing homes that morning to find a group of residents gathered around a TV.

“It looked like they were watching a horror movie,” Mall said. “I couldn’t imagine what it was. And all of a sudden, we were seeing these planes flying into the World Trade Center.”

The residents, many of whom had mental illnesses, were getting upset, so Mall said he and the other workers brought them away from the TV. They held group therapy sessions to tell the residents what was going on and help them process the news, Mall said.

'Like Watching a Horror Movie': Reflecting On 9/11, 20 Years Later
Widespread damage was still present around Ground Zero a month after the 9/11 attacks. (Photo courtesy of Sue Hoefs)

Mall said that when he returned to his home in New Providence, New Jersey at the end of the day, he could still see smoke rising in the air about 25 miles away. Beyond the grim skyline, the train station in the nearby city of Summit underscored the gravity of the day. Commuters parked their cars there before taking the train to their jobs in Manhattan, but some never returned.

”By the end of the day, people weren’t arriving home, and many of them had been killed,” Mall said. “It was an experience of seeing these cars that were left in the parking lot in Summit and knowing that these people weren’t coming back.”

Other workers did make it home, but they were still greatly affected by the events of the day. Hours after the attacks, as he made his way to Grand Central Station to return to his home in Connecticut, Gendloff recalls shell-shocked commuters—still covered in dust from the buildings’ collapse—shambling their way along the street to catch their trains.

“They were covered in dust, just like zombies walking down the street,” Gendloff said.

Interrupted Plans

Elizabeth Palmer, of Poynette, said she and her family were set to fly back to Madison from a vacation in Montana. They woke up to the news of the attack on the Twin Towers on the final day of their trip. Rather than wait for a flight back home, they rented a car and soaked in all the information by listening to National Public Radio on the way.

“I remember feeling as unnerved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks at the time, as by the heinous crimes committed by the terrorists,” Palmer said. “In the moment, it seemed that almost immediately Baghdad and Iraq were in this administration’s sights.” 

Reader Kate Hearth said she and her husband had just returned home from a trip to Bayfield and the Apostle Islands for her 30th wedding anniversary when her friend called her and told her to turn on the television. She saw the news footage of the Twin Towers ablaze, an image now burned into her memory.

“Forever I will realize that, while I was planning a romantic getaway for my love and myself, others were planning a monstrous attack on New York City,” Hearth wrote in an email.

Spooner resident Chris Wilmot, who was on the Department of Natural Resource’s Emergency Management Team at the time, said he was set to go to Ground Zero to help rescue survivors about a week after the attack. However, as the search scaled back and the operation started focusing on finding bodies rather than survivors, Wilmot’s deployment was canceled. 

“​​I had a plane ticket and I was packed and ready to go when the mission changed from rescue to recovery,” Wilmot wrote in an email. 

‘Great Feeling of Unity’

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks came an unprecedented outpouring of support for New York and the first responders who risked—or gave—their lives during the attacks. 

Among those people sending direct support was Sue Hoefs, an Oconomowoc resident and former volunteer EMT with the Ashippun Fire Department.

Hoefs and her department raised about $5,000 for the New York Fire Department, and she traveled to New York City about a month after the attacks to visit Ground Zero and hand-deliver the money to a fire station. Even a month later, the ruins of the towers still smoldered, first responders were still recovering bodies, and streets remained littered with dust and debris.

'Like Watching a Horror Movie': Reflecting On 9/11, 20 Years Later
Oconomowoc resident Sue Hoefs, shaking hands on the right, traveled with her family about a month after 9/11 to deliver money from a fundraiser to the New York Fire Department. (Photo courtesy of Sue Hoefs)

“To go on the actual grounds was unbelievable, because things had just turned to dust,” Hoefs said.

Above all, Hoefs remembers the resilience New York—and the US at large—showed in the face of the terror. One local store owner thanked Hoefs and her family for not being afraid to visit; a group of children roamed the streets singing an a capella version of the Star Spangled Banner. 

While the attacks themselves were terrible, Hoefs said she’ll always remember how people came together to support each other in the aftermath—whether that be in fundraisers, blood drives, or support from the international community. 

Mike Dailey, a foreman from Antigo, said he and his coworkers tried to give blood the day after the attacks, but the blood bank was overwhelmed. 

The US of today—as it faces crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the military withdrawal from Afghanistan—could learn something from the US of two decades ago, Hoefs said.

“Out of this horrible thing, there is this great feeling of unity,” she said. “And now we’ve had some very horrible things happen just recently … but it just makes the divide wider. These disasters should be bringing us closer, trying to work on solutions and get along. It seems like the opposite’s happening. It was a different time. It was only 20 years ago, but it was definitely a different time.”


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