The impact knocked Bill Renahan into his desk. Windows shook. Coworkers hurried through the halls.
The Auburn native was working for Citigroup, on the 39th floor of 7 World Trade Center, when an airplane hit the north tower of the downtown Manhattan complex the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Within minutes the staff was descending the stairs, Renahan said. He was on the second floor, about 15 minutes later, when he felt the impact of another airplane hitting the south tower.
Before he and his coworkers could evacuate their building, however, they were held in the lobby for about an hour. It was said the danger was debris falling from the twin towers. In hindsight, he realizes there was another danger: People jumping to their deaths from the floors of the towers above the fiery points of impact.
As the building's staff waited, one worker, a volunteer firefighter, began calling for them to leave. He knew there was a good chance the towers would collapse due to the heat, Renahan said. Soon, a police car arrived and officers told the staff to get clear. He began walking uptown. In Chinatown, he stopped at a payphone to tell his sister Ellen that he was OK.
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He was in Greenwich Village when the north tower collapsed. The south tower followed 30 minutes later. He continued walking, about a dozen miles, to a friend's apartment on 95th street.
At 5 p.m., the 7 World Trade Center building where Renahan arrived to work that morning collapsed, about when he would be leaving.
Reflecting on that day in conversation with The Citizen on Thursday, he said he was in shock for most of it. It wasn't until the next day that its significance began to hit him. The acres of rubble. The towering plume of smoke. The National Guard soldiers at seemingly every street corner wearing gas masks and carrying rifles. Ash everywhere.
"It was more striking in a way, seeing downtown like that, than the event itself," he said. "It's sort of like yesterday."
Renahan, who would remain in New York City until 2013 and now lives in Chicago, is one of several people in the Cayuga County area who shared their firsthand experiences of the Sept. 11 attacks with The Citizen on the occasion of their 20th anniversary. Some of them lost loved ones. Some of them were serving in the military. Some of them left the area to lend a hand.
But all of them, like Renahan, remember that morning and its aftermath like it was yesterday.
'It's about each other'
Mark Morabito finally opened the envelope last month.
In 2007, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York identified remains of his wife of seven years, Laura Lee DeFazio Morabito, including her wedding ring.
Laura, 34, was on American Airlines Flight 11, the airplane hijackers crashed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. A regional sales manager for Australian airline Quantas, she left Boston that morning for a conference in Los Angeles. Morabito's last words to her were "I love you, call me when you get there." She then took her seat in first class — next to some of the hijackers.
Only pieces of Laura could be recovered from Ground Zero, Morabito told The Citizen. They were buried at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Fleming after he received them.
But until last month, Morabito had done nothing with the envelope he received from the office containing photos of the remains. The thought of seeing his wife again, that way, was too much for him.
"What I saw, it's indescribable," he said. "But I had to know. It took me a lot of years to open that thing, but I needed to know."
The 20-year remembrance of the Sept. 11 attacks — anniversaries are celebrations, Morabito said — has been challenging for him. He can turn on the TV at any time and have to relive Laura's murder. The memory alone, still as vivid as it was that morning, is painful enough. It has given him post-traumatic stress disorder, several heart attacks and other cardiac problems.
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Morabito credits his friends from the Auburn and Syracuse area, and the community there, with helping him through that pain.
His late father, Eugene, also comforted Morabito after he moved into his family's Martin Point home within days of the attacks. He retired from his job as a currency trader on Sept. 13, 2001, and left behind the apartment in Framingham, Massachusetts, that he shared with Laura. After her death, Morabito destroyed it. But his father helped him focus those emotions.
"He told me that you never move on, you move forward," he said. "It'll never go away, but I don't want it to ever go away. I want people to remember it."
As part of that process, Morabito has spent the last 20 years helping people.
He worked with others who lost loved ones that day, the American Red Cross and Congress to improve the distribution of relief funds. In Laura's hometown of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, he and her parents set up a scholarship fund. In Auburn, he and Eugene organized a golf tournament that raised hundreds of thousands for local charities. It continued until Eugene passed away in 2006.
In 2010, Morabito remarried. He lives with his wife, Kristen, and daughter, Julia, in Victor. They're close with Laura's parents, who consider Julia a granddaughter.
As the rest of the country joins Morabito and his family in remembering the attacks, he hopes they remember what happened afterward as well. He has, and it's helped him.
"We came together. It was amazing," he said. "I just wish we could have that again, for a moment in time, for people to realize what it's all about. It's about each other."
Eric Pitman feels the same way.
His son, Christopher "Todd" Pitman, 30, was working as a derivatives trader for Cantor Fitzgerald in the north tower when it was struck by the airplane carrying Laura and 91 others.
Todd's remains were never recovered, Pitman told The Citizen.
"We have nothing," he said. "Just memories and plaques."
Todd was one of three people from Skaneateles killed that day, along with John Lozowsky and Joseph Coppo. Lozowsky, too, was working in the north tower, as a computer contractor, and Joseph was a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 104th floor. Pitman doesn't believe the three knew each other. A plaque remembering them was dedicated in Clift Park in 2004.
Media coverage of the 20th anniversary of the attacks has made Pitman's memories of them more painful, he said. He and others who shared their experiences with The Citizen said America's recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has done the same thing. So he prays for a return to less divisive times, like the period after the attacks when Americans felt more united.
Pitman has seen up close the healing power of unity, and helping others, through the charity organized in his son's name. Over 16 years, Todd's Fund in Skaneateles raised more than a million dollars to improve the quality of life for more than 2,000 children in central New York who have been victimized by tragedies, illnesses and other catastrophic events.
A Catholic, Pitman finds meaning in the fact that the loss of his son led to a better life for the children of others.
"I believe God has a plan for us all, and had a plan for my son," he said. "Does that make it any easier? Sometimes. But some very good things came out of a very tragic thing happening."
'I was in such denial'
In addition to being a tragedy, the Sept. 11 attacks were seen as an act of war against America.
Matt and Laura Cowen, of Union Springs, witnessed America's response to that act of war on Navy ships more than a thousand miles apart.
Petty Officer 1st Class Matt was stationed aboard the USS Sullivans, a destroyer, at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville. The crew had brought the ship out of the harbor for routine firing tests that morning when, in what was anything but routine, its captain appeared. He then looked over Matt's shoulder to the anti-aircraft missile control system, entered a key and turned it on.
Communications on the ship were limited, so it took Matt awhile to learn what was happening that morning. The same went for Petty Officer 2nd Class Laura, who was stationed aboard the USS Howard near a shipyard in Bath, Maine. Her destroyer had yet to be commissioned, so she woke up Sept. 11 thinking she would see New York City and other ports of call later that month.
Like her husband, however, Laura spent the morning slowly piecing together the news of the attacks. She was looking at her shipmate's computer when she realized her country was now at war.
"I was in such denial, then the second plane hit. I get chills now just thinking about it," she said. "I was waiting for it to be a joke. It hurt so bad. Then someone said it was a terrorist attack."
On Matt's ship, anger quickly seized the crew. His shipmates were ready to deploy and drop bombs that day, he said.
Instead, the Sullivans would spend the next several days patrolling the Southeastern Coast in coordination with NORAD, with orders to shoot down anything in the air. The destroyer was a few switches away from firing upon one unresponsive aircraft until the defense command informed the crew that it was a military flight with malfunctioning radio, Matt said.
Since the Howard had no weapons, it was locked down at the pier for two days, Laura said. It then made its way down the coast. As it did, one of her most vivid memories is how much security tightened after the attacks. It was weeks before Matt could send a preapproved message confirming his safety to family, he said. Laura's mother relayed the message to her.
The Cowens each came from military families, and wanted to see the world. But the morning of Sept. 11 affirmed for them how much more there is to serving their country.
"In the aftermath of that awful day, we didn't engage in combat but when the bell was rung and the time came to answer the bell, we're really proud of the fact that the people on the ship we were with and served with all rose up," Matt said. "People who haven't been in the military may not be aware of these tens of thousands of people doing this every day. But they're there."
Another thousand miles away in Omaha, Nebraska, Auburn native Judson Stiglich, a first lieutenant in the Air Force, was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.
Like the Cowens, Stiglich didn't find out about the attacks all at once. His first indication of trouble was a long line of traffic at the front gate of the base when he arrived at 9 a.m. Thinking maybe a nuclear war exercise was underway, he entered the control center. People were huddled around the TV. He thought he saw an explosion, but went to his desk and started work.
By 1 p.m., Stiglich was fully aware of what happened and the war that awaited. That's when President George W. Bush arrived at Offutt on Air Force One.
Bush stopped at the base for an update on the attacks, Stiglich said, and to teleconference with his national security team in Washington. He flew to Offutt from a base in Louisiana, and flew there from the elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, where he was reading to students when the airplanes hit the towers. He was in Omaha for about half an hour total.
Stiglich didn't see the president in person. But his presence at the base told the airman that he was part of history.
"By then I knew it was real," he said. "It wasn't part of an exercise. This was real."
'I feel like it's my city'
Dr. Jon Valdina had been a member of the regional Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team for about two years when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened.
The retired Auburn dentist, who was practicing in the Carr Building at the time, got the call to go to New York City with the team at about 8 p.m. Sept. 11. The team was needed to identify remains, the same reason it was formed after the TWA Flight 800 crash in 1996. Valdina did so through forensic dentistry, a field he had studied but never practiced in real life.
The next day, Valdina and the team drove to Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh. With perfect clarity he remembers the electronic sign at the Weedsport Thruway exit flashing "NYC CLOSED," the military planes circling Albany on a cloudless night, and the Air Force personnel who briefly pointed their guns at him as he tried to find his way into the base.
Next, Valdina remembers his first view of the dust shrouding Manhattan as he and the team approached the island from the Bronx. He was taken aback when he realized the Marriott World Trade Center, where he stayed on his frequent trips to the city, was destroyed in the attacks along with the towers. He was supposed to stay there again that October.
For the next few weeks, Valdina was stationed at the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team's morgue near Bellevue Hospital. He and hundreds from across the country worked 12-hour shifts, identifying victims of the attacks through X-rays, DNA, fingerprints and other forms of forensic science, as well as dental remains, in Valdina's case.
More than 2,500 people died in the World Trade Center attacks, and Valdina estimates he helped identify about 100 of them. More than 1,000 victims still haven't been found.
Due to the nature of his deployment, the dentist couldn't say anything more specific about it.
"There are a lot of interesting things I remember," he said.
One of those things was the first New York Mets game after the attacks. The team was given tickets by the police and fire departments, Valdina said, and some members took the field before the first pitch. During the seventh inning stretch, Liza Minnelli sang "New York, New York" as spectators waved small American flags. The Mets won with a run in the bottom of the ninth.
Cheryl Foster shares the love of New York City that filled Shea Stadium that night. That's why she, too, traveled to the city from Auburn to help after the attacks.
Foster, however, had no disaster response training. A nurse at Auburn Community Hospital, she had to beg Sharon McLean, director of emergency services for the Cayuga County chapter of the Red Cross, to be sent to the city. McLean, who assisted with relief efforts near Ground Zero, would pass away in 2007 after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
"I told her, 'I feel like it's my city,'" Foster said. "I think she sent me to shut me up."
Upon arriving in the city Oct. 2, Foster was assigned to the burn unit at Staten Island University Hospital. Survivors were still in critical condition, with third-degree burns covering their bodies.
Over the next 12 days, Foster would also work at Pier 94 near midtown Manhattan, where families went for information and services. A memorial wall there collected pictures of the missing and loving messages to them. It was heart-wrenching, Foster said, as were the daily funerals, seeing the void where the towers stood from the Staten Island Ferry, and more vivid memories.
At one point, Foster went to Brooklyn to help the widow of a victim plan his funeral. She played phone messages from her husband, from inside the World Trade Center that morning, for Foster. The widow listened to them hundreds of times a day. They were all she had left of him, Foster explained, as his body had not been found.
More than anything, Foster remembers the fear in the man's voice.
Not all her memories of her relief work are so painful. Foster was impressed by the Red Cross, and found her time with the organization rewarding. The people of New York City were different as well. Their rudeness was replaced by gratitude, she said, and 20 years later she believes they continue to be generally nicer than they were before the attacks.
As the anniversary passes, Foster hopes the rest of America keeps the memory of that day alive the way the people who experienced it firsthand have.
"People should just be more caring and compassionate," she said. "I hope they never forget."