Editor’s note: The following story was published 10 years ago to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Sonny Jaramillo of Temple climbed into a car headed for the World Trade Center.
In New York for training with a newly contracted broker, the Central Texas financial adviser sat beside a couple of associates, listening to the radio as the driver wound his way past Manhattan’s towering buildings. A radio announcement broke in, reporting an accident near their destination.
Surprised but not scared, the group drove toward the firm’s other Manhattan offices to wait out the delay. By the time they arrived, all hell had broken loose.
“The second plane had hit,” Jaramillo said. “It was chaos.”
They scrambled from the car to the building and found the firm’s offices. Inside were televisions answering some of their questions, but a view prompting more.
“We’re watching this on TV and looking out the windows and seeing the same thing that we saw on TV,” Jaramillo said. “We were close. It was absolute chaos. People screaming and crying. It was like a bad dream.”
While most Americans remember the day that four U.S. jetliners were hijacked and crashed into two World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, Jaramillo is among the many that live with the wreckage daily. In treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Jaramillo suffers memory blackouts of the day. What he does remember — the wounds and the death — still haunts him.
“The injuries are the most difficult thing to talk about; I have a real hard time talking about it. But, yes, I saw them,” said Jaramillo, a Vietnam veteran and retired Temple Police officer.
Stranded in Canada
Across the world, DeAnn Martin of Temple rested her head against the seat of the American Airlines jet she boarded from Paris to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
The whirlwind trip celebrating her sister Beth’s medical school graduation had been fun, but she was eager to get back to her husband, Kenny, and two young children, son Barret, 5, and daughter Texanna, barely 7. Their departure had been delayed four hours by minor problems, but as the sisters settled in and Beth drifted to sleep, the cross-Atlantic flight was interrupted mid-morning, New York time.
“All of a sudden, Capt. Bass — I’ll never forget her name — said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the international airspace has been closed. We will be landing in Newfoundland,’” Martin said. “For the next 45 minutes, that’s all we knew.”
The pilot, Beverley Bass, 59 and now retired, was the first female captain in the airline’s history. She flew the Paris to D/FW route daily. After hitting cruising altitude at 35,000 feet, she had started eating her lunch when she heard on the airline’s radio frequency about the first two attacks, she later told a Dallas newspaper. “You can only imagine the things going through our minds: had the United States been nuked or had Fort Hood been bombed? All we could think about was our family and friends. Were they OK?”
Upon landing, a passenger in first class offered his cellphone to anyone who needed it. Airplane phones weren’t working and mobile phones were scarce. The sisters checked in with family, but with no onboard televisions, it was hours before they saw the tragedy now derailing their own lives.
“They gave us a granola bar for dinner,” Martin said. “Water was running out and you can imagine the restrooms. Fear was definitely a factor.”
Silence in Vegas
Temple car dealer Ed Whittle and his wife, Rebecca, rose early on Sept. 11 in their fashionable hotel on the strip in Las Vegas.
Whittle was in town for the annual Nissan convention, and the two looked forward to a working vacation.
She headed for the shower while he flipped on the TV. Footage of a plane exploding into a skyscraper was on every channel.
“It looked like it might have been an accident,” Whittle said. “Then the second plane hit. I called her to come out and watch the towers burn. I knew we were going to be at war.”
Whittle gathered his composure and readied himself for the first business meeting of the convention. The only route to the Mandalay Bay conference center was through the casino, which was strangely quiet except for carnival-like sounds.
“All the casino dealers who are usually standing by their tables or roulette wheels were all at TVs, watching what was transpiring,” Whittle said. “Nobody was playing. The only sound you could hear was the dinging from slot machines.
“You don’t realize how many voices you hear in a casino until they are not there.”
The journey home from New York
Watching the towers buckle and burn, Jaramillo tried to call his wife and co-workers in Central Texas. He couldn’t get a phone line to either Vicky or his business associates, who knew a trip to the World Trade Center was on Jaramillo’s agenda.
At noon, the office building that served as his refuge was evacuated. Jaramillo was sent out to find his hotel, the name of which is blotted from his mind.
“Ashes were falling on us and people told us to go inside and stay away from smoke and ashes,” he recalled. “Ashes were falling everywhere.”
His memory of the journey is patchy, but Jaramillo finally reached his room, from which he called his wife at 3 p.m. He was comforted by her voice, but his struggles were far from over.
“I remember we wanted something to eat but the manager said the hotel staff had left — everybody ran,” he said. “I remember going into the hotel restaurant and taking all the sugar and salt packets and filling my pockets with little packages of peanuts, hoarding that in my room in a bag in case I needed to run.
“I walked around the building wondering how I was going to get back. There weren’t any flights,” he said. “From my room, I watched news helicopters, military and police helicopters flying. Seeing that, looking out the window and looking at it on TV, it was just amazing.”
No sooner had rubble settled on the ground than fears of more attacks arose.
“My military and police training started taking over,” he said. ‘I started going down to the ground level looking for places I could hide, in a ravine hidden behind bushes. It was just surreal.”
By Friday, a rental car was available for the two-day drive to Temple. Jaramillo arrived on Sunday, Sept. 16, just in time for his now-canceled birthday party.
“Thank God. Thank God,” he said.
Dependent on strangers’ kindness
After 36 hours parked on the tarmac at Gander International Airport, Martin was among 6,122 passengers released by 39 airliners into Canadian residents’ waiting arms. With no air or ferry traffic and only their carry-on bags, the refugees were dependent on residents to meet their needs.
“As we sat there, the very generous people of Gander were preparing places for us to stay,” Martin said. “They became taxicab drivers for us, cooked for us, offered clothing. These people, we’ll never even know their names. We were strangers to them and yet they gave all they had and all their gifts and all their talents for people they’ll probably never see again.
“At that point, if you thought you were in control, you weren’t,” she added. “I saw so much. I saw people fight. I saw people so fearful. And yet there was this comfort I had that the Lord was beside me and He was guiding me. People noticed that.”
After four days of waiting, their plane took off early Saturday morning to finish the trip to Dallas. Passengers, knowing that their cross-oceanic flight could have been targeted as easily as the domestic flights had been, struggled with survivors’ guilt, but they also wrestled with a new fear.
“Getting back on that plane and going from Garner to D/FW was probably one of the worst rides I’ve ever had, but you had no choice,” she said. “We all wondered if there were other terrorists in disguise on one of these planes.”
Like Jaramillo, Martin arrived just in time to celebrate her birthday on Sunday, a morning on which she gratefully awoke at home, cuddling two sleeping children.
“I’ve lost a lot of people in my life,” her husband, Kenny, said. “But I was never so scared to lose her. I’m just blessed I didn’t.
“That night she basically slept with the kids. It was OK. I knew she was safe.”
‘We will blow you off the dam’
Whittle strode into his meeting in Las Vegas and found the room deathly quiet. Two lone stools were on the stage, soon to be occupied by somber Nissan executives. After brief announcements, the conference was adjourned.
The gathering of 2,000 people sang “God Bless America” and prayed.
“I don’t think there was anybody there that didn’t have big tears rolling down their face,” Whittle said.
They dismissed and began looking for ways to get home. With few rental options and amidst rampant price gouging, Whittle bought a used car and he and his wife headed toward Texas. Their route took them across Hoover Dam, now under surveillance as a rumored target of terrorists. As Whittle approached the dam, guards stopped his car.
“There were some guys with heavy weapons,” said Whittle, a former Chinook pilot in Vietnam. “They said, ‘Do not stop on the dam or we will blow you off the dam.’”
They crossed safely, but the ride to Temple was understandably somber.
“It was an eerie feeling,” Whittle said. “There were no airplanes in the sky. Road traffic was light. All you saw was an occasional military plane. It was a surreal experience.”
No way to prepare
Jaramillo said he is finding some relief for his PTSD thanks to a form of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
“I still have a lot of avoidance with things on TV,” he said. “I don’t want to see the things on TV and the stories (this weekend). It’s not something I’ll watch.”
One of his biggest struggles on September 11, he said, was processing the unprecedented magnitude of the attacks on the U.S. mainland.
“In a lot of respects, you find out you do not have control,” Jaramillo said. “That was one of the biggest things I had issues with. As a police officer, you are trained, equipped and ready to anticipate the unexpected.
“This — there was no way of preparing for it. It absolutely changed my life. It will always be with me. It will never go away.”