‘Maybe we don’t have control over our destinies’: Touching stories from the class of 9/11
Beyond death and trauma, 9/11 changed life in America, even for the class of 2002 at a distant high school in America's breadbasket.
Dennis Wagner, USA TODAY
It was just another day in the Quad Cities. Until it wasn't.
Nearly 20 years ago, as the senior class at United Township High School in East Moline, Illinois, prepared for homecoming, al-Qaida hijackers commandeered jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
The terrorist attack killed nearly 3,000, crushed the U.S. economy, triggered two decades of war and transformed our politics, policies and lives.
For victims, families and first responders, the trauma and transformation has been calcified in their consciousness. What it meant tothose of us with no direct connection to the attack may be less vivid, yet nearly as profound.
For high school students who were seniors on Sept. 11, 2001, it was a paradigm shift as they crossed into adulthood.
Was it a defining moment for millennials, just as Pearl Harbor was for the Greatest Generation or the Kennedy assassination was for baby boomers?
Andy Hughes, a linebacker and future cop, was convinced he wasn’t good enough inclass or football to attend college, so he joined the military. His comrades were sent to Iraq while he was chosen to guard Marine Helicopter Squadron One, used by President George W. Bush to wage a war on terror. In the den at Hughes’ house, there is a souvenir rotor and a certificate “for honorable service in the White House.”
Amanda (Adams) Walters, a cheerleader, blushes as she remembers her initial reaction when she saw the towers attacked on a TV in the school library: She was distraught that homecoming week – the parade, football game and dance – might be canceled. Later, the brother she idolized was killed in a Marine Corps training accident as he prepared to deploy to Iraq, crushing her spirit.
Lambros Fotos, a wrestler, got a black eye in the 2002 Illinois high school wrestling championship, but in photographs, his arm is raised in triumph. The terrorist attack changed his mindset about world events and history, a subject he now teaches at United Township High.
Tess (Mahalla) Abney, the student council president, feared her boyfriend would get drafted and sent to war. She was voted “most likely to become president,” but a pregnancy waylaid political dreams. The son she bore graduated in the class of 2021, his senior year sabotaged by the coronavirus.
Dustin Freeman, a soccer player, needed one more win for a perfect season, but the final game was scheduled Sept. 11. "Everything kind of just stopped," he recalls. “Soccer was off. Everything was off for a while. … And we wondered, ‘Is this going to happen again?’”
Five students, now 37 or 38 years old, out of about 400 graduates in United Township's class of 2002.
Certainly, other mega-events buffeted them: the Great Recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of an African American president, the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and an insurrection.
Yet the vision of a second jetliner smashing into the twin towers – broadcast live on TV – was an unforgettable moment for all, altering the world in ways large and small.
Even at a high school in the nation’s breadbasket, where the first transcontinental railroad spanned the Mississippi River,lives changed, dreams died, eyes were opened.
The following spring, the Rock Island Dispatch-Argus published a story about the graduation ceremonies at United Township High.It quoted a speech from Joel Boerckel, co-valedictorian, who said he and his classmates were grappling with “the shocking realization that evil really does exist, and that maybe a two-story suburban home and SUV are not the only things that really matter. ... Maybe we don’t have control over our destinies.”
How much did the events and aftermath of Sept. 11 shape lives? There is no unilateral answer. Historical moments influence each of us uniquely depending on our backgrounds, DNA and degrees of separation.
And we know only what path we followed, not what might have been.
In one sense, 9/11 is a story of the USA. In another, it is a story of us – ourmemories, influences, trajectories. Not just for those who were in New York or Washington but for a bunch of kids far removed from the crash sites.
After the seniors signed their yearbooks and threw their graduation caps in the air, they went to college, found jobs, grew up. Many married and are raising kids of their own, chasing an American dream that is ever more distant, gaining pounds and losing hair.
But they can’t forget that day. Two decades later, each wears an indelible yet invisible imprint of 9/11.
A serene place
United Township High, home of the mighty Panthers (with Halloween school colors), sprawls at the corner of Archer Drive and Avenue of the Cities, a nondescript jumble of flat-topped buildings with nearly 1,700 students.
They call the area the Quad Cities, but there are more than a half-dozen towns. United Township High draws not just from East Moline but from Silvis, Moline, Rock Island, Carbon Cliff, Colona – communities along a river that splits the nation and connects two states.
The neighborhoods are largely blue-collar, with emerald-summer lawns that give way to fields of corn and soybean accented by forests and factories.
During the summer of 2001, United Township High students were among roughly 4 million American high school seniors just beginning to sense the independence and responsibilities to come.
It was the year Wikipedia got started, George W. Bush became president, Apple introduced the iPod and Train’s song “Drops of Jupiter” was a smash hit:
The al-Qaida plot
9/11 anniversary: Recounting the moments of terror and remembering the lives lost
STAFF VIDEO, USA TODAY
When the class of 2002 was about 10 years old, a truck bomb exploded beneath the World Trade Center, creating a 100-foot crater, killing six and injuring more than 1,000.
The goal of terrorist plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – to topple the twin towers – was not achieved. Perpetrators with ties to Osama bin Laden were caught and convicted. But al-Qaida leaders did not give up.
As the century turned, a new plot was underway with Saudi hijackers who trained in Afghanistan, got funding out of Dubai, formed cells in Germany and convened meetings in Malaysia, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.
By early 2000, according to a final report by the 9/11 Commission, prospective pilots were attending flight schools in Florida and Arizona and renting simulators as they learned to handle jetliners.
A year later, at a camp in Afghanistan, bin Laden selected members of the “muscle teams.” They took loyalty oaths to al-Qaida and made videos declaring their commitment to martyrdom. As part of specialized training in knife combat, they butchered a camel and a sheep.
That May, as students in East Moline were ending their junior year, bin Laden met with underling Ramzi Binalshibh at Compound Six near Kandahar, Afghanistan. He instructed the 9/11 planner to give hijacking chief Mohamed Atta a list of targets: the White House, World Trade Center, U.S. Capitol and Pentagon – the White House being most important.
U.S. intelligence agencies picked up whispers of a new al-Qaida conspiracy against the homeland, but they had no details.
In June, an epic World War II film, “Pearl Harbor,” flopped at the box office. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed for carrying out what was then the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
In East Moline, summer vacation was in full swing. Teenagers cruised the Avenue of the Cities, worked, partied, fell in and out of love, attended camps for band, sports and cheer.
Fotos, the youngest of three kids born to Greek immigrants, was “just walking through life.” He’d lost at the state wrestling meet three years in a row. With a scholarship lined up at the University of Illinois, he had no intention of failing again. He spent the summer training on the mat and working at his family’s diner, The Coffee Break, in Rock Island.
When Hughes met with guidance counselors near the end of junior year, they told him college is tough and a high percentage of those who enroll wind up dropping out. Planning to become a cop, he started thinking about the military instead, perhaps as a military police officer.
A Marine Corps recruiter showed up at school. Hughes vividly recalls the image: trim and confident in dress blues and shiny shoes.
“I liked him,” he says. “I liked what he had to say. I liked his uniform, and maybe they’d give me one, too.”
Hughes enlisted, his start date delayed until after graduation. That summer, he worked at Osco, sweated through football practices and volunteered in the police explorer program.
He and his girlfriend started wearing T-shirts with Marine Corps insignia.
Abney worked through the summer at Whitey’s Ice Cream parlor, babysat her siblings, organized a yard sale for school and drew up plans for homecoming.
Freeman worked at a youth sports camp, played soccer, hung out with his girlfriend.
In mid-July, Binalshibh and Atta met in Spain to make final plans. Two planes would hit the twin towers, and one would go for the Pentagon. The White House was more difficult. They settled on the Capitol as a third target.
Binalshibh gave Atta bracelets and necklaces for the hijackers, telling him that they should be bathed and nicely dressed to resemble rich Saudis and draw less suspicion.
By then, threat levels had risen, and intelligence agencies warned that a potentially “spectacular” suicide attack against the homeland was imminent. On July 10, an FBI agent in Phoenix advised headquarters that militant Islamists with ties to bin Laden were attending U.S. flight schools and might be plotting an air attack. His memo was buried.
Al-Qaida pilots practiced in small planes over New York and Washington and took commercial flights on surveillance missions. Other teams were flown to Florida, Virginia, California and New Jersey. They rented apartments, purchased box-cutters, worked out at gyms, bided time.
By the end of July, CIA Director George Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission, America’s terrorism warning system was “blinking red.” U.S. citizens – office workers in the World Trade Center, soldiers at the Pentagon and students in the Quad Cities – were oblivious.
On Aug. 6, President Bush received his 36th intelligence advisory about an al-Qaida plot. It was titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the U.S.” After that, threat warnings went silent, a calm before the storm.
As classes started Aug. 14 at United Township High, hijackers began to book suicide flights.
Best-laid plans of students and terrorists
In a house built by her grandfather, alongside rail tracks that run by a John Deere factory, Abney pulls out the memorabilia: homecoming photographs, a graduation cap, programs.
The to-do list in her calendar for the second week of September 2001: balloting for king and queen, flatbed trucks to haul parade floats, dance decorations in the gym, pep rally, rehearsal for the royal court.
“That was kind of my Super Bowl week,” Abney says, laughing.
Other students were settling into classes and extracurriculars, buying dresses and corsages.
Hughes was tabbed to perform at a spirit assembly as school mascot Pete the Panther, and he needed to develop a skit. Walters was cheerleading, in homecoming court, doing student government.
On Sept. 9, as the Dispatch-Argus ran a news story lamenting low PTA membership in Quad Cities schools, al-Qaida teams staged near airports in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts.
“The plan that started with a proposal by KSM in 1996 had evolved to overcome numerous obstacles,” the 9/11 Commission report noted. “Now, 19 men waited in nondescript hotel rooms to board four flights.”
In Boston, Atta and fellow hijacker Abdul Aziz al Omari ordered pizza for dinner.
At United Township High’s gym that night, school officials had issued a ban on moshing. But as a band performed the controversial song “Cop Killer,” its lead singer started bouncing and swirling with spectators.
Off-duty officers swept in and a melee ensued. Kids were cuffed and hauled to the police station, followed by protesting students who demanded police “free our friends.”
The incident earned a couple paragraphs in the Dispatch-Argus and might have been the talk of school on Sept. 11.
‘Are you ready to go to war?’
The students don’t remember getting up the morning that hijackers made it through security checks and boarded airplanes.
At 7:46 CT, just before classes began, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston plunged into the World Trade Center’s north tower, its nearly 20,000 gallons of fuel erupting in a fireball.
Seventeen minutes later, as news cameras focused on the skyscrapers, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower.
At 8:37, American Airlines Flight 77 out of Washington swept into the Pentagon after circling the nation’s capital.
About 20minutes later, after passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 fought with hijackers, the plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field, rather than Congress or the White House.
In East Moline, recollections are remarkably similar.
Fotos was in a government class taught by Mr. Johnson, the wrestling coach. Someone rolled a big-box TV into the room. News commentators were “playing guessing games,” speculating about the first aircraft when a second one struck.
“Everybody knew,” Fotos recalls. “A few people screamed. … I looked at my teacher, and I could see the shock on his face.”
Hughes usually arrived at school around 7:45, looking for someone to “help me” with homework, he says, using his hands to frame the quote marks.
He walked into a video production classroom and thought classmates were watching scenes from the movie “Die Hard.” But the scenes were the same when they switched the channel. Then the second jetliner hit the towers.
Hughes recalls a collective realization: “The country’s under attack.”
A classmate, aware of Hughes’ Marine Corps commitment, caught him in the corridor, asking, “Are you ready to go to war, Hughes?” He doesn’t recall what he said, just that he adopted the football mindset he used before a big game: “We’re going to hand them their butts.”