Courtesy of Tim Marony at the Deerfield Fire Department

Social worker Maggie Harmsen’s father, a Deputy Chief for the Deerfield Fire Department in 2001, took a photo of Ground Zero soon after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

9/11: 20 Years Later

Staff reflect on a day the forever changed America

September 10, 2021

Twenty years ago 19 hijackers from the terrorist group al Qaeda crashed four planes into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington D.C, and a rural field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died.

Just about every American who was alive that day remembers where they were when they first heard the news or first watched the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center.  The Forest Scout staff interviewed dozens of staff members this week to get a better idea of how the events of that day have affected them and the direction of our country.

A mix of “horror, fear, and anger”

Social worker Mrs. Maggie Harmsen said her college classes were canceled the morning of 9/11.

“You could hear a pin drop in the streets that day.  No one was out.  No cars, no people, no noise.  It was eerie.  My friends and I sat glued to the TV for hours …  shocked, crying, and scared.”

Her father, a Deputy Chief at the Deerfield Fire Department, was part of a special teams unit that went to Ground Zero in New York. “My sister and mom were so scared he would not return. There were no phones or any ways to communicate.”

Two decades later, she still thinks about that day when she boards an airplane.  “Will this happen again?  Is anyone on here that shouldn’t be? I have had constant paranoia and sadness from that day. I still cannot believe it happened and pray it never happens again.”

History teacher Mrs. Laura Flangel was living in Chicago, pregnant with her first child.

“I remember feeling overwhelmed that history was happening right in front of my eyes,” she said. “You just couldn’t keep track of what was happening, and it just felt like utter chaos was striking.”

She said that 9/11 left was a turning point for the country.

“I think 9/11 was a wake up call to recognize for every single one of us that the whole world doesn’t think of us the way we thought of ourselves and that our enemies had very deep disdain for us as a country and for our culture.”

English teacher Mr. Rick Moore was halfway around the world in Moscow, adopting his son. He remembers all the flowers that the Russian people left outside the American Embassy.

“It was a wake up call that terrorism can happen in America, not just somewhere else. It is something you don’t forget, and it gave me a renewed appreciation for the everyday workers like firemen and police. It truly gave me a renewed sense of patriotism.”

Profile - Lake Forest SchoolsResource Center Supervisor Mrs. Kathleen Eikenberry was getting her son ready for preschool when she heard about it on the television. It was his fourth birthday.

Like many Americans, she was feeling a mix of “horror, fear, and anger.” She sat her son down and tried to explain what was going on, even though she was struggling to process the events herself.

Through her grief, she told her son that he gave the family “something to be happy about” on an otherwise horrible day.

“I decided to show him that even though there was so much destruction and hate, he was loved and celebrated on this day. He gave us something wonderful to hold onto in such a dark time.”

History teacher Mr. Andre Waple said his memories from the day are “surprisingly fuzzy.”

“The world, I think, has become more gloomy in some ways,” he said. “The U.S got more secure, and to the U.S’s credit, we haven’t had another major terrorist attack since then; many have been prevented because of the improvements in security.”

He said attempts to “plant democracy” in many Middle Eastern countries following the attacks have made it harder for the U.S to be seen as the “good guy.”

“The U.S has certainly lost some of its standing in the global community, even though we’ve been doing things that’s made the world safer, in my opinion.”

I also remember feeling guilt–what kind of world had I brought a child into?–and fear for him:  What was in his future?  What was in all of ours?”

— Amy Zimmerman

AP Physics teacher Mrs. Megan Stoll said it felt like “watching a movie, but your brain kept telling you no.” She was in college; half her class skipped that day but she decided to attend.

“My professor was a creative writing teacher, and he was from Ireland. Being from Ireland, they had dealt with terrorism, because of The Troubles.”

“He asked the class, ‘Do we want to sit and process, or shall we pick up and carry on?’ The class decided, you know, we’re all here, we’re all together, let’s channel and keep moving forward, and not allow some other decision to change the course of our lives,” she said.

Mrs. Stoll said we “recognized our vulnerability” that day.

“It opened the door to a lot of surveillance, so I feel like there’s a surveillance culture now,” she said. “With social media, there’s an interesting connection with privacy, how comfortable we are with privacy, and how open we are with our personal lives.”

English teacher Amy Zimmerman was a new mom and home with her five-month old son.

“Having a certain amount of postpartum emotions running high with a first born baby already, I also remember feeling guilt–what kind of world had I brought a child into?–and fear for him:  what was in his future?  What was in all of ours?”

She also remembers a “renewed sense of gratitude for police, fire and first responders. And for those who selflessly gave their lives to save others.”

One lesson she takes from that day: “We must work every day to find common ground with citizens from around the world.”

‘Until then Americans had lived with such complacency’


Profile - Lake Forest SchoolsMrs. Bielski was in a familiar spot, across the Tech Help desk in Room 51.

She said everyone crowded around the tech help desk counter to watch their TV.

“I remember wondering if the administration knew anything we don’t or if Chicago would be next,” she said. Her husband was working downtown and she was anxious to get a hold of him.

School was called off, so Mrs. Bielski made her way back downtown to her home. She said “there was no traffic” in sight. “The entire time I was scanning the horizon checking for planes about to hit Willis Tower. It was unsettling, not knowing if you were safe or not.”

“Until then Americans had lived with such complacency. We’re American and where we live is safe we couldn’t possibly come under attack and yet we found out that day that we were absolutely wrong,” she said. “New York is a shining beckon, a bustling city, full of prosperity and capitalism. When the two biggest buildings of capitalism fall and the city is covered in dust you see everybody, from a big executive to a person living on the street. Everyone was covered in dust and blood running for their lives.”

Biology teacher Mrs. Jennifer Gatta was a new teacher at LFHS. She said she started crying when she saw the footage.

“(My students) saw me bawling and were probably so confused. It took me a second to calm down, but I was so worried. I couldn’t stop thinking about if one of the kids knew someone who was in New York.”

She compared the confusion of that day to the last day of school before students were sent home because of COVID.

“I don’t think that they really comprehended what was going on. They really just kept on working. I think that they were doing a PH lab, and they kept asking me questions like, ‘Is my PH strip supposed to be pink or blue?’ I don’t think they really understood the gravity of the situation.”

That was my first notion that adults don’t know everything, and they don’t always know how they’re going to react.”

— Meaghan Cook

Like so many Americans, nurse Anna Kudla felt shock, sorrow and disbelief. “It was just so difficult to understand,” she said.

“We need to stand together,” she said. “And I think the country came together at that time. That’s how we always have been and always will be.”

English teacher Mr. Chris Finley said he hopes Americans have “grown and changed” since 9/11, but he sees no silver linings.

“Right afterwards, there was certainly a sense of unity where America felt pretty whole, but unfortunately, I don’t feel like it has lasted all that terribly long. I don’t think anything positive has come out of it. I think it’s a pretty awful thing. It’s made us more jaded as human beings. It’s certainly made things like travel much more difficult and kind of frightening. At least I’m old enough where I have a memory of not thinking those kind of horrible thoughts, but to your generation, this is pretty much your whole life.”

Instructional tutor Mr. James Mergl remembers how quiet the skies were for days after the attacks.

“It was really bizarre being outside and not ever hearing or seeing a plane. It was one of the weirdest aftermaths, having no planes in the sky.

“I do think it woke us up to the fact that the world is not a safe place. Because I think one of the tendencies we have as a country is to feel isolated from the rest of the world, like we’re somehow immune to what’s going on elsewhere. And it really brought that home.”

English teacher Mrs. Meaghan Cook was in her 6th grade classroom at St. Mary’s.

“I think because I was still at a relatively young age, I was very confused. I knew something very bad had just happened and I turned to the adults in my life for answers. That was my first notion that adults don’t know everything, and they don’t always know how they’re going to react. Seeing my mom’s raw emotions during that time gave me an overall sense of fear and uncertainty.”

‘One of the craziest, saddest things of my life’

Dean Mr. Frank Lesniak was at LFHS when the news broke. He witnessed “one of the craziest and saddest things” of his life.

” A girl was on the floor crying because her dad was flying to New York. I quickly took her into my office, and let her use my phone to call her family.

“Thankfully, she had been relieved to know her dad was fine. That feeling of not knowing if her dad was safe and that moment of her calling her family was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Librarian Mrs. Katie Pausch grew up a “90s kid” who felt like American was “getting better everyday.”

9/11 changed that, she said.

While much of the country has been divided over the response to COVID, counselor Mrs. Laura Stetson remembers a much different experience following 9/11.

“I remember feeling a sense of unity in our country. People were writing songs, and you still hear them, of sticking together and fighting back. Which is crazy because I feel like now we are in a completely different place. Big events can bring us together and tear us apart. We’ve been so worried about keeping ourselves afloat these past 18 months that we’ve lost sight of some of that unity.”

Science teacher Mr. Thomas Galla said the day changed his perspective on the world.

“The world is so much bigger than we realize, and it is more important to look at things through a lens of understanding and compassion rather than one of ignorance and hatred. This event truly changed how people viewed each other, and in some ways still has lasting effects on the perceptions that we have about people because of their race or religion.”

History teacher Cheryl Kyrias says the country shifted from combating the spread the spread of communism to a focus on counter-terrorism.

“There has also unfortunately been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and blaming the entire religion of Islam for the actions of extremists. I would say that we went into the Middle East after 9/11 with ideas based on patriotism and freedom that two decades later seem overthought and overconfident, considering historical examples.”

The world is so much bigger than we realize and it is more important to look at things through a lens of understanding and compassion rather than one of ignorance and hatred.”

— Thomas Galla

Study Hall Supervisor Mrs. Hektor was in a work conference room, stressing over the fate of a  coworker’s brother-in-law, who was a firefighter in New York.

“Watching the news was a miracle as his brother-in-law was shown in a picture. I remember it clear as day, a picture showed up and it was of a firefighter carrying someone out of the building in a white T-shirt. It was Jim’s brother-in-law,” she said.

Math teacher John Kleeman remembers the patriotic pride that swept over the country.

“And while 9/11 is typically a memory of a terrorist act by members from the Middle East, most of us who lived through it prefer to remember it as a time when Americans were truly united with each other; black or white, Irish or Italian, man or woman, Democrat or Republican.  The American flag was flown everywhere.”

Much of that feeling has “washed away” and given “racist people in our society an opportunity to perpetuate and share their beliefs with others …,” he said.

Others remember the country turning more cautious and fearful.

“People will talk about how we came together, but that doesn’t include everybody; some people definitely felt isolated and unwelcome, and that’s still there in a sense,” Science teacher Michael Kollasch said.

Profile - Lake Forest SchoolsSocial Studies teacher Mr. Greg Simmons remembers the CNN website crashing on the morning of 9/11.

“And at that point we were like, ‘This is big.” So at the point we had to scramble because the business I was in, we were in computer training everywhere. We did training in New York, we were in Chicago. If there is a terrorist attack, that is a big deal. And so my first job was to figure out any people or any of my employees who were in the World Trade Center.

One of his employees was on the second floor at the time.

“For him, the minute that the plane hit, the entire building shook. Obviously all of the emergency lights went on; people said evacuate. Since he was on the second floor, he just went right down the stairs and walked out the building. Even though he was out and he was safe, all of the cell phones were jammed. He couldn’t call me, he couldn’t call his wife, he couldn’t call anyone. We didn’t hear from him until like six o’clock at night.”

He remembers the months after as a “very scary time.”

“It made us a little more suspicious of other people. I think that there was a lot of mistrust. That’s what opened up the door the Patriot Act and more security concerns. You could almost think of it as the United States grew up fast. It was one of those moments where some of the innocence is lost.”

English teacher Ms. Jane Eccleston was working here when she watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“It was like a gut-punch, nothing had ever happened like that … Then I immediately started thinking that I have to go teach a class and these kids are going to know and are going to be upset. People were trying to call their families and call New York and kids kept crying in class and I was trying to hold it together, so first the immediate aftermath was just kind of that frantic feeling, and then the sadness and fear started to settle in the next few days.”

“It’s almost hard to talk about because it was so traumatic, and maybe now enough time has gone by that we’re not talking about it enough.”

If you have your own story from that day to share, please consider commenting below.

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