There’s the farmer who was due to meet the pilot of the first plane. The college student from Yarmouth who had her first day at a big city school. The Maine reporter who spent days chasing the feds around Bar Harbor. The sister who knew her brother worked on the 84th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. The teacher who learned of the news with her students, and struggled together to make sense of what was happening.
Across Maine, the reverberations of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were felt acutely. And 20 years later, Mainers still remember how the terror in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania touched home, so far away.
As Mainers started their days 20 years ago, anticipating lectures, meetings and assignments, they were drawn together in a common experience that cannot be forgotten. The five speak to the human experience and how those acts of terror shaped their future.
The college freshman
Sabrina Shankman had just stepped out of the shower when her suitemates told her that something bad had happened not far from their lower Manhattan dorm. The recent high school graduate from Yarmouth was getting ready for the first day of classes at New York University, close to Washington Square Park.
It seemed inconceivable that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers, buildings that Shankman, brand new to New York City, already had begun to use as a landmark to orient herself while out and about.
“This had been a guidepost,” Shankman, now 38 and a Boston Globe reporter who lives in South Portland, said recently.
Glued to the TV, still wrapped in a towel, she watched live with her suitemates as the second plane hit the second tower. The girls’ immediate worry was for their suitemate, Irina, whose mother worked in a building across the street from the Twin Towers.
“She was pretty paralyzed with concern,” Shankman said.
After they watched the South Tower collapse, the college freshmen went outside, where they joined the throngs of New Yorkers reacting to the unimaginable reality of the day.
“It was just people collapsed, crying in the street. People standing and staring in the same direction,” Shankman said. “It was just shock. There were no words for how surreal it felt.”
After the North Tower came down, ash-covered people began to stream north in their neighborhood. One of them was Irina’s mother, who walked out of the crowd to find her daughter.
“That moment was just incredible,” Shankman said.
She felt driven to do something so she tried to donate blood. She visited several hospitals, but so many people were there to do the same thing that she was turned away. The effort failed, but it had given her purpose, and that helped. But what she witnessed that day stuck with her.
“I kept closing my eyes and seeing the towers fall for a really long time,” Shankman said. “It was definitely the defining event of college, on Day 1.”
Early September was always a busy time for Eero Ruuttila of Morrill, a farmer and farm consultant. That Tuesday, he really needed to sort and bring to market ripe tomatoes from the non-profit Nesenkeag Co-op Farm in Litchfield, New Hampshire, where he was the director.
But he had other plans, too. He was heading to a big midday meeting at John Ogonowski’s 15-acre farm in Dracut, Massachusetts. Ogonowski, an American Airlines pilot and Vietnam War veteran, grew hay, corn, pumpkins and more on the days he didn’t fly. He also helped immigrant farmers, especially those from Cambodia. That’s how he came to meet Ruuttila, who worked with Cambodian immigrants.
Ruuttila, Ogonowski and several state and federal officials were all due to meet that day at the farm to work on a huge grant that would aid the immigrant farmers.
At the last minute, Ogonowski had to work that day.
“John said ‘the whole meeting is at my farm but I won’t be there because I have a flight to L.A. and I can’t get out of it,’” Ruuttila said.
Before heading for Dracut, Ruuttila was grading and packing 100 cases of tomatoes for delivery to Boston restaurants with NPR playing in the background.
“I was listening to the radio, and heard that something was going on in New York,” he said. “I got out the TV, watching TV as I was trying to finish up the tomato grading. Before we had finished the truck load, John’s name came up as the pilot of the American Airlines flight.”
Ogonowski was the captain of Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center, and had been overpowered — possibly killed — by the hijackers.
“It was just horrific,” Ruuttila said. “He was basically a pretty easy-going guy. He was very big. It’s hard to imagine him being overpowered.”
Someone called him to let him know the meeting was off so he stayed in New Hampshire.
The skies above Ruuttila’s farm, located a few miles from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, were ordinarily very busy with air traffic. But that day, the Federal Aviation Authority closed U.S. airspace in reaction to the terrorist attacks.
“It was really quiet, and we were feeling shocked,” he said. “My workers were from the Cambodian refugee community. They had all survived the atrocities of Pol Pot. They felt it was safe to be in the U.S. and then all of a sudden there was this violence.”
Emily Bilodeau was spending her free period that Tuesday morning in the guidance office of Edward Little High School in Auburn. The second-year teacher was busy reading student files when the guidance secretary, who was listening to a pop radio station, interrupted her.
“‘You guys have to hear this,’” the secretary said.
Just as soon as word started to trickle through the building that something had happened, the internet crashed, Bilodeau, of Farmington, said.
“The principal made a school-wide announcement that there seemed to be some kind of attack,” she said. “Kids were more scared by that vague information than by some of the facts of it.”
But that day, facts were hard to come by.
“There was no internet. We couldn’t stream news. There was no school-wide television access at that time,” she said. “Unless you had a really crafty kid who could pull a broadcast signal to the TV on your AV cart, we just gathered around the radio. … It sounds very Pearl Harbor, doesn’t it?”
In her classroom, students huddled to listen to the reporting on NPR and periodically checked to see if they could get online with Bilodeau’s boxy Apple desktop computer to check news websites.
The teens wanted to understand what had happened, and why.
“There was crying later that day. At first, the kids were just stunned and angry. There was disbelief. Nobody knew how to handle it. We were all novices at terrorism,” Bilodeau said. “The kids were saying, ‘Who would want to do this to us?’”
She gave her students a couple of impromptu lectures, sharing with them what she knew about important Middle East disputes. She did her best to find answers to their questions and listen to their fears. All day long, the phone in her classroom rang off the hook, as worried parents called to make sure their kids were doing OK.
Every Sept. 11 since then, some of her students get in touch with her.
“They were 15 years old, and this was a moment for some of them that their childhood was over,” Bilodeau said. “I was the adult that got them through until they could get home to their families.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Liz Soloway Snider and Bruce Snider of Belfast had dropped their two oldest boys off for the first day of elementary school and then decided to enjoy the perfect weather by kayaking in Megunticook Lake.
Not long after they got off the water, the couple heard the news. At first, Liz Snider couldn’t comprehend what she was hearing about New York and the planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Her brother, Andrew Soloway, worked at an international brokerage firm on the 84th floor of the South Tower, the second building to be hit and the first to collapse.
“At first I didn’t believe it was true. Then I realized that it was true,” she said. “Just as I said, ‘Bruce, Andrew was in that building,’ we heard a reporter saying, ‘The tower has just collapsed.’”
The second plane crashed through the building between the 77th and 85th floors. Her brother, she thought, must have perished.
“I thought, I can’t believe this is the way it ends. This is the end of my story with my brother,” she said.
Bruce Snider thought otherwise.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘Your brother is lucky. I think he’s OK,” she said.
Andrew Soloway lived.
While some building officials told workers to stay where they were, the fire marshal on Soloway’s floor told them they needed to leave. Soloway headed down the many flights of stairs. When they came to the 55th floor, they paused, listening to a loudspeaker announcement.
That’s when the second plane hit.
With phone lines stressed, it would be hours before Soloway could reach his family to let them know he was OK.
For Liz Snider, who had gone numb with worry and grief, the relief took some time to sink in, too.
“For whatever random reason, we were spared the brunt of the catastrophe,” she said. “But it was clear that an epic catastrophe had taken place.”
Of the 240 people who worked in his office, about 64 died. Soloway spent the next month going to funerals and memorial services for his colleagues.
“We didn’t live in a war zone, and we have been privileged enough, lucky enough, fortunate enough that our battles were fought away from here,” Liz Snider said. “Even after finding out he was OK, it just opened up that sense of vulnerability and the randomness of it all.”
On the Maine coast, reporter Misty Edgecomb was relaxing at home in Ellsworth the morning after a late night covering a town council meeting on Mount Desert Island.
“I was watching the morning broadcast news and just ran to the office. I think a lot of us did that day,” said Edgecomb, an Aroostook County native who now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. “The way we always say the idea that journalism is the first draft of history — this was the first moment in my journalism career that I felt that.”
The reporter, then 24, was dispatched to follow a lead that the FBI was on MDI, investigating whether the hijackers had entered the United States from Nova Scotia on the Cat ferry.
“I remember driving around Bar Harbor looking for federal vehicles and trying to figure out if there was any legitimacy to this,” she said, adding that the rumors turned out to be false.
But the strangeness and urgency of the day were real.
“A lot of us who had grown up in the ’80s hadn’t experienced something like that,” she said. “Not since the Challenger [space shuttle explosion in 1986]. Those moments when you can see history happening around you.”
Edgecomb carefully saved all the print copies of the Bangor Daily News from that week and stored them in a manila envelope.
“I think in 2001, we weren’t quite that definite that the internet would archive everything,” she said. “I was thinking that we’d be looking back on them, and some day, I’d be telling this story to my kids.”
Maybe one day she’ll also share with her son, now 6, the possibility that haunted her immediately after the attacks.
“We knew [the hijackers] had been in southern Maine,” she said. “For a brief period of time, there was a very spooky feeling. Were they here? Did we cross paths on the street? It was a very odd feeling.”