20 years later: Summit County residents remember 9/11
Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news that hijacked planes had hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, but some Summit County residents with ties to the event remember the day from different perspectives: that of a U.S. Secret Service agent, air traffic controller and sibling of a first responder — and even someone who found himself in the World Trade Center on that fateful day.
In the South Tower
David Kotok, a part-time Silverthorne resident, was at the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics and attended a session on the ground floor of the south tower on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We heard the explosion because the first explosion was in the north tower. And the room shook. The chandeliers shook. The air conditioning went on and off,” Kotok said. “The conference came to an immediate stop. Our group got up in a rapid but orderly fashion. About 300 people filed out of the back conference area.”
When Kotok got to the lobby of the hotel, he saw chaos ensuing outside. He was told not to go outside because things were falling off the buildings, but he made his way to an emergency exit on the southernmost side of the building.
Running out into the streets as the north tower was smoldering, Kotok saw people running everywhere. He turned around to survey the situation when he saw the explosion of a plane hitting the second tower.
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Kotok recalled how he watched five people falling to their deaths from the towers, an image he said is embedded in his memory.
“When the second explosion hit, whatever you thought it was in the beginning, you knew this was something else,” Kotok said. “You knew this was a planned activity.”
He starting running away from the towers. At one point, he stopped on a knoll overlooking the Old Trinity Church, Pine Street and Wall Street when the expression “the sun never shines in the canyons of Wall Street” came to him, followed by words from the Bible’s Psalm 23.
“I had this thought that David, you are standing looking in the valley of the shadow of death, don’t be afraid, and then get moving, move your feet,” Kotok said.
He ran by a car rental facility as employees were trying to close. He said he was able to take a car in about a minute and drove out of the city to New Jersey.
“There was no time to try to figure it out; you had to operate on immediate decision-making and instincts, and that’s what I did,” Kotok said. “The difference between life and death for many people was whether you turned left or right and made a decision which you had to do in split seconds, and that was the type of moment it was.”
Kotok recalled what it was like seeing the attack later on TV and feeling like he was watching a movie rather than an event he had lived through.
“Gosh, that’s not what it was like,” Kotok said. “The camera angle doesn’t capture the chaos and fear among the people, thousands of people.”
Lost family members
Tom Owens, a Breckenridge resident, was living in upstate New York on the day of the attacks.
“I was in a college art class, watched the planes hit on TV and then realized, ‘Oh, my family is there.’ So I ran to a payphone and called my sister, and she was just leaving for her first day back to work from maternity leave. She was a cop, and she told me her husband, Joe, was in the building,” Owens said.
Owens jumped in his car and drove to the city. Owens’ sister Kathy Vigiano lost her husband, Joseph Vigiano, who was an emergency service police officer, and brother-in-law, John Vigiano II, who was a fireman.
“It was super chaotic — the uncertainty of not knowing what was going on, having the hope that her husband was alive,” Owens said. “Every hour or so somebody would come from the trade center into the room that we were at in the police plaza, and we’d hear more and more updates. As time went on, we all just kind of came to terms with him not coming back.”
He stayed with his sister for five months, helping her care for her children as well as search ground zero. Her children have followed in their father’s footsteps, with two working as police officers in New York City.
Owens said Sept. 11 is always a big day for his family.
“I don’t go into the city much anymore, but my sister’s going to be in there. She’s read names at the ground zero site,” Owens said.
Air traffic controller
Kevin Bainer, a Silverthorne resident, is a retired air traffic controller who worked at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center in Longmont. On Sept. 11, 2001, he woke up, started brewing coffee and turned on his TV.
“I don’t even think I got my coffee,” Bainer said. “I think I literally got in my car and went to work because something’s going on. Arriving at work, everything was different. Everyone was still trying to figure out what was going on.”
Bainer compared the chaos at the control center that day to times when the center is coordinating aircraft during major thunderstorms.
“There was a lot of stuff going on. You were getting security briefings. … Then they assigned you, like they always do, ‘Go work this sector,’” Bainer said. “And then the order came down: Order everybody to land. And that order went to every facility in the nation at the same time.”
Landing all of the planes only took about an hour, Bainer said. He didn’t yet know the extent of the attacks — only that there were coordinated hijackings. Bainer noted that he had never before told a pilot that they would land at a specific airport.
“For us to order a pilot to come on frequency that’s going to Japan or China or somewhere overseas … that you’re landing in Denver … there’s confusion,” Bainer said. “I had never done that before in my career, and I never did it since.”
Bainer talked to about 25 pilots that day. Once all the planes in the control center’s jurisdiction had exited the airspace, Bainer and other controllers headed to the cafeteria, where they watched the events of 9/11 unfold on TV along with the rest of the country.
Secret Service agent
Al Concordia, a Silverthorne resident, was a supervisor in the U.S. Secret Service at the time. He flew to New York on Sept. 10, 2001, as part of the team that was preparing for then-President George W. Bush’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly in November.
“We started out bright and early on the 11th, and it was a beautiful day,” Concordia said, recounting who he was with, including the Secret Service lead agent, White House deputy chief of staff, deputy for the White House military office and other national security and White House staff members.
“It was a pretty big gaggle,” he said.
Concordia then heard the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. His first thought was, ‘That’s strange. It’s a clear, sunny day.’ Then, the second plane hit, and it was apparent it was not an accident.
“That’s the training part of it. It becomes part of your muscle memory,” Concordia said. “So all the training that we did for those doomsday scenarios … basically, what do we need to do? We need to go to a safe place.”
The group moved to the nearest police station to try to notify their families that they were safe. As they began making their way to Dover Air Force Base, they watched the first tower fall.
The president decided to go to Washington, D.C., to meet first responders at the Pentagon, so the group arrived there and saw the building smoldering.
Concordia explained that when the president travels, there is a lot of preparation involved to set up security.
“With this, we were doing it as best we could in an impromptu way without being able to have that time to do what we normally would do,” Concordia said. “… It was a herculean effort from everybody’s perspective to make it work.”
The president decided to go to ground zero Sept. 13, 2001.
“He said, ‘We’re going to go to New York. We’re going to ground zero — no ands, ifs or buts. Make it happen,’” Concordia said, recalling the president’s words. “That afternoon, we went on a first visit to ground zero. I remember you get out and … we start walking through a foot of concrete dust.”
Concordia compared the scene to a war zone. He recalled how the next day, Bush shook hands with the crowd around ground zero and stood on a crushed fire truck. He was handed a megaphone to speak, and people shouted that they couldn’t hear the president.
Bush responded, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!”
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