Memories of 9/11 touch hearts of two Utah County men
Michael B Clark, UVU Marketing
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was beautiful from New York to Washington D.C. — the skies were blue, the weather temperate. It appeared to be another perfect fall day on the horizon.
That horizon was soon filled with black smoke and ash, mangled steel girders and the stench of burning rubber and death.
Two men, one in New York City and one in Washington D.C. shared that blue sky and now both live in Utah County. Their names are known, but their stories of that day may not be.
Scott Trotter now lives in Vineyard and is the senior director of Communications for Utah Valley University. In 2001, he was director of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ New York City public affairs office, where he worked with local and national media and coordinated the Church’s outreach to ambassadors at the United Nations.
Trotter still gets emotional thinking of the many moments of that day.
“I can clearly remember the morning of September 11, 2001, as if it happened yesterday. It was a beautiful fall day, not a cloud in the sky, not too warm, not too cold. I used to call it the perfect New York weather. That type of weather normally happened April – May and September – October,” Trotter said.
Trotter lived in New Jersey and had taken the 6:30 a.m. train into Penn Station, where he hopped on the subway, red line (1) heading north.
“Had I taken the train south I would have gone under the World Trade Towers,” Trotter noted.
“As I walked into my office, my assistant had the TV on and told me a plane had flown into one of the Trade Towers. The ABC National News office was across the street from my office,” Trotter said. “We watched the TV in astonishment as another plane flew into the other tower. Like everybody else across the country who was watching TV, we knew it wasn’t an accident.”
Trotter said he went to the observation deck of the 35-story apartment building next to his office to try and get a visual of the towers, but the buildings in Mid-town were too tall and it blocked his view. What he could see was plumes of black smoke rising from downtown.
“I went back to my office and that is when it became surreal. It was almost like watching a movie in slow motion,” Trotter said. “The phones, both cell and landlines went down. I couldn’t call my wife to tell her I was OK, but I did find I could call my parents in Utah. I asked my mother to call my wife in New Jersey to tell her I was safe.”
“The subway and bus systems stopped amid the police cars and fire trucks racing to ground zero with their sirens blaring. Eventually, most of the taxis, cars, and trucks left the city and people were left to walk home on their own. We could see fighter jets flying low over the city. We weren’t sure if we were under attack or not, and to top it all off, the ATM’s quit working,” he said.
“The loud cacophony of New York City stopped — it was eerily quiet. Looking out my office window, I could see groups of men and women in business suits completely covered in gray dust walking, trying to make their way out of the city. No one was talking, traffic had stopped. It looked like a zombie apocalypse, but most disconcerting was the silence. It was downright spooky.”
The neighbors in the area began to talk to each other on the sidewalks, trying to figure out what happened. There were lots of rumors flying, but Trotter recalls nobody knowing for sure.
“The phones eventually started working again and our office was deluged with phone calls — Are you alright? What really happened? Can we send money or goods to help? Are the missionaries safe? When are you coming home?” Trotter said.
Elder Craig Zwick from the LDS Church called and told Trotter to buy as many sleeping bags and pillows as he could find to house people in the LDS stake center who couldn’t get out of the city.
“I bought a few but buying sleeping bags and pillows in New York City on 9/11 was almost impossible. Either the stores were closed, or they didn’t carry them,” Trotter said.
“With transportation sidelined, there was no way for us to go home. We continued to watch the news, what was happening on the streets, and answering the phone,” Trotter said.
He said he noticed something amazing started to happen — people started talking and treating each other kindly. Strangers helping strangers. If someone needed help, others would step in and help. Quite a contrast from the way people were acting only 24 hours earlier.
Still stuck in the office by evening he said a friend called around 7 p.m. and said that trains at Penn Station were running outbound, which meant he could go home.
“I walked through Times Square on the way to the train station, where I had another surreal experience — Times Square was empty, no cars, no buses, no honking horns, no tourists, the bigger lights had been turned off. There were only ten people in the square — I know because I counted. The city had, for all intents and purposes, been shut down,” Trotter said.
Trotter said the wind patterns blew the fire smoke out to sea, but there was an acrid smell of an electrical fire mixed with burning rubber hanging in the air. That smell lasted about six months.
Trotter’s train home had plenty of available seats. It stopped on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River as it exited the Lincoln Tunnel giving everyone on the train a clear view of the black smoke amidst the iconic skyline. Those on the train would push to the left side of the train for a look, noses pressed against the windows like school children. Trotter said that was all done in complete quiet. He did note a few gasps.
“At every train stop on the way home, the parking lots were full. Nobody said anything about it, but we all knew they were mostly the cars of the people who died in the towers. It was a quiet ride home,” Trotter recalled.
While Trotter experienced the New York devastation, Isaac Paxman, now the deputy mayor of Provo, was working as an attorney in the nation’s capitol back in 2001.
“I was working in Washington D.C. on September 11th, 2001. From a window of our office building near the Capitol, a satellite office of the Department of Justice, my employer, we could see smoke rising from the Pentagon. It was otherwise a day of clear blue skies.” Paxman said.
Almost every morning, Paxman would commute to work through the Pentagon subway stop. That ended following the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, he said.
“I had no desire to get on that subway, even if for some reason they decided to continue running it. I didn’t even bother to check. I lived in Virginia about a half an hour away from DC by car, on a good day with no traffic. I didn’t have a car. And I couldn’t get a hold of my wife, Liz. We had cell phones but they weren’t working,” Paxman recalls.
Paxman and his co-workers had been released from work. The best option seemed to be asking one of his co-workers who lived in the area if he could walk to his place with him.
“What I remember about the walk was that there seemed to be few, if any, cars on the roads. Instead, it was a good number of pedestrians walking on the streets, where cars would normally be,” Paxman said. “I recall that people mostly seemed calm and occasionally even in good spirits, but this wasn’t strolling; we were moving with purpose.”
“After a while, I was able to get a hold of extended family in Utah or other places in the West, through my cell phone. And they reported that my wife had also gotten a hold of them. So we knew each other was ok. In the evening, we could finally call each other, but we still saw no better option than for me to just crash at my friend’s place with his family,” Paxman said.
One of their other friends had business at the Pentagon that morning. Paxman’s wife Liz talked to the friend’s wife frequently throughout the day. Both women were trying to find out if their husbands were ok.
“Eventually Liz was told that as this friend (the husband) was approaching the Pentagon, he had the impression that a plane was going to fly into it. He decided to drive away and go to another building, and he was safe,” Paxman recalled.
“There were two others in our broader social circles who died in the Pentagon that morning,” Paxman said. “We attended the funeral of one of them, a mom. There was no casket.”
Paxman said that one of his local church leaders and neighbors was tasked with assessing how many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had died at the Pentagon. Another member in Paxman’s LDS ward/congregation was involved with identifying bodies and remains of those who died at the Pentagon.
“We lived near, and had associated often with, military families. I remember shortly the attacks, seeing the wife of a Marine we knew. The depth of her sacrifice became clearer to me.
Some families had their dads called away. Their sacrifices were very apparent to us,” Paxman said.
He noted, “I felt a strong sense of patriotism in the days that followed, a strong sense of unity with other Americans, and great respect for all those involved in protecting it.”