The sound jolted Laura Styler awake.
Her roommate rushed into the room, heaving, eyes bugged out. They turned on the TV, but the apartment’s electricity blinked out before they learned anything. So they hurried outside to see for themselves.
“We were on the boardwalk in Jersey City, facing lower Manhattan,” Styler says. “We had a vantage point not a lot of people had.”
The Oregon-based fashion model’s ears were still buzzing from that thunderous boom — caused, it turned out, by a hijacked Boeing 767 plowing into a 110-story skyscraper. Now, after a second airliner had crashed into the tower’s twin, she watched in a daze as smoke poured out of the mammoth buildings. She saw something else too, but she didn’t know what it was until she put binoculars to her eyes.
Twenty years later, she wishes she still didn’t know.
More than 2,600 people died at New York City’s World Trade Center when American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the complex’s iconic towers. The terrorist plot caused still more terrible deaths as the morning unfolded. At the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., when American Flight 77 plummeted into the seat of U.S. military power, and in a Pennsylvania field with the crash of United Flight 93, after passengers fought the skyjackers in an effort to regain control of the plane.
For every American who watched what happened in real time, or soon heard or read about it, this was the day — Sept. 11, 2001 — when everything changed. Old verities were swept away. A new reality rushed in. Oregonians, both those in the midst of it on the East Coast and those back in Oregon, immediately understood that their world had been upended, possibly forever.
Jason Baseden was under the World Trade Center when that first plane hit. He’d just stepped through a turnstile in the transportation hub buried deep beneath the complex when he thought he heard something odd. He didn’t think anything of it and climbed on the E train bound for Midtown, where he worked. As the train pulled out of the station, he caught a glimpse of people running pell-mell — but not for the train, for the exit to the street.
When the former Beaverton High School track star, then 29 and an ad-sales rep for the Discovery Channel, arrived at his stop at 51st and Lexington, he came upon a colleague who told him a Cessna had crashed into one of the twin towers.
Stepping into the Discovery Channel offices a couple minutes later, he learned it was much worse than a small-plane accident — though no one knew what exactly had happened. The head of the office told everyone they could leave if they wanted to.
Baseden started walking down Fifth Avenue. He had a clear view of the towers ahead of him in the distance. Police cars and fire trucks blasted past him, sirens blaring, heading for the disaster site.
By now panic had begun to set in on the street.
The handset in every phone booth dangled on its cord, dropped when people realized the lines were dead. Some New Yorkers had cell phones, but those didn’t work either.
“Someone was saying planes were going to keep crashing into Manhattan,” Baseden says. “Then I heard this scream, all these people screaming. I looked up and lower Manhattan was being engulfed by dust and ash.”
He started to run. He decided he had to get out of the city — back across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where he lived. He hoped he’d be safe there.
Up ahead he saw the 33rd Street PATH station, the last stop on the New Jersey-to-New York City commuter line, with a train sitting there huffing. He sprinted, showing the speed that had earned him a track scholarship to St. John’s University. He made it just before the doors closed. The train headed off, toward the smoke and chaos.
He sat and let out a long breath, but he didn’t feel a sense of relief. His unease only increased when the train slowed as it approached the next station.
There are four more PATH stations before the tracks leave New York City and dip under the river toward New Jersey. This train didn’t stop at any of them.
“There were hundreds of people on those platforms, banging on the windows, screaming to be let on, and the train just slowly kept going,” he says. “It was eerie.”
The next day, in Portland, long rolls of butcher paper stretched across Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Hundreds of Oregonians throughout the afternoon kneeled on the warm bricks to add their thoughts and prayers for the then-unknown number of people who had died, murdered, in the unprecedented attacks by Islamic extremists.
“Dear People,” a 4-year-old girl wrote on the butcher paper, her father helping her. “We’re sorry that this happened to you. Dad & Daughter.”
The East Coast was a long way away, so Oregonians tended to feel not just anger but helplessness. What could they do to aid the search for survivors, to tend to the shell-shocked? Not much.
They wrote checks to charities. They lined up at blood banks.
“We’re not in New York, and we can’t dig people out of the rubble,” said a Portlander while standing in a queue outside a Red Cross office. “But we can do this. There’s more to being an American than paying your taxes. Right now, we owe our blood.”
The local newspaper that morning made clear that this tragedy had truly hit home: People from Oregon — or who had lived in Oregon — were among the casualties. They included 20-year-old Indonesian immigrant Eric Hartono, who was on United Airlines Flight 175. And Richard Guadagno, a 38-year-old who had been a National Wildlife Refuge manager in Salem. He was on United Flight 93.
Kathryn Blair Lee, a 55-year-old former Portlander, worked on the 96th floor of One World Trade Center.
David Lucian Williams, a 32-year-old Navy lieutenant commander who had spent summers in Newport while growing up, was in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the mega-building. So was Michael Selves, 53, a Pendleton High School graduate and retired Army lieutenant colonel.
Other Oregonians were lucky enough to survive.
Oregon National Guard Maj. Gen. Alexander Burgin, at the Pentagon to meet with the Army Reserve Forces Policy Committee, was thrown off balance when the hijacked plane blasted into the five-sided structure.
“It hit like an earthquake,” he said later that day. “It was like a shudder, like someone had moved the building.”
Lt. Col. Gerry Kitzhaber, second cousin to Oregon’s governor at the time, was sitting in his Pentagon office listening to radio reports about what was happening at the World Trade Center. He knew this was not some kind of bizarre aviation accident, so he called his wife, Eriko, at their suburban Virginia home.
“Are you OK?” she asked him.
“Well, gosh, dear,” he would recall telling her, “I’m at the Pentagon” — the most secure place in the world.
Moments after he hung up the phone, Flight 77 hit the U.S. military headquarters.
Kitzhaber, who’s now deputy principal to the assistant secretary of the Army, helped evacuate the huge building and then walked three miles to the Army National Guard Readiness Center. He couldn’t get in touch with his wife for hours, but he made it home to her and their children late that night.
The days and weeks that followed were difficult and depressing.
Jason Baseden soon returned to work, but he found it difficult to focus. The country was at war with a mysterious enemy that followed none of the usual conventions of war. He had no idea what to expect.
New York’s streets remained largely empty. So did bars and restaurants.
“We were concerned about future attacks,” Baseden says. “Everybody was looking at everybody else on the subway, wondering who might have a bomb. It was nerve-racking.”
Laura Styler, who worked as a model under the name Laura Kepshire, found herself in an emotional loop. Stuck in the apartment in Jersey City, her assignments in Manhattan canceled, she constantly replayed in her mind what she’d seen, the towers endlessly burning.
Even now, the memory of it remains vivid — it’s right there.
“I was shaking,” Styler recalls of standing on the New Jersey riverfront on the morning of Sept. 11, her eyes glued to the twin skyscrapers across the Hudson. “You’re just totally mesmerized watching it. Occasionally I’d look around and notice the people next to me had changed.”
Because of where she was standing, and how the morning sun hit the towers, she could see into the offices: she could make out desks, chairs, pictures on walls.
Styler, who had come to New York about a week before to participate in fall designer shows, peered through binoculars that were being passed around. The fluttering specks she’d been watching — those were people falling from the towers, she realized. They were jumping to their deaths. Styler’s head fizzed; she grabbed onto a railing. Tears came — she choked on them.
“We were bawling our eyes out watching people make this choice, whether to jump,” she says.
These images haunted her for years. She says she used to wake up every Sept. 11 “and feel like someone died — just this memory at the cellular level.”
When the towers collapsed that day, falling in on themselves, floor by floor, Styler fell too, to her knees.
“That’s when the first military jet came swooping over us,” she says. “I face-planted at that. I didn’t know what was happening. Is it American? Are we under attack?”
A large man standing near her screamed at the jet: “Where the hell were you?”
Good question, Styler thought. What took the military so long to respond? There was an Air Force base in central New Jersey.
“It was the first time, as an American, that I felt I wasn’t safe,” she says. “That the country wasn’t safe. It was a life-changing moment.”
Baseden, who’s now the athletics director at the New Hampshire prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, realized he needed to know more about the world. He started buying books on geopolitics, world cultures, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. He wanted to figure out “what would cause someone to do something like that to innocent people?”
He wanted to understand what his fellow Americans were thinking too. Baseden worried that the U.S. response to the attacks — wars abroad, a far-reaching security apparatus at home — would only make the threat, both real and imagined, worse.
For Styler, who’d studied communications at the University of Oregon, the terrorist attacks also prompted her to look at history and her country in a different way.
But it took her a while to get there.
Seven days after the towers fell, she shoved down her grief, boarded a plane bound for Europe and went back to work.
“I just wanted to get out of there,” she says of New York City.
The fashion industry across the Atlantic continued on, “pretending it didn’t happen,” she says. “They had things to sell. I kept wanting to talk about it. Nobody wanted to talk about it.”
She tried to put it out of her mind, what it all meant, and just move forward — and she thought she was mostly succeeding.
Then in 2004 she went to see the Michael Moore documentary “Fahrenheit 9-11.” Ten minutes in, the movie offers a black screen and the sound of the first hijacked plane hitting the World Trade Center’s north tower — the sound that woke her up two-and-half years earlier. Something inside Styler cracked.
“I lost it in the theater,” she recalls. “My friends had to carry me out. That’s when I realized, ‘I’m traumatized by this.’”
She eventually put her modeling career aside and studied to become an energy-medicine practitioner, which she says helped her “release my trauma and PTSD.” She now lives in Austin.
“It will always be a part of me,” she says of what she witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Baseden understands that it always will be a part of him as well. He kept newspapers chronicling the attacks and still finds himself pulling them out almost every year as the anniversary approaches, flipping through them, remembering “the smells and noises” of that day. Then he carefully packs them away again.
And returns to the world 9/11 created.
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