9/11: Officials remember events of Sept. 11, 2001Written by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
On Sept. 11, 2001, State Sen. Edna Brown, then a Toledo city councilwoman, was going to celebrate her grandson’s 10th birthday.
Brown, Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken (then councilman) and Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak (then councilwoman) were all up for re-election in a primary that day.
Former Gov. Bob Taft was driving to work with a state trooper while Gov. John Kasich had been on a corporate conference call since 4 a.m.
“I remember how blue the sky was, how bright the sun was,” said Mayor Mike Bell, then the city’s fire chief.
And then terrorists flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It was no longer just a primary, just a beautiful day, just a birthday, just a Tuesday. It was 9/11.
Like so many others, Gerken turned on the TV.
“I thought I had the movie channel on and not the news,” he said.
“It was one of those things, you want to make sure where everyone was but you’re also fixated on watching,” said Congressman Bob Latta, then a representative.
Gerken immediately called his son, who was in Washington, D.C., during the attacks, while current Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada’s daughter called from Vermont to inform her of the events.
“We watched the event unfold together on the phone, consoling each other,” said Contrada, an attorney.
Wozniak, along with a campaign worker for her opponent and a woman neither had met before, bonded while huddling around a TV. Wozniak and the worker were campaigning at a Washington Local school when “a woman across the street called, ‘Would you like to see what’s happening?’” The pair went into the woman’s home to watch the news coverage on her TV.
“There were no barriers, no differences. We basically bonded,” Wozniak said.
Meanwhile, then-Mayor Carty Finkbeiner called safety officials Bell, Lucas County Sheriff James Telb and Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre to his office to develop a plan. Telb remembered being told not to worry about overtime and extra personnel.
Finkbeiner said his two main concerns were keeping Muslims and foreign residents safe from retaliation as well as keeping city locations like the water treatment center, The University of Toledo and The Toledo Museum of Art secure.
“That led to decade-long intensive planning. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since,” Telb said.
In addition to getting grants for new equipment, Lucas County and surrounding counties have gained access to a radio system that allows all responders to be on one channel in case of an attack, Telb said, adding, “It’s still state of the art. People still want to match it.”
Police and hospital officials also began talking to each other to develop plans in case of future attacks. Before 9/11, “Nobody ever talked to the hospital. No one in law enforcement did that,” Telb said.
Bell was subsequently appointed chairman of the Joint Regional Terrorism Task Force, which included about 30 officials from surrounding counties and parts of Michigan. Following the attacks, people frequently reported low-flying planes that were just checking on power lines, in addition to anthrax scares.
Bell sent 12 firefighters to New York City to help, while the Toledo City Police sent six officers and the Sheriff’s Office sent five officers.
“It actually shocked them and these were some pretty tough people,” Bell said of the firefighters he sent to Ground Zero.
Kasich told Toledo Free Press he went to Ground Zero on Sept. 20, 2001, as part of his show “Heroes” on FOX News Channel. He recalled the eerie quietness and observing searchers: “They had big, long sound detectors. They’d make their way across the site, listening for people who had been trapped.”
One man, a retired fire chief, had been at the site every day since the attack because he believed his two sons were caught in the rubble.
“He looked at me and said, ‘My boys are going to come out of there.’ And, of course, in terms of probability, they wouldn’t,” Kasich said. Kasich’s New York office with Lehman Brothers was destroyed in the attacks, although Kasich said he didn’t spend a lot of time there.
Kasich said the death of his parents, killed by a drunken driver in 1987, helped him relate to victims’ families.
“I myself have been in a situation where I’ve experienced that black hole of sudden death,” he said. “While I understand it may not be exactly the same, I can relate to them.”
Taft said he continued to work at the Riffe State Office Tower in Columbus that day.
“I wanted to get into the office, follow the events and do what needed to be done,” Taft said to Toledo Free Press.
He didn’t recall any communication from Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001, but figured an attack on Ohio was unlikely.
“Most of the news was coming from the media,” Taft said. “I think they were still trying to figure it out in Washington.”
The next day, Taft did hear from the White House about 9/11.
He said he continued to hear about the events of that day for the rest of his term.
“No single event while I was governor was more powerful,” Taft said.
After learning of the attacks during an early meeting, then-Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg sent nonessential county workers home. Isenberg and Finkbeiner held a press conference with officials on the steps of One Government Center.
“If you’ve got a picture of the newsreel, I was up there crying, trying to keep a calm demeanor,” Isenberg said.
Finkbeiner did not send city officials home and continued to hold meetings and conferences throughout the week, he said.
The primary elections also stayed open that day, in what Gerken called “the best way to keep democratic values alive.”
The attacks, including a third plane flown into the Pentagon and a fourth that passengers took over and crashed into a Pennsylvania field, changed not only government policy, but also politicians’ personal views.
“It’s a game-changer when something like that happens. It resets your thinking,” said Representative Barbara Sears, then a Sylvania city councilwoman.
Lucas County Recorder Jeanine Perry, then a representative, recalled a state trooper checking her and about four fellow representatives’ bags following the attacks. The trooper leaned over State Sen. Shirley Smith’s (then representative) large bag and she yelled, “BOO!” causing the trooper to jump back. Instead of getting angry, “he laughed, and we laughed and that was the first time in weeks that we laughed. It just changed the atmosphere and environment,” Perry said.
The aftermath of the attacks “probably will be with us until the end of light on this earth,” Finkbeiner said.
To commemorate the attacks, he said he will likely visit those steps he spent so much time on at One Government Center “to remember how we all came together.”
Church leaders and police, fire and safety personnel have been invited to sound their bells and sirens at 1 p.m., Bell said.
After the polls were closed that day and the campaign was over, Brown went to see her grandson.
“I did go by to see my grandson and he was puzzled and wanted to know why it happened on his birthday,” she said.
While many things changed that day, some things remain the same as life continues on.
Brown said of her Sept. 11 plans this year, “My grandson, of course, is older but I will celebrate his birthday with him.”
Tags: 9/11, Bob Latta, Carol Contrada, Carty Finkbeiner, Edna Brown, James Telb, Jeanine Perry, John Kasich, Mike Bell, Mike Navarre, One Government Center, Pentagon, Pete Gerken, Sandy Isenberg, Tina Skeldon Wozniak, Toledo Museum of Art, University of Toledo, World Trade Center