Friday, September 9, 2011

10 years later, memories of 9/11 linger

Locals recall terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001

Express Staff Writer

At Ground Zero in New York City in 2002, about one year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people visit a shrine honoring victims. Photo by Willy Cook

Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird didn't find out about the 9/11 terror attacks until Sept. 14.

"I was seven miles from the nearest road," he remembers, having left a few days before on a backcounty hunting trip.

He said had no idea what had happened, only that the airspace above his camping spot was unusually quiet. Not a single plane had flown overhead for days, and he was beginning to wonder if something had happened.

Airport Director of Operations Pete Kramer was at home when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded. The first indication that something was wrong was a call from the staff on duty at the airport, he said.

"I got a phone call from my duty operations guy saying, 'Hey, are you watching the television? Apparently we have to close the airport,'" he said.

Immediately, Kramer went to work. He and Baird had devised a plan to contact Baird in case of an emergency and alert him to return to Hailey. Kramer said the plan was for him to fly a plane over Baird's hunting spot and wag the wings.

"The problem was, we couldn't get an airplane in the air," he said. "We'd never planned for that. Who plans to be attacked?"

Meanwhile, former Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling's phone was ringing off the hook; county residents were desperate for information about what was happening.

"People were afraid—if there was going to be another attack, if we were going to be a target," he said. "There was a lot of fear of the unknown."

Wood River Fire & Rescue Chief Bart Lassman was also dealing with that fear as he and his duty crew watched the events of 9/11 unfold on the morning news.

Lassman said he and his crew watched with a deeper understanding of the sacrifices that the New York Fire Department was being asked to make.

"We stayed glued to the television for most of the morning," he said. "We knew there were going to be lives lost and that our lives were about to change."

Much of the nation remained glued to the television as well, watching the second plane hit the south tower at 7:03 a.m. Mountain Time. The tower collapsed less than an hour later. The north tower followed, coming down at 8:28 a.m. Mountain Time.

Wood River High School teacher Maritt Wolfrom heard the news on her drive to work. A new teacher, she said she struggled to allay the fears of her students.

"[That's] a tough job when fear was creeping into my own psyche," she said. "All I wanted to do was hunker down with my own family thousands of miles away."

Glenn Lindsley, a Long Island native and math teacher at Wood River High School, was teaching in Seattle at the time.

"I chose to keep the TV off and not discuss it with my students during class," said Lindsley, a Long Island native. "I didn't think I could be very rational. I sometimes wonder if staying at work was the right thing to do."

Immediate impacts

For some, deciding whether to go to work was not an option. Kramer and Lisa Emerick, the airport's finance administrator, would not leave the airport for more than a few hours over the next few days, frantically trying to keep up with the almost-constant changes in security requirements being handed down from the federal government.

"Things were happening very fast," Kramer said.

He immediately had to shut down the terminal, send staff home, arrange for 24-hour security forces and even tell a pilot who had just flown in from the backcountry what had happened.

"How do you tell someone something like that? When they left, everything was fine," he said. "I'm sure what I was saying sounded completely preposterous."

Baird was eventually tracked down by a Blaine County sheriff's deputy as he came out of the woods several days later. At first, he said, he didn't believe it when the officer told him he needed to get back to the airport immediately.

"I thought it was some kind of prank," Baird said. "My response to him was, 'If Pete and Lisa sent you up here to tell me this story and get me back, it ain't working.'"

But the severity of the situation sank in shortly after. Baird spent the next 10 days implementing security measure after security measure at the direction of the federal government, with no idea of how the airport would pay for the measures.

"It was just, 'We're under attack, you need to do this,'" he said.

Femling and Lassman said they were kept busy identifying possible targets in the area and arranging for security at the airport. Sun Valley Resort was even identified by local law enforcement as a site for a potential attack.

"Everything was a target back then," Femling said. "We have so many high-profile people here."

Sun Valley Co. spokesman Jack Sibbach said the resort was less concerned about an attack and more concerned about the guests. Many of the guests were from the East Coast or knew people in the city, Sibbach said.

"Our policy was to do whatever we could to help them, let them leave early, arrange for transportation," he said.

Lassman and Sibbach said they didn't think at the time that Sun Valley Resort could be the site of an attack. However, studies done by the Blaine County Sheriff's Office and Homeland Security indicated that Sun Valley was a high-risk location.

"It became evident that because of the people who visited the area, and especially during Allen and Co., a lot of damage could be done," Lassman said.

Sibbach declined to comment on whether Sun Valley Resort is currently prepared for a terrorist attack, but said safety is the company's top priority for both the guests and employees.

10 years later

Ten years after the attacks, Baird and Kramer said nothing has returned to business as usual at the airport.

"Security changed 1,000 percent," Kramer said, adding that the airport has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars updating security software and adding personnel to comply with new federal regulations.

"We're not as friendly a place as we once were," Baird said. "Very few people know what goes on behind the fence."

Law enforcement has changed too, Femling said. The county is much more prepared for a disaster and has received federal funding to train for catastrophic emergencies such as an attack.

"One of the things we prepare for is to call for assistance and help," he said. "Hopefully, we're not cut off [in that situation]."

Lassman and his crew have also received additional disaster training, but he said the impacts of 9/11 are felt on a more emotional level.

"For people in our line of work, we tend not to forget as easily," he said. "We'll overcome it because we have to in order to do our work."

Firefighters and law enforcement officers have received more respect in the years since 9/11, Lassman said. More people have thanked them for their service, and crewmembers are more likely to wear dress uniforms and proudly display badges.

The experience has also brought the police departments and the fire departments closer together, creating a bond between the agencies that would be first to respond to a crisis.

"Our job is to bring order out of chaos," Lassman said. "That's what we do. [9/11] has really pulled us together. We can't forget that day."

First responders may remember that day with special poignancy, but Sibbach said he believes the country will never fully recover from the emotional trauma of that day.

"It's affected everyone's psyche," he said. "It's a reminder that even though we live in a safe place, it's not always completely safe. It's always going to be a scar."

Katherine Wutz:

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