On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ruth Hughs was approaching her third grade class. One of her fellow teachers walked up to her and informed her of the attack on New York City.
Similar to George W. Bush finding out the news in front of children, she had a muted response so as to not frighten her class.
Hughs also made the conscious decision to not watch the news that day, as she already knew how bad the situation was.
“I chose to pray,” she said. “I chose to just pray and not watch it because it was too — You knew it was really bad. You knew it was dead serious.”
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Eudora residents shared their memories of that day in 2001 that have stayed with them ever since.
Belinda Rehmer was getting ready for work when the news came over the TV. When she decided to stop watching from home and head to work, she discovered everyone was watching the event there, too.
“We all huddled around the little TV in our office all day,” she said. “It was so silent.”
Rehmer said the once vibrant hallways of her work at Lawrence Memorial Hospital had turned quiet for the entirety of the day, and many days following.
“They were walking zombies. We were so shocked that we couldn’t even speak out loud,” she said.
Rex Burkhardt was driving to work at KU’s Youngberg Hall when he heard the news on the radio. He remembers several co-workers gathering around a small black & white TV that didn’t even have an antenna and used aluminum foil to get poor reception.
They watched as the second plane hit.
“We were shocked to witness the second plane crash into the second tower,” he said. “I remember saying out loud, ‘Our lives will never be the same after this point in history.’”
The next day, he got to work early and planted a dozen or so small U.S. flags along the sidewalk leading to the front entrance.
Police Chief Wes Lovett said 9/11 changed not only things like travel, but the way first responders operate in the past 20 years.
“I remember one of the big events that was discussed in law enforcement right after this event was: How are we all going to communicate if an event like this happens again?” he said.
Following 9/11, police departments updated the radio system they were using, allowing them to communicate with fire departments and other police departments. Lovett, who was on patrol as a sergeant for the Prairie Village Police Department when the attacks occurred, could also see an emotional shift in the country that day.
“I think one of the things 9/11 did, too, at the time, was pull the country together,” he said. “Now we have events these days which I feel are kind of tearing the country apart, which is sad that it took an event like 9/11 to kind of pull everybody together.”
He also emphasized an appreciation for first responders in New York on 9/11 and in general, as he said appreciation has since decreased.
“I think a lot of people forget the job that we do, you know. Those people rushed into a building that was collapsing and trying to save other people, and I think a lot of people forget about that,” Lovett said. “I think it’s good that we do remember 20 years later what these people did and put their lives on the line.”
Assistant Fire Chief Chris Hull was in middle school on 9/11, hearing the news from his world history class. Although 9/11 was not the main contributing factor in his decision to become a firefighter, he said it has had a great influence on how he treats his work.
“It helped me understand, you know, you can go be a firefighter. It doesn’t make you a hero in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Anybody that decides they’re going to join a fire department and then walk around like they’re some kind of hero — it’s a disrespect to the people that have actually done something.”
Hull said watching footage and documentaries of that day hits closer to home now that he is a firefighter.
“To imagine 343 firefighters dying, I mean, that’s every firefighter in this county plus some just being gone, and it’s more of a reverent, kind of humbling thought now more than it used to be,” he said.
Similar to Lovett, Hull noticed differences in the capabilities and priorities of first responders in the past 20 years. He noted changes in budgeting, as well as improvements in the preparedness and previous inoperabilities within firefighting as a whole.
“Things as simple as radio communications, standard terminology — those things really got highlighted as being of key importance, and that’s something the entire region is really good at now,” he said.
Fire engineer and acting officer Alex Thomas also said he noticed improvements in the abilities of first responders, and the past 20 years have shown a rapid increase in technology that he hadn’t expected.
“We are actually able to enter buildings with police escorts and start triaging and rescuing people while the event’s still technically going on, and that’s not something that would’ve happened 20 years ago,” he said.
Thomas said there has also been an increase in the science and research related to fighting fires in high-rise buildings as a result of 9/11. Additionally, the training first responders undergo now includes more mass-casualty incident training, as, according to Thomas, there has been an increase in these large-scale events in the past 20 years as well.
Thomas, who was finishing up a practice as a KU track athlete the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks, said many people initially thought it was an accident.
When he arrived home and immediately saw the second plane hit, he knew differently. Thomas, like most, appreciates the efforts of the first responders that acted on 9/11.
“I think keeping their memories alive is almost an obligation to Americans,” Thomas said. “They knew what they were going into. They knew what the possibility — maybe even the probability was and they did it anyway.”
Since that day, Thomas feels life nationwide has changed significantly.
“No matter where you were as an American, life changed that day. There was a life before 9/11 and a life we’ve had to live since then,” he said.
Fellow fire engineer Jamie Laning, who was in a classroom in the first grade on 9/11, shared similar thoughts.
“It was a big, national event that changed the course of a lot of things that we do here in the country, so it’s good to keep that in mind as a country because of the way it affected everybody,” he said.
Laning said it’s important to continue showing up to his work as a firefighter, as that is what the men and women who lost their lives in service that day would’ve done as well.
“We just don’t want to forget the people themselves because they were individuals, family members that made this sacrifice that they didn’t know what they were going into, but they did anyway,” Laning said.
Reach reporter Emily Binkley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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