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September 11, 2010

9/11: Nine years after attacks

Atwater remembered. At a stirring 45-minute ceremony Friday at City Hall, residents, officials and women and men in coats of many colors paid tribute to both the victims of the 9/11 attacks nine years ago and to the servicemen and women deployed at home and around the world.

Atwater remembered.

At a stirring 45-minute ceremony Friday at City Hall, residents, officials and women and men in coats of many colors paid tribute to both the victims of the 9/11 attacks nine years ago and to the servicemen and women deployed at home and around the world.

Organized by city employee Margarita Saavedra and Susie Rizzonelli, of the famous restaurant family, the event drew some 75 people. They sat and stood in 70-degree temperatures, the wind sometimes whipping red, white and blue napkins off the table of treats, and listened to prayers, pledges and songs.

Dozens of large and small American flags also unfurled in the breeze.

Councilman Gary Frago, filling in for Mayor Joan Faul, who's ill, spoke of a communal "sense of grief and loss" on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. He called on residents to "revisit the unity" that Americans shared after 9/11.

Honor guards came from several services: the Atwater Police Department, VFW Post 9946, the U.S. Penitentiary Atwater. Police chaplains Larry Lee and Jim McClellan said prayers, Chief Richard Hawthorne urged all "not to ever forget. May this never happen again -- teach your children well." The Fireman's Prayer and Bell Ceremony were performed. Patricia Mead, a city employee, sang two patriotic anthems.

Livingston leaders also remember 9/11. During Tuesday's City Council meeting, the council declared Sept. 17-23 "Constitution Week." The proclamation isn't only meant to celebrate the Constitution, but also remember the past. "In Livingston, we're about celebrating what's good and virtuous in our country," Mayor Daniel Varela Sr. said. "With Sept. 11 coming up, it's another time to think about the values of our country." Former Mayor Gurpal Samra later stepped to the lectern to point that Sept. 11 relates to the community in another way -- Livingston was incorporated Sept. 11, 1922.

Nine years ago this morning, and 3,000 miles east of Merced, veteran Associated Press reporter Richard Pyle was just returning from walking his dog. He and his wife Brenda Smiley live in Brooklyn. Here's what Pyle saw and did that day nine years ago:

At the moment the world changed, I was unaware anything had happened until I heard Brenda calling me to hurry up, a plane had hit the World Trade Center. It was maybe four minutes after impact when I got to the roof. Brown smoke and flames were pouring from the north tower. Neighbors were gathering on other rooftops. And I was on the phone, making that oft-imagined call to the office, describing what my colleagues there already could see for themselves on television.

My first task as a reporter was to get to the scene. I made it to the subway, and soon realized that among passengers on the train, most were unaware of anything having happened, until the conductor announced that service was being halted at the last stop in Brooklyn because of an emergency. Fortunately we were near the Brooklyn Bridge, which suddenly had become the only way to get to Manhattan, and only on foot.

We were halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge when the north tower suddenly fell down, a quarter of a mile away and right before our eyes. The sound was not loud, more of a hollow rumble, like a rockslide. It lasted all of 10 seconds.

As the building's TV tower vanished in billowing dust and smoke, the people on the bridge looked back. There was a vast, collective moan, pierced by cries. Some people panicked and tried to run through the crowd ahead. It was, as one of my colleagues said, "like a Godzilla movie."

The streets below City Hall were nearly deserted. No pedestrians, no cars. It was a strange, yellowish darkness, nuclear winter, a volcanic eruption, the end of the world. The air was filled with dust and several inches of powdered cement covered everything. All sound was muffled, as in a winter snowstorm. Thousands of letters, documents and computer printouts were everywhere.

The Trade Center plaza was strangely quiet chaos. One can't adequately describe the effect of a place so familiar suddenly becoming a scene from another planet. The few people I could see were vague shapes in the gloom. I saw no other journalists. Unknown to me then, some of my colleagues had been forced to run for their lives.

I saw a few wrecked fire engines but nobody yet realized that hundreds of firefighters and dozens of cops had died under the collapsing towers. A third skyscraper, the 48-story No. 7 World Trade Center, was on fire and would crash later that day.

Like most disasters, this one was full of oddities. Among the thousands of pieces of paper that floated across to Brooklyn, our next door neighbor found on his sidewalk a sheet from an insurance company. Dated 13 April 2001, it listed pieces of jewelry worth $3 million, owned by Randolph A. Hearst and Veronica Hearst -- the late father and stepmother of Patricia Hearst. What were the odds, I wondered, of randomly finding one piece of paper in that blizzard of airborne debris bearing a recognizable name?

There were endless examples of strangers helping each other, and of a new-found civility among New Yorkers, who as we all know aren't famous for that. People put out American flags, a patriotic gesture that ordinarily might subject them to ridicule by their sophisticated friends. But it was hard to find a house or a business in New York City that did not have a flag on display.

After the dust had literally cleared and Pyle had written thousands of words about the disaster, he started to reflect, and not just react. He became more thoughtful, less stoic, about what he had seen, smelled, heard and felt. His change from a pro's pro as a reporter to a man deeply affected by an historic catastrophe may be captured in a later dispatch:

One weekend, 300 people in our neighborhood visited four firehouses and a police station to offer public thanks. At Ladder Company 101, a new truck had replaced the one destroyed on 9/11, and a shrine of letters, pictures and other mementoes honored the seven men who were killed. Next to a rack of bunker coats bearing their names, a sign read:

"Friends and Brothers of Ladder 101

We hold you here in our hearts

We hold your gear for your return

We know you are trying to reach us

Hurry home."

Thanks, Richard, old and dear friend, for sharing such important thoughts and words with strangers a continent away. They bring us closer and remind us of what we have lost.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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