LANDER, Wyo. — The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed our country. It became a defining event of a generation. It is one of those days, even we, far away in Wyoming, will never forget.
But for some, Sept. 11 produces memories beyond anger and sadness and gathering around a TV. Even thousands of miles away, our friends and neighbors were impacted in ways we might not have guessed. Here, seven Wyoming residents share their stories and memories of that day.
Michael Humphrey, Jackson
For the past four years, Michael Humphrey did the same thing on Sept. 11.
After running and conditioning, or working and studying, he and his fellow Marines lowered the flag, watched TV and remembered.
Ten years ago, Humphrey was only 12. He woke that morning and got ready for school. His dad, Bryan, sat watching the news and called him over. One plane had already struck the twin towers. Together, father and son watched the second plane collide with the south tower.
Far removed from New York City, Humphrey went to school in Jackson, still in the “wow phase.”
“As in, wow, this just happened,” he said.
Throughout the day, Humphrey watched the coverage on the TVs in his classrooms, and something stuck with him.
He felt removed from the tragedies and a little helpless. He started thinking about one day signing up for military service.
In high school, Humphrey considered the military more seriously. His grandfather had been in the Marines. Humphrey was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, and the Marines became more and more appealing, especially with the thought of taking the fight to the “bad guys” who attacked the country.
“It kinda sealed the deal,” he said. “The 11th was the spark, the extra push.”
While serving in the Marines, Humphrey rarely discussed Sept. 11 — not at boot camp in California or during deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he focused on daily tasks and, most recently, counting down the days until his four years of service would be over.
Humphrey became an adult in the Marines.
“It changed me a lot,” he said. “I fought in two different wars before I turned 22.”
When Humphrey left home, he was a kid who sometimes schemed his way out of chores and balked at cleaning his room.
Now, he works seven days a week at the family business, the Bar J Chuckwagon. His vision of his future is clear. He’s ready to start school at WyoTech in October and move on to the next phase of his life.
But he won’t forget the day that changed a country and his life.
He still gets angry when he thinks about Sept. 11. He still wonders what he would have done if he were in New York City, in one of the twin towers. Would he run? Would he jump? Would he live?
Sunday, he’ll watch the ceremonial coverage as he always has, but this time not from the barracks or a communal room. This time, he’ll be at home.
Donn Kesselheim, Lander
The first time Donn Kesselheim experienced an attack on the U.S., he was in a military high school in Minnesota. He and the other boys gathered around a radio and listened to accounts of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He felt angry and sad. Many of the boys at his school came from military families. Some had fathers stationed near the attack.
When Kesselheim finished school, he enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army.
He was at boot camp when the U.S. bombed Japan. He saw the smiles on the faces of people in California, which clashed with images of the incinerated people from Japan. Today, Kesselheim remembers one image in particular: the shadow of a person against a wall, their arms up as though to defend their body. He felt sickened to be part of the military machine that created those horrific images. He decided then to never again be in a position to take orders to kill others.
Kesselheim became a pacifist and in 1963 joined the Society of Friends, or the Quakers.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Kesselheim again witnessed an attack on his country, this time from his home in Lander in front of a TV.
“We watched with horror as it played out,” he said.
Kesselheim was decades older than when he gathered around the radio in Minnesota. Despite his revised stance on violence and war, the events on Sept. 11 stirred the same emotions from decades before — anger and sadness.
“The feelings of bombs being dropped on ships on Honolulu was the same as watching planes being flown into tall buildings,” he said.
Kesselheim wrote a letter to President George W. Bush asking him to deal with the plane hijackings as a criminal event to be dealt with by international police and in an international court. He advocated other people’s ideas, such as bringing fresh water to the people of Afghanistan instead of war.
He held on to hope until the U.S. invaded Afghanistan; then he felt helpless and frustrated.
“We did the thing everyone expected us to do,” he said. “We attacked Afghanistan. If some different course was pursued, it would have set a precedent that would have changed human history, I think.
“We waited long enough after to go to war, there was ample time to think about the consequences of going to war,” he said.
Kesselheim regrets that the country went to war. He believes the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks provides not just an opportunity to mourn those killed that day, but a chance to reflect on the action the U.S. took and evaluate those consequences so that maybe things will be different in the future.
Amanda Huckabay, Casper
“Grazing cattle” — those two words meant everything in Amanda Huckabay’s life. That was about to change.
Huckabay, then 19, was at school in Aberdeen, S.D., on Sept. 11, 2001. Without hearing news of the attacks back East, she went to her 9 a.m. photography class at Northern State University.
Huckabay stumbled upon a few students who sat crying. Everyone talked in hushed voices. Huckabay didn’t understand what was happening.
Her professor arrived and, without a word, turned on the TV. Huckabay watched the first plane hit the north tower. When the second plane hit the south tower, the professor, growing emotional, asked the students to leave.
Huckabay was 17 years old on July 26, 1999, the day she enlisted in the Army Reserves. Her father had told her she would go to college and that she had better figure out a way to pay for it.
Her father had served in the Army, so military service seemed to be an obvious choice. In the reserves, Huckabay thought she’d serve a weekend a month along with a month in the summer and get through school.
She knew deployment was always a possibility.
“But those are not finite realities you envision for your life at 17,” she said.
From 1999 to 2001, the reserves offered Huckabay what she had expected. By age 19, however, she was at a transition in her life, leaving an abusive relationship and figuring out how to live independently.
When Huckabay saw the planes crash into the twin towers, she knew her plans would have to wait. When she arrived at her apartment after the canceled class, the call came.
“Grazing cattle.” It meant her unit was on alert.
“I felt angry that because of other people’s choices, it was going to direct the course of my life that I had not anticipated,” she said. “I realize that is the life of a soldier. I understand that now, 10 years later, but at the time I didn’t, and I was angry.”
Her unit met later that day. Deployment could come within 48 hours, or it could be weeks, days or years.
For Huckabay it started a life of constant anxiety, of living out of boxes, of waiting to be sent to war. She created a plan for where she’d store her stuff and how she’d pay her rent and bills while gone.
Maintaining everyday life was hard. In the back of her mind, Huckabay kept thinking she would be leaving.
“Picking out classes and going to class sometimes seemed irrelevant to what was going on in the world,” she said.
In November 2005, Huckabay’s unit deployed for Iraq — without Huckabay, who was unable to go for personal reasons.
“Every day since then, I’ve reflected back on (Sept. 11) and the ghastly fatalities,” she said. “I’m grateful that the impact on my life and my struggles was so minute compared to some people.”
On any given day, about 10 planes fly in and out of the small Buffalo Municipal Airport.
There are only two employees, three if you count the bookkeeper.
Airport manager Jim McLaughlin mows the lawn in the summer and plows the snow from the runway in the winter, as well as managing schedules of the private and chartered planes moving in and out.
On Sept. 11, 2001, McLaughlin watched the weather at home before switching to a news channel when he heard about the first plane crash.
He watched his TV, then headed to work as normal, not in any rush.
“No use getting excited,” he said.
The calls from Denver and Salt Lake City airport officials came immediately. All airspace was closed. No one was to fly.
The Buffalo airport served the coalbed methane boom; customers came from the nearby fields and hadn’t heard what happened. McLaughlin had to tell travelers ready to depart on a plane bound for Texas that they’d be in Buffalo a few more days.
Staff members from Denver and Salt Lake City checked in, making sure no one was flying and that the old bombers that sat on the tarmac for firefighting were still in place.
In his then-23 years of airport work, McLaughlin had never seen anything like the planes crashing into the twin towers.
About three days after Sept. 11, planes began to leave and return to the Buffalo airport.
Buffalo Municipal Airport has much more security today. There are Transportation Safety Administration gates and codes that need to be punched to enter buildings. Doors that for years didn’t have locks are now secured.
“I think the federal government closed the door after the horse was already gone,” McLaughlin said. “And I think that stuff around here don’t mean much.”
Still, he tries to remember to lock the doors and gates behind him.
The land near Lyman stretches open with sagebrush. A truck can be spotted miles away by the cloud of dust trailing along the prairie.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the land was quiet as Stacey Bluemel, now of Kemmerer, patrolled natural gas wells.
When Bluemel arrived to the office of the natural gas company he worked for, he found coworkers clustered around the radio. They sat silently, crammed in a small room around the tiny radio as they learned about the planes, the terrorists and the attack on the country.
“It was disbelief and then it turned to anger,” he said.
Then it turned to his job.
Far from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, many people in rural communities out West felt safe.
But Bluemel and others in the energy industry realized the United States had assets other than highly populated cities.
Bluemel and the rest of the staff members paired into teams of two and were told to patrol the gas fields, to look for unusual vehicles and planes or people tampering with the sites.
They were told to get vehicle descriptions, license plate numbers or any other details if they stumbled across something suspicious. They weren’t to approach anyone.
Bluemel remembers setting out nervously, a radio on in the truck so they could follow developments.
In his years in the energy industry, people had tampered with sites and stolen equipment.
“But nothing we’d rate as a terrorist attack,” he said.
Bluemel and his partner came to a train stopped at a crossing, under orders not to move. The two had to drive more than 20 miles to get around it.
But that was the height of Bluemel’s excitement that day. No one else was in the fields that day. And there were no planes in the sky.
Bruce Palmer, Lander
The National Outdoor Leadership School had 171 students in the field on Sept. 11, 2001. The field often means remote backcountry areas far from TVs, cell phones and the latest news.
Bruce Palmer was then, and remains, marketing and admissions director for the Lander-based school. On Sept. 11, he knew somehow the events unfolding on National Public Radio would impact his day. But that morning, as he rushed his kids to school, he didn’t know how.
Palmer knew little of the details about what was happening on the East Coast when he left his house. When he arrived at his Lander office, Palmer learned the size of the planes and that it was a terrorist attack.
The phones stayed silent, the office quiet.
Then staff members went into action. Students in the backcountry needed to be notified. At the same time, students traveling to Lander for a course scheduled to start Sept. 12 were stranded across the country.
NOLS officials considered pulling students from courses in Kenya, where, early on, the coastal region was believed to house al-Qaida.
Fires had blazed in the mountains and forests of Wyoming that summer. To help ensure the safety of students and to help report fires, the school had a cellphone system for instructors to call in smoke sightings.
Some course members called in that day on their own. One caller reported that the area where they’d been camping, which sat under a flight path, had been void of planes all day.
Workers were able to reach all of the backcountry course members that day. Horse packers carried in further information listing facts about the attacks on sheets of paper.
The office could relax.
Then the phone rang.
A student’s father had been scheduled on a flight from Boston. That flight hit one of the towers.
The next day, a relative called and confirmed the boy’s dad had been on the plane.
The student was in a course on the west side of the Wind River Range. Palmer isn’t sure, but he thinks NOLS officials sent a horse packer to the group with a letter for the leader of the class, explaining the situation.
Once back in Lander, the student waited. With flights grounded, it took several days before he could leave to be reunited with his family.
Stephen Ropp, Laramie
In 2001, nobody uttered such phrases as “war on terror” and “homeland security.”
Many University of Wyoming students mirrored the general U.S. population, showing little interest in foreign relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, according to UW political science professor Stephen Ropp.
That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ropp was at home preparing for work that morning. He had returned only a few days prior from a conference in Washington, D.C.
Ropp always watches the news in the morning before heading to campus — ready for any questions his students have about current events.
He watched the first plane hit the north tower. At first, he, along with the news anchors and reporters, assumed the plane had accidentally hit the tower. When the second plane hit, Ropp realized the country was under attack. He watched the smoke and flames, then the collapse of both towers, with dread.
He knew that morning’s events would be the subject of discussion in his world politics class, but he wasn’t sure how he would approach them. Ten years later, he doesn’t remember how the conversations went. At that exact time, there wasn’t a way to put the events in context politically, he said.
“At the time, it was just this horrible tragedy,” Ropp said. “It wasn’t a particularly teachable moment.”
Instead, his classroom held an atmosphere of empathy as people tried to process the tragedies they’d witnessed.
The campus held a sense of change in the air. Students and faculty felt the world was preparing for something. But what?
The events opened Wyoming, the country and the world to new titles and words and old words with new meanings, such as “Patriot Act,” “ground zero” and “al-Qaida.”
In the semesters after the terrorist attacks, UW Political Science Department officials accommodated a surge in students interested in foreign relations. The subjects became important not only to students wanting to make sense of what happened by understanding the world’s complexities, but for those seeking careers in new sectors of work, such as homeland security, opened.
“What it did,” Ropp said, “was not only change what you taught, but the interest in what you taught.”