9/11, 15 Years Later: The Untold Story of How Sept. 11 Changed These 5 Lives Forever
How we’ve changed.
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Genora Dancel took this 2000 photo of co-worker Bill Steckman (who would die on 9/11), and fellow engineers Greg Hubert, Srini Murthy and Jeff Baker. At bottom: Dancel still has her World Trade Center employee badge.
Photo: Courtesy of Genora Dancel
While Heather Ho’s shift at the restaurant began early that morning, another Hawai‘i native, Genora Dancel, was working nearby as a broadcast engineer for WNBC.
“I worked at World Trade One North Tower and my office was on the 104th floor,” Dancel says. But because of a quirk of scheduling—one of her co-workers late, another on vacation—that morning she and her office-mates watched the chaos unfold from another office at the GE Building blocks away after the first plane hit. She realized: “If my co-worker didn’t come in late, I would have been there already.”
Their fellow engineers had called from the 104th floor of the World Trade Center to say that there was smoke coming in the room and they were powering down.
Slowly, Dancel and the others realized the enormity of what they were witnessing: “They kept minimal people in our building. All these F-16 fighters were flying really low. We had a really clear, straight view. We saw the second building, World Trade Two, go down. We looked at each other and said, Did that just happen? We were sick to our stomachs.”
Meanwhile, she was still working for a broadcast news operation and they went to work transmitting video of the scene across the globe. “It was a madhouse, but we had to keep working,” she says. “People were screaming. People were jumping off the buildings and landing on the streets and on firetrucks; it was raining people.”
At a brief lull, she called her mother to tell her she was OK and her mother recalled another shocking attack: As a little girl she had witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor from Kamehameha Heights.
Her recollection gets blurry after that. “The whole day was just surreal.” Dancel says she can’t remember going home.
After came the funerals, the months of recovery, eventually the memorials.
“People don’t realize that World Trade was really huge. It was so huge, it had its own zip code.” She still has her ID badge: “It reminds me of how lucky and fortunate I am that it wasn’t my time.”
Still, Dancel believes the horrible tragedy shows how resilient people are. “I think people really pulled together.”
She has visited the memorial and museum, and seen part of “our antenna” displayed there. Dancel recommends people visit. “You have to be reminded that it can happen again. We’re all humans and part of the destruction is that we can appreciate we survived.”
Dancel is perhaps best known as part of the three Hawai‘i couples who started the move to same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i. Now, she’s an electronics technician for the city’s wastewater division who lives with her wife in Royal Kunia and still feels the weight of what happened 15 years ago: “I think I don’t take anything for granted.”
Jon Matsubara outside of Bouley Restaurant, with parents Arlene and Ben Matsubara.
Photo: Courtesy of Jon Matsubara
Another Hawai‘i native was living and working in New York City for about two years before Sept. 11. Chef Jon Matsubara had graduated from culinary school and was working nights at the Michelin-starred Bouley restaurant in New York City. When the planes hit, from 90 blocks away, he and his now-wife could see the first tower burning and hear sirens.
They had gone outside to put a visiting friend in a cab, ran into their apartment and saw the news: “I called my parents and got their voicemail. I told them, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. We’re under attack. Turn on your TV. We’re alive and OK.’ And I told them I loved them. And I hung up.”
Matsubara, who is now the culinary executive director at 40 Carrots at Honolulu’s Bloomingdale’s, says he started to worry about how he would get to work. His subway stop was World Trade, which was gone, and everything in the area had shut down. His chef called to say that they would open the next day at Bouley to cook for the rescue teams, working for the American Red Cross.
He remembers “just cooking food, and it wasn’t gourmet food, it was just piles and piles of food in aluminum trays … noodles, beans, canned tomatoes. What have we got? What can we make?”
And Matsubara was surrounded by loss, including at the fire station near his apartment where all of the firefighters died trying to rescue others. He says, “All of them were gone. I can’t even explain the devastation of so many people who were lost.”
He says Ground Zero looked like a huge volcano exploded and there was ash everywhere. “In that ash was that smell. I’ll never forget that smell. It smelled like burnt death.” And every day they walked by all the posters of photos of the missing, labeled: Where is my loved one?
Yet Matsubara says people started coming together who never would have spoken before. “In the aftermath, there’s truly only one race. There’s not black, white, Asian, Indian, there’s only the human race and everybody was together. Because everybody knew we had to come together. And that was way more powerful than the attacks.”
He says the famously blunt New Yorkers suddenly became more patient: “A New York minute turned into five minutes after that. People took their time. No one was in a rush and swearing and honking at you. People were not complaining. People were being good about it and trying to be positive,” he says.
Matsubara says he’s been back six or seven times to New York City, but “I’ve never gone back to Ground Zero. I don’t really want to go back there. I always take a moment every 9/11 to pay my respects, but I don’t want to relive all that.”
He says he wouldn’t talk about 9/11 for a long time. But now he can. “I notice in the world when we have all these devastating things happen that we still come together.”