9/11, 15 Years Later: The Untold Story of How Sept. 11 Changed These 5 Lives Forever
How we’ve changed.
Editor‘s Note: Chef Jon Matsubara now runs his own restaurant, Feast, in Mānoa. Retired social worker and Red Cross volunteer Kenneth W.Y. Lee passed away Sept. 9, 2016, after sharing his stories of assisting with the Sept. 11 recovery in New York City.
It’s been 15 years since that Tuesday morning when two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, followed by terrorist attacks in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and injured twice that many, rewrote the rules for travel and security and changed how safe we feel.
To help understand how far we’ve come, we touched base with some of those most affected by the Sept. 11 attacks who weren’t ready to speak out until now: a restaurateur whose sister died on the 107th floor; a broadcast engineer who narrowly missed being three floors below; a chef who worked a nearby relief kitchen in the aftermath; a Red Cross worker; and a first responder.
Cecily Ho Sargent
In 2001, Cecily Ho Sargent was living in Australia. Sister Heather Malia Ho was working as an executive pastry chef at Windows on the World.
Cecily found out about the attack from her brother, Bank of Hawai‘i’s Peter Ho. “I was in Sydney,” she says. “My brother called me and said turn on the news. I was just going to bed. It was about 11 o’clock-ish.”
Sargent recalls her confusion. “Honestly, I didn’t understand what was happening. It took me a while to soak it in. I kept saying, Where is she? Where is she? She’s not there right now, is she? And she was.”
Turns out Heather, who had given notice that she was quitting her job to partner in a new bakery business concept, was scheduled to be off that day. Sargent says, “Somebody asked her to cover him.”
With Cecily in Australia, brother Peter and father Stuart in Honolulu, and their mother, Mary, in San Francisco, it took some time to reunite. When commercial flights resumed days later, the family members gathered in San Francisco to meet their mother before continuing to New York.
Sargent recalls her sister as a good friend who cared about others. “I know she’s most remembered as a chef and for dying at 9/11, but I remember her as an extremely compassionate person, just so kind to people, even perfect strangers.”
Ho was described as a rising-star chef, shortly after she graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park.
Yet, even with Ho’s success in the high-pressure, male-dominated world of cooking, Sargent says, “It was kind of a little joke in the family, she’d always have some kind of wounded bird she was looking after.”
Despite the family’s community prominence, they declined most interviews and deferred mostly to close family friends to speak in the days and weeks after the tragedy. Sargent returned to Hawai‘i four years ago and opened two Tucker & Bevvy restaurants. She remains philosophical about increased security and travel alerts as this generation’s response to the war of our time. “I don’t think it’s any more horrific than any other century that we lived in.”
Still, Sargent thinks the chances of dying in a terrorist attack remain low.
“The chance of us dying in a car accident is very high. It’s just part of life. We’re not safe anywhere.”
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.”
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.”
Retired social worker Ken Lee flew from Honolulu to New York three days after the attack to deploy as part of the American Red Cross response team. He handed out food and water relief to other workers, counseled others and helped coordinate volunteers, dropping 15 pounds along the way.
Now 72, he looks back at his first stint at Ground Zero as the toughest of his career. “I left a day early. I was burnt out. I came home to lick my wounds,” he says.
But after about eight days home in Hawai‘i, he was ready to go back “and help train thousands of people clamoring for training so they could help.”
He says the trips there convinced him that the world had changed forever. “We have to constantly be a little more aware of our surroundings in our situational awareness, all part of looking for the unexpected,” Lee says. “I think we need to certainly improve efforts to identify terrorists to prevent future attacks.”
But Lee stays positive. “I have been left with a much stronger and enduring sense of the spirit and strength of human beings and their ability to adapt, cope and be resilient,” Lee says.
Connecticut native Rob Jones was a New York emergency medical technician visiting his brother on O‘ahu on Sept. 11. He flew back to the city days later—as soon as flights resumed.
“I took the subway to Chelsea. I smelled that damp fire scene smell, like when a fire has just been burned out, and I was looking around for the building that must have just burned,” Jones says, then realized it was actually the smell of the World Trade Center, almost 3 miles away.
As an emergency medical services technician for the Fire Department of New York, he went back to work in Harlem. But he also signed up for overtime shifts at a temporary morgue at Ground Zero: “We would go in and recover the body part or whatever it was, equipment.”
Jones remembers strangers leaving “Thank you FDNY” notes on his car. And people cheering when they saw crews. “When Sept. 11 happened, I think the nation got a first-hand look at what first responders are expected to do and what they do, and they got a deeper appreciation for it. I don’t think that will ever change. “
Jones stayed with the Fire Department another year but realized he was interested in police work and applied to departments in New York and Honolulu. When both called, he moved to O‘ahu.
It was a career path he would not have predicted. Back in college, he wanted to be an outdoor guide majoring in wilderness-based education and sought emergency medical training simply to build his résumé.
Jones explains that the volunteer time on an ambulance changed his life. “I realized how rewarding it was and what a unique opportunity you have to save a person’s life and to make a real big difference in such an acute way. And that really evolved into police work and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he says.
Now 47 and a detective who investigates sex crimes for HPD, Jones feels he’s where he can make a difference. “It’s a really good job; it’s interesting work and very gratifying.”
He says Sept. 11 did change things: “New York was just a different place, you know, after that. I guess it changed me.”
For the Ho family, the anniversary of 9/11 has been a good reason to get family and friends together in honor of their missing family member. Though they think about Heather year-round, they gather on her birthday or 9/11 as a way to remember what’s important.
“I think we need to just keep on living,” Sargent says. “I think Heather’s dying was a real good example in our lives, for the people that love her, of, you just keep on living and you enjoy your life and you enjoy the people who are important to you. You just love deeply.”