Ten years after September 11, Oaklanders reflect on how their lives changed

on September 11, 2011

Ten years ago, the nation and the world watched in horror as the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Close to 3,000 Americans lost their lives that day in the largest terrorist attack on US soil in history.  Today the nation mourns the devastation of 9/11 and pays tribute to those who died and to those who risked their lives in the rescue attempts that followed.  But 9/11 was not just New York’s tragedy—it was every American’s.

Here at Oakland North, we asked Oakland residents to remember that day, and how it’s changed their lives in the decade since.  For some the impact was immediate and life-altering.  Others experienced the drama from a distance.  None of them will ever forget it.

Kevin Nuuhiwa, captain of Oakland Fire Department Station 4 and 9/11 first responder

The process was always the same. Every now and then a helmet or a jacket with an ID number and a seal of a fire or rescue company would appear from beneath massive piles of rubble at the heart of Ground Zero. Machines would stop working, firefighters and rescue workers would line up and remove their helmets. They would wait in silence until a colleague of the deceased came to take his or her body away from the disaster zone.

“That was the hardest part,” said Kevin Nuuhiwa, who is currently captain of Oakland Fire Department Station 4 and was one of the first responders in New York City after the September 11 attacks. “Some of the firefighters were going back and forth picking up their friends’ bodies or what was left of them. It was nuts.”

Nuuhiwa traveled to New York City two weeks after September 11 as a member of California Task Force 4, one of the 28 national Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Teams managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Due to a system of rotation between the US&R teams, Nuuhiwa’s squad was the last to arrive to Ground Zero and the last one to leave. “In a way we were unlucky. Part of our work consisted in recovering bodies of other firefighters,” Nuuhiwa said.

The sight of the disaster zone was overwhelming, even for Nuuhiwa, a firefighter with 26 years of experience. “There were 16 acres and almost 10 stories of debris. It was incomparable to anything I have seen before,” he said.

Not many activities in Nuuhiwa’s routine were ordinary during those days in New York City. Every morning he had to report to the city’s Fire Department 10 House, which is located across the street from the World Trade Center. The station was buried under debris. “We have to get into a hole to get to the entrance, like a bunker,” he said.

One of Nuuhiwa’s squad’s main jobs was to put out fires that broke out when oxygen and chemicals were freed as tractors picked up tons of metallic wreckage. The firefighters also had to recover bodies located on the rooftops of the WTC buildings. “It was unbelievable,” Nuuhiwaa said. “Where were four feet of debris, office furniture, paper, files mixed with body parts in the roof of a 60-story building.”

Nuuhiwa said that for him, the most significant experience during the rescue operation at New York was hearing or reading the names of colleagues who died at Ground Zero. “I couldn’t believe that people I have just met at US&R conventions were dead,” he said. “Some of the firefighters didn’t even get to the buildings or to the command post to receive orders—the towers collapsed before they could do anything and you cannot outrun that.”

Nuuhiwa said his experience at Ground Zero gave him a new perspective on his life and his work as a firefighter. “We are a not indestructible, none of us will live forever,” he said. “My family, my colleagues and I know the consequences of this job, but after going to New York I really understood that it’s better to be lucky than good, what it means to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Nuuhiwa said he has been receiving calls from fellow firefighters and the press, asking him to share his thoughts about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to not include first responders in this year’s 9/11 ceremony at Ground Zero. The Oakland firefighter said he is not upset about it. “They should focus their attention on the people who sacrificed their lives and the people that are still working to rebuilding other people’s lives,” Nuuhiwa said. “Having been part of the 9/11 rescues is already an honor.”

Benjie Achtenberg, 8th grade humanities teacher at the Melrose Leadership Academy, Oakland Unified School District

Eighth grade humanities teacher Benjie Achtenberg was a 16-year-old high school student when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “I was in bed sleeping,” he said. “My mom was going to drive me to school. She was at the hardware store and saw it on the news there. She rushed home right away, turned on the TV, and we watched for a few hours. We called the school and they said, ‘Don’t even come, we’re sending everybody home.’ I spent the day watching TV at home. We called a few folks we knew in New York but couldn’t really get in touch with them until the next day.”

Achtenberg said he had trouble grasping the enormity of the event because he lacked personal ties to the city that had been hit. “I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it because I’d never been to New York City and seen the Twin Towers,” he said. “Because I’d never seen them in real life, it was hard for me to wrap my head around what it meant. But obviously, when we watched it live on TV and saw the buildings fall, it was shocking. It was very scary to think about.”

Achtenberg said he recalls the increased security measures in the Bay Area that immediately followed 9/11. “I remember for a couple months, there were all kinds of security and FBI downtown,” he said. “I explicitly remember driving across the Bay Bridge a bunch of times and seeing all kinds of armored trucks and guys with guns by the toll plaza. And then there was all the airplane security stuff—code orange and code red, and all that. But to be honest, living on the West Coast and not having any personal friends in New York, it didn’t really affect my life because I wasn’t directly connected to it, other than being an American and having it sweep us all up into a decade of war and probably more to come, unfortunately.”

Now that he is a teacher at an Oakland school, Achtenberg said his 13 and 14-year-old students are often curious about topics relating to 9/11. “I give them a lot of information about what happened, what’s known about it, the link to Osama bin Laden, and the idea of a terrorist,” he said. “It’s not part of the 8th grade state standard curriculum, but there are tons of curricula out there for it, and even more so right now. I get lots of emails from education listservs with lesson plans about how to talk about it, and what teachers are doing about it.”

Though he often waits for students to broach the subject, Achtenberg quickly realized this year that 9/11 would be a topic of interest in his classroom. “I gave them a student survey during the first week, and one of the questions was, ‘What do you want to learn more about?’” he said. “A few kids said ‘the Twin Towers,’ or ‘terrorists on September 11.’ I think what I want to do is find a newspaper article that I can bring in and talk about it, ask the kids what they know about it, if they remember it. Basically for their entire lives, we’ve been at war. It’s about making that connection and trying to have a conversation about why we’re at war, and what that means, and comparing it to the other wars that we study in US history.”

Achtenberg said that while his students have an interest in the subject matter, he isn’t sure that many of them have an emotional connection to the events of 9/11. “Not to say that people who are not from the United States don’t have the same emotional reaction to it as people who are,” he said, “but a lot of my kids are Latino, of Mexican origin, a lot are immigrant kids, and a lot are first generation Americans who have lived in Oakland their whole lives. So their connection to New York City and to the Twin Towers and to that emotional turmoil is not very great. In fact, I would say with a lot of kids, there’s a disconnect. They just know about it as something that happened. For kids now, it’s the state of world they’ve been in—perpetual war.”

Boaston E. Woodson Jr., Transportation Security Administration employee, Oakland International Airport

When Boaston Woodson arrived for work at the Frank Hagel Federal Building in Richmond on September 11, 2001, America was already in the throes of the largest terrorist attack in its history.  Every television in the building was tuned in to footage of the burning towers.  “I went in that morning and there it was on the news,” said Woodson.  “I had to take a moment to let it sink in.  I had never heard of anything like that ever happening in the United States.”

As a security manager in Richmond, Woodson was immediately concerned with increasing security measures for the building and protecting the employees inside.  “We didn’t know what was going to happen, if there were going to be more attacks.  There was a lot of panic at that point, people calling friends and family in New York,” said Woodson.  “Everyone was wondering what the government was going to do.”

But another attack didn’t come.  In the East Bay, nearly 3,000 miles away from New York, life slowly began to return to normal.  A year went by. One day Woodson was visiting his local veterans’ affairs office on a bit of now long-forgotten business.  “There was this guy there, who started telling me about this new thing that was starting up,” said Woodson.  “It was called TSA.  He said they were giving veterans preference.  So I applied.”

Woodson was hired, and began his training as one of the first employees in the newly established TSA, or Transportation Security Administration. Created as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, the TSA was charged with preventing anything like the 9/11 airplane hijackings from happening again.

Like any new organization, the TSA faced its share of challenges in the beginning.  “Lots of people complained about the new rules,” remembers Woodson.  Before September 11th, travelers checked their luggage and then walked right into the terminal and onto the plane, without anyone asking what was in their carry-ons. TSA changed all that. “But now a lot of people come up and thank us,” said Woodson, “because it really is a whole lot safer.”

For Woodson, the decision to work for the TSA was an easy one.  In the wake of the attacks he felt compelled to do what he could for his country—serving 22 years in the U.S. Army will do that to a person. On top of that, he was concerned for his wife and children; all of them fly often for work or personal travel.  “If nothing else I wanted to do this for my family,” he said.  “I left a job that paid $26 an hour for one that paid $14.  It meant that much to me.  I wasn’t concerned about pay, knowing that I could be a part of stopping terrorists from attacking again.  I was thinking about all the people who lost loved ones and it was really out of compassion that I wanted to do this.”

Since then, Woodson, a Richmond resident, has been working one or another of the security checkpoints at Oakland’s International Airport every day, with the exception of a few vacation days a year.  In that time there have been no major terrorist threats at the airport, to Woodson’s recollection, although a month ago, there was an incident with some suspicious luggage that closed the terminal.

Woodson said he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  “It is a comfort to me to know that what I’m doing is saving lives,” he said.

Alecia Martin, Oakland parent, mother of Blade, age 11

On September 11, Oakland mom Alecia Martin was watching TV and nursing her then 15-month-old son, Blade. Without warning, the show she was watching cut to a breaking news report.

“At first, I was only half-paying attention to it, and I thought it was a planned demolition of a building or something,” Martin said. “Then I realized, and thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I started crying and couldn’t wrap my head around what it meant. I didn’t understand it. I had never seen anything like it. I think I thought, ‘How many people were in that building? Tens of thousands? On the planes?’ I think I was thinking body counts, how many people died, their families, and whether or not we should be scared.”

The events of that day altered Martin’s everyday reality—at least temporarily. “I became a bit more patriotic at first,” Martin said, and felt drawn to the sense of community created by a shared tragedy. While attending a neighborhood event the day after the attacks, Martin recalled, “They were handing out American flags. I sort of debated whether or not to take one because I’d always questioned the government, and questioned authority. But I grabbed one and waved it, and I felt connected to other citizens who were experiencing a similar loss of safety. I think there was a change where I felt a connection to other American citizens who were feeling similarly traumatized.”

But Martin said that her shift towards feeling more patriotic was fleeting “because I think our sense of patriotism then got incorporated into an imperialist war machine.”

“I think 9/11 got used as a reason to go to war,” she said. “I went to so many anti-war protests following 9/11. I think my identity and the identity of my kid, as he was going along with me to all these anti-war protests, changed.”

Asked to remember her feelings as a new mom at the time of 9/11, Martin referred to a song by rock band Sleater-Kinney. “There’s this song called ‘Far Away,’” Martin said. “The mom in that band must have had a kid around the same age as Blade because part of the lyrics are about sitting on the couch, nursing the baby, and watching the world fall apart. When that song came out, that’s exactly where I was, and it was so intense to have this new baby.”

“My friend had had a baby two days before—September 9, and I was at the hospital on 9/11 to visit her,” Martin continued. “We were watching coverage, and she didn’t even care. She was kind of like, ‘This big thing happened today, but I had a baby!’ and she couldn’t stop staring at her baby. It was an interesting thing to have this new life there and to have this horrible thing happening. It drew our perspective away to see that there were still beautiful things happening, and I think that helped us all cope—to have this new baby in our lives.”

Now that her son is 11 years old, Martin feels that his understanding of September 11 is different from her own. “I don’t know that he really understands it, because in his world, it’s normal,” she said. “When 9/11 happened, and I was watching the news, it was so different from anything I had seen happen to America. But in his world, that happens to America. It’s his normal, it’s all he knows.”
Muhammed Abdul Latif Finch, Imam, Lighthouse Mosque

Muhammed Abdul Latif Finch is the imam at the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland and a first year master’s student at the Graduate Theology Union in Berkeley.  But were it not for the events of September 11, 2001, he may never have come to call the Bay Area home.

On the morning that two hijacked airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, Finch was at home with his family in Atlanta, Georgia, watching it happen on television.  “We were all just shocked,” he said.  Then the news stations began reporting that the suspected hijackers were possibly of Muslim faith.  “I felt conflict at first,” said Finch.  “I’m Muslim and I’m American.  I felt like it was doomsday.”

Finch is an American citizen, born in Texas and raised in the South.  He converted to Islam in 1995, at the age of 20.  That set him apart from the majority of the Muslim community in Atlanta, which is comprised mostly of recent immigrants.  Some of the interactions he had with his Muslim neighbors there left him feeling a bit alienated from people who felt it was intrinsically wrong to be an American, or to partake in the American lifestyle and culture.

After September 11, Finch was aware of the possibility of a backlash against the Muslim community in Atlanta. “I was especially concerned for my wife, because she wears a headscarf,” he said. In the end Finch made the decision that it would be better for them to start over in a new location, and in 2002 he and his family relocated to Berkeley.  “Here there is a strong tradition of being open to otherness,” he said.

But being Muslim and American can still be trying at times, even here.  Finch often gets questions about Islamic or political movements in the Middle East.  “Don’t ask me about Saudi Arabia,” he said with exasperation.  “I‘ve been there but I don’t know it.  Ask me about Oakland.  Ask me about Richmond.” 

In 2009, Finch assumed the role of imam at the Lighthouse Mosque, at 46th Street and Martin Luther King Way in Oakland, when founder Imam Zaid Shakir stepped down and passed on the assignment to him. An imam is the worship leader of a mosque, tasked with leading the community in prayer services and offering religious teachings and guidance.  In addition to teaching and giving sermons, Finch plays a role in the mosque’s community outreach efforts.  They sponsor neighborhood clean-up efforts, free youth and women’s classes, and a weekly hot meal program that feeds over 200 people in East Oakland every Saturday.

Finch teaches that one should have a commitment to serving one’s community and those most in need. “The best way to remember 9/11 isn’t once a year,” he said.  “We should do it year round, in gathering funds to help those human beings who are suffering.”

Tasion Kwamilele, Oakland student, currently a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism

It could have been a forgettable Tuesday morning for Tasion Kwamilele. A few minutes before 9 a.m., the then-8th grader from Claremont Middle School in Oakland was in the girl’s bathroom enjoying her brief freedom from Ms. Cristancho’s science class, unaware that one of the worst catastrophes of the 21st century was taking place.

“There was a plane crash in New York!” one of her classmates yelled right after she reentered the science classroom.

Their teacher turned on the TV. Moments seconds later, the class gasped in unison as they watched United Airlines flight 175 crashing into the World Trade Center’s south tower.

The images of the September 11 attacks remain vivid in Kwamilele’s mind 10 years later. “It was unbelievable—the explosions, people jumping off the buildings,” said Kwamilele, now a 23-year-old student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a reporter for Oakland North.  “I remember thinking, ‘America is supposed to be a safe country, why is this happening?’ It was terrifying. I don’t want to see something like that ever again.”

Kwamilele said that before September 11, she had never been to New York or heard much about the World Trade Center. She said she understood the significance of the attacks thanks to her teachers. “Ms. Cristancho told us that this has never happened before in America. I realized that this was not like World War II, an event you learn about in books,” she said. “We went through this tragedy, I was alive when it happened, it was a totally different experience.”

Although the attacks of 9/11 shook national and international political and economical affairs, they didn’t seem to have an effect on Kwamilele’s neighborhood in West Oakland, she said. “In my neighborhood, a million issues were going on before September 11,” Kwamilele recalled.  “People have always been worried about making a living, getting an education, protecting their children from getting shot. When issues like 9/11 come along, we say, ‘Hey, it sucks, but look at all these stuff we’re going through.’ It becomes one more problem in our laundry list of problems.”

Although the attacks on September 11 didn’t have a great impact in her life, Kwamilele said that day should always be remembered, not only as a tragedy but also as a lesson. “We should think in ways our country doesn’t have to go through that again,” she said. “If we commemorate 9/11 but we make the same mistakes, those people who lost their lives would have lost them in vain. It should be a lesson of humility for America. We are not invincible.”

Kwamilele is also now the mother of 5-year-old Khailey. She said she will show her daughter the video of September 11 attacks when she turns 13. “I want her to see it for herself,” she said. “I will tell her, ´This is what I went through when I was your age. A lot of people, some younger than you, lost their lives that day.’”

What are your memories from September 11, and how did your life change since then? We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Related: The Oakland Symphony Chorus and the Oakland Civic Orchestra will perform Mozart’s Requiem at the Cathedral of Christ the Light near Lake Merritt tonight to mark the tenth anniversary of September 11.

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