Twenty years ago, thousands of Americans lost their lives when the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. More died heroically when terrorists purposely crashed a plane in Pennsylvania that was headed to the United States Capitol Building.

Now, 20 years later, three Watauga County residents reflect on witnessing the events and aftermath of that fateful day in American history.

Giants Stadium, New York. Sept. 11, 2001. 4:30 a.m.

Matt Snyder, the now Watauga County director of elections, drove to New York to live there on Aug. 11, 2001. He was staying just south of 14th street.

A month later, he was driving to pick up his producer for a shoot at the Giants stadium for a Wendy’s commercial. It was 4:30 in the morning.

“It was a beautiful day,” Snyder said. “Just not a cloud in the sky.”

They got to the stadium and were getting ready to film the commercial that had 300 or so extras — a fairly big production. They couldn’t find one of the crew guys so Snyder went searching for him.

He found him in the parking lot and asked him what’s going on. The crew member pointed to the World Trade Center and said “Well, there’s a plane that hit the World Trade Center.”

“And you can see it,” Snyder recalled. “Smoke coming out of the building.”

From there, it got confusing. Snyder went back inside and — even though he was the new guy — passed on the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The crew had little news besides what Snyder said so they continued to move forward with their production.

“But everybody was very concerned,” Snyder said. “And then the second plane hit and that’s when everything changed. Suddenly, everybody realized it was an attack. This was not an accident. A lot of our team had family that worked downtown, or they lived downtown, or their kids were in school downtown. Obviously, their focus was then worried about their families and their safety and what was going on.”

Accurate information, though, was hard to get. Snyder and his team brought everyone back to the holding area from outside. Snyder was in the main room where stadium officials were talking about how they were potentially a target so they decided to send everyone home.

“Somebody came over the walkie and said ‘a plane just hit the Pentagon,’” Snyder said. “People thought they were kidding and said that’s not funny and he said ‘I’m not kidding.’”

People started to gather around the TV trying to find out what was happening. Snyder and his team were also trying to figure out what to do about the shoot. All the stadium people had left by that point so they were without access to food and so they had to get groceries for everyone.

Snyder went out and while filling up his tank, there was an incident at a gas station.

“There was a fistfight between what appeared to be a caucasian and two Middle Eastern folks,” Snyder said. “I didn’t quite figure out at that point what was going on. I was just getting my gas and getting out of there.”

Once he got back and the day went on, Snyder noticed how the parking lot was filling with emergency vehicles from different states. He said the entire parking lot was filled with fire trucks and ambulances.

“Unfortunately, by about four in the afternoon, they started releasing those folks,” Snyder said “We’d hear an ambulance every once in a while leave, but you could tell they just didn’t have anything to go to.”

By the end of the night, the parking lot was cleared out of all emergency vehicles, which Snyder said was a very demoralizing feeling

Some of the extras went back into the city, but some people did not feel comfortable going back, so Snyder and his crew felt an obligation to stay with them. About 100 people stayed the night at the Giants stadium on floors and in different rooms.

The next morning, Snyder headed back home.

“It was eerily quiet,” Snyder said. “Things you never hoped to ever have to see. Big military vehicles driving around. Big trucks with radioactive signs on the side as they were detecting for radiation because they didn’t know if it was a dirty bomb involved or not. (It was) very unnerving to see them drive around the city and scan for radioactive radiation.”

He also saw a truck filled with guys that were just covered in dust with a big American flag on the cab.

“They were coming back up 8th Avenue and everybody just stopped and were cheering because they’d been in all this stuff,” Snyder said. “Still emotional to talk about. It was just one of those things that is just the best of humanity. You see these guys and everybody knows that they went down there not knowing what they were getting into. Just trying to help out.”

Brooklyn, New York. Sept. 11, 2001. 7:30 a.m.

It started out as a normal day 20 years ago. Michael Behrent, App State professor and chair of the Watauga County Board of Elections, woke up at about 7:30 a.m., made some breakfast and looked out across northwestern Brooklyn — an urban landscape dotted with those distinctive water towers at the time — to the skyscrapers above lower Manhattan.

On that day, the largest structure Behrent could see through his small student apartment kitchen window was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

About an hour later, his roommate — a fellow grad student at NYU — woke up and sat on the other side of the kitchen table with her back to the window.

“I was having a conversation with my roommate and I was facing the window and just at a certain point, I look looked out the window — a perfect clear view of the towers — and I saw the smoke coming out of the lawn and I just said ‘Gee, I wonder what’s happening to the World Trade Center.’”

Through the window, a thick column of black smoke was billowing up from the upper floors of the nearest tower. So Behrent checked the news online. Nothing. Behrent and his roommate then turned on the TV and the morning news show was covering it, but didn’t know what was happening.

Then the second plane hit.

“I was only a few miles away from the towers, but, like tens of thousands of people, I saw the second tower blow up on a television screen,” Behrent wrote in remembering 9/11 on the 10th anniversary. “I raced back to the kitchen. From the window, across the East River, I watched the explosion in the far tower swell into a bright yellow fireball.”

All he could feel at first was puzzlement. It was hard to register what was happening. He does remember the odd silence that occurred in Brooklyn. But then almost in unison, sirens filled the air.

“I think that what’s striking to me about seeing that is the sheer kind of confusion and ‘ungraspability’ that witnessing an event that you can’t understand brings about,” Behrent said. “The experience of actually looking out the window of the apartment that I was living in at that time and seeing the world trade center exploding — it was more just confusion and unreality than anything else. I was looking at it and couldn’t quite believe that I was looking at it.”

The rest of the day felt surreal. Behrent and his roommate sat huddled around the TV and a grad student couple that lived next door joined them.

“Within an hour, the sky was so dense with smog that the towers themselves had become completely invisible,” Behrent recalled on the tenth anniversary. “It was by watching the news that we learned that the buildings had collapsed. From our window, all that could be seen was a thick gray cloud.”

Behrent had other family in the New York area and checked in to see how they were doing. At a certain point — after hearing about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon — Behrent knew that there would be a lot of deaths.

Later that day, Behrent went for a walk. He found seared office paper laying in the middle of the street with what he believed was a law firm’s letterhead. He wondered if that had blown over from the towers, across the East River and to Brooklyn.

Washington, D.C. The Pentagon. Sept. 12, 2001. Sunrise.

Driving down River Street 20 years ago, Skip Greene couldn’t believe what he was hearing on the radio. He had to pull off to the side of the road in disbelief as he heard the news that planes had flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York.

His friend came and joined him. Both were in shock. They both were part of the North Carolina Baptist Men — a group that responds to crises and helps as needed. Neither Greene or his friend had ever responded to a man-made disaster, but were on a call with their executive coordinator in Raleigh ready to help as needed.

At 6 p.m. that night, they got the call. They thought they would go to New York, but they were needed elsewhere. They were needed at the Pentagon to help set up a kitchen.

“We began putting our team together and we pulled out of Boone about 8:30 p.m. and picked up others along the way,” Greene said. “We had a convoy of about 10 vehicles going up in the interstate to Washington, D.C.”

That night during the drive, Greene called the Virginia Highway Patrol to see if they could get an escort to the Pentagon.

“They basically shut down the interstate going into Washington,” Greene said. “They took us in the convoy those last few miles into the Pentagon.”

During that drive, Greene said there was a sense of fear, but also anxiety as they were ready to help. Once they got there, the team set up the kitchen around the corner from where the plane struck.

Even 20 years later, Greene still has one striking image in his mind. There were probably 20 cars that were in parking spots around the area that had been there for a few days. Greene said he asked a military officer who said he thought those cars belonged to those who died in the attack.

“I will never forget that,” Greene said.

For the next few weeks, Greene and his team were at the facility in the aftermath of Sept. 11 helping to feed those who were there.

“It didn’t matter if you were a private or a general, they came and ate with us along with the fire and rescue squads,” Greene said. “They were all very appreciative of our being there.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Greene and his wife had not been to Washington, D.C. They talked about it, and this past July they took a trip. Greene wanted to see the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon, but due to COVID-19 it was closed.

“Well, I drove around and finally saw a gate and drove up to it and here came a police officer,” Greene said. “I knew I was not doing what I should be doing.”

He rolled down the window and talked to him and told him where he was trying to go.

“That police officer from the Pentagon said ‘You were with the North Carolina Baptists aren’t ya?’” Greene said. “He was an officer at the Pentagon 20 years ago and he ate at our kitchen.”

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