‘There just aren’t enough words’: 20 years later, former Gov. Tom Ridge, staffers reflect on 9/11

‘I still try and freeze that moment in my mind, and I think a lot of people do — to try and stop that plane from hitting the tower,’ David La Torre said

By: - September 11, 2021 7:25 am

The Tower of Voices at the Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, Pa. (National Parks Service photo).

Tim Reeves and Steve Aaron were on their way to Shanksville, Pa. — scribbling notes to each other on a legal pad in the back of a Chinook helicopter. Hours before, they were celebrating Reeves’s 40th birthday with a round of golf.

Their boss at the time, former Gov. Tom Ridge, was visiting his mother in Erie.

It was Sept. 11, 2001.

When their pagers went off, it was time to leave Royal Oaks Golf Club outside Harrisburg, bring Ridge back from Erie, and go to work.

As Ridge’s staff worked to coordinate a flight to the capital city, David La Torre, who worked in the governor’s communications office and as a speechwriter for Ridge, was at the state Capitol. He remembers driving to work in his Jeep Wrangler with the top down, enjoying the early fall morning. 

“It was just another day at the office, and we’re all doing our daily tasks,” he said. “All of a sudden, we heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center.”

With no social media and smartphones at the time, La Torre — like so many others — initially thought the crash was an accident.

“Then somebody said, ‘No. This is pretty serious,’” he recalled, saying that he watched the second plane hit the South Tower on an old TV at the office. “I still try and freeze that moment in my mind, and I think a lot of people do — to try and stop that plane from hitting the tower.”

Employees were sent home.

La Torre said he hugged his then-two-year-old son, and couldn’t take his eyes off the television as reports came in that four planes were hijacked by terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda.

Work first, then reflect

Senior members of the Ridge administration were ordered to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Operations Center in suburban Harrisburg. Once Ridge returned to Harrisburg, he headed to Shanksville with staff and the Air National Guard.

“You can’t have a conversation,” Reeves, then Ridge’s press secretary, said of the helicopter ride to Shanksville. “You’re sitting there in silence, looking out these small windows, and imagining what you’re going to see in a few minutes.”

Reeves expected to see “horrible, wrenching debris.” But the site — a field in Somerset County — where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed was “profoundly different” from what he imagined.

“It was just a black hole in the ground with burn marks where the wings would be,” he said. “There was, of course, debris. But from the air, there was no wreckage. The plane had clearly gone down at full speed and just disintegrated into the ground.”

Twenty years ago, nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including the 40 passengers and four hijackers on Flight 93. Crew members and passengers on board contacted the authorities and loved ones. They also attempted to regain control of the plane, which resulted in a high-speed crash — just 18 minutes flying time from D.C.

“The idea that everyone on that plane was now buried already in this site was just one of the most powerful images that I will never forget as long as I live,” Reeves said.

Aaron, then Ridge’s deputy communications director and now his current spokesperson, remembers the “scarred and smoldering piece of earth.” When they landed, he counted 88 TV cameras and dozens of reporters.

“The dictionary is inadequate, and there just aren’t enough words,” Ridge said at the time. “But I guess the range of emotions goes from rage and anger to sorrow to horror to, I guess, a sense of nausea that we all feel.”

Aaron recalled being “so proud” of Ridge for being able to “provide words of comfort to his fellow Pennsylvanians to let them know that we would make certain that whoever was responsible would be held accountable.”

He added: “After the briefing, we boarded, and you’ll recall what a beautiful day it was. As we flew back from west to east, the rear door of the helicopter, and we could see this beautiful sunset. We couldn’t talk to one another, so we were just sitting with our own thoughts.”

The flight out was work, and the flight back was for reflection, Reeves said.

An unclear but common enemy

In the hours and days after the attacks, Reeves and Aaron described an “overwhelming” feeling of unity against a “still unclear, but common enemy” and some lingering fear.

“Looking back, it’s easy to project the knowledge we have now that those four attacks were the four attacks, and that was the effort,” Reeves said. “But we didn’t know that then, and we didn’t know if there were second-tiers targets. Was the state Capitol potentially a target? Was Three Mile Island potentially a target? We didn’t know.”

He added: “But the unity was inspiring.”

A week after the attacks, Ridge got a call from President George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff Andy Card and Vice President Dick Cheney, who told him the president was considering a new way to respond to terrorism.

“It was so clear that Gov. Ridge was going to have zero good news to share. The only good news was we didn’t get attacked today, but you can’t celebrate that because we might get attacked tomorrow,” Reeves, who made a list of pros and cons about the new role with Ridge’s former chief-of-staff Mark Campbell, said. “It was, by every measure, going to be an incredibly difficult job, and in all likelihood, an incredibly negative job.”

But Ridge was being asked to serve, Reeves said. And so, he did.

Reflecting on his relationship with the governor and his colleagues, Reeves said the administration was already united in its efforts to govern. But 9/11 cemented that bond, he said.

“It didn’t create a new unity — that was there,” he said. “But now, that unity was part of American history.”

Twenty years later

It’s been two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the once overwhelming sense of national pride has faded, Reeves said.

“Many people feel tremendous unity in their tribes, but the profound unity of those days after Sept. 11 was the unity that comes with a common enemy,” he said. “And unfortunately now, so many — too many — Americans are treating other Americans as that enemy. That is deeply troubling.”

He added: “I do believe, just as a student of history, that pendulums do swing, and I don’t believe this will last forever. But I fear it may take a jarring external event to remind us of what that unity feels like.”

La Torre has doubts that the United States will ever be “truly unified as a country,” saying that the “extremes in our country on both sides have more amplification than ever.” He doesn’t think the division will last forever. 

However, “it will be extremely difficult” to overcome, La Torre said.

As for Aaron, who was hired by the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial to lead remembrance efforts this year, he has hope for the future. Some of his hope stems from his work with the loved ones of passengers on the flight, including the Flight 93 Heroes Award — a new effort to honor and remember the victims on the flight and people who embody their courage.

“Let’s allow the 20th commemoration to remember what it was like to be united, to capture some of that spirit,” Aaron said. “There will always be ebbs and flows. There will always be ups and downs, but I think the story of 9/11 will always remind us when America could be at its very best when we come together and work together.”

Ridge expressed a similar sentiment in a video released Thursday — his first appearance since having a stroke earlier this year.

“Our shared values, our shared responsibility to one another and the country we all cherish — that’s been the hallmark of the American story writ large for the last 20 years, for the last 245 years,” he said. “Even in these last 20 months, doctors, nurses, teachers, grocery clerks, truck drivers, people everywhere, have pulled together to keep our economy moving, our students learning and all of us healthy and safe.”

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