Superior city leaders still remember where they were when news of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks broke.
“People oftentimes think of Pearl Harbor, and when Kennedy was shot, you know, (for) older generations. For me, this was one of those events,” said Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed when terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and a third crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.. Passengers on the fourth plane, Flight 93, fought back against the hijackers. The plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
A patrol officer for the city at the time, Alexander had just worked the night shift and was waiting at home for the cable company to show up for an appointment.
“I remember watching the news. I had one of the morning shows on and all of a sudden they showed the plane flying into one of the towers,” Alexander said. “I kind of thought, this will be something that definitely changes our country.”
He recalls images of people jumping out of the towers, a sign of their desperation.
Superior Fire Chief Scott Gordon, then a young firefighter with the city, was enjoying a morning off when the attacks broke on the morning news. Initially, he thought the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center’s north tower was an accident.
“And then I watched it live. I watched that second plane come in and hit that one, and I knew right there and then that this was not an accident, just like everyone else in the world,” Gordon said. “But none of us, including the professional reporters, or myself, or anyone else had time to react to it, because it just all happened right in front of our faces.”
His first instinct was to call his wife, a high school history teacher. He left a message with the principal; she called back.
“I said, 'You’ve got to turn on the news.' And from there on out, that’s all they did — all day long in history class — was watched the news, just like the rest of the world did,” Gordon said.
As the news footage rolled, one thing struck him viscerally.
“You just saw all of those images that we have of all of those firefighters, first responders going in, as everyone else was running out,” Gordon said. “It was what we do on a daily basis, but it was so magnified because it was on such a global scale.”
He was on the phone with his mother when the first tower collapsed.
“We both just gasped at the same time,” Gordon said. “I was 30, 31 years old. I knew the world would never be the same.”
Superior Mayor Jim Paine wasn’t in the city at the time of the attacks. Then 19 years old, Paine had been with the U.S. Marines for a year and a half and was stationed in Hawaii with a special reaction force. They were activated at 4:30 a.m.
“We had to jump out of our beds. We had no TVs or radios — we only had rumors, and we found out the president had moved our base to Threatcon Delta, which is our highest security that is generally only used in cases of imminent attack,” Paine said. “It was an alarming day. We had to withdraw our weapons from the armory and protect the base.”
His early impression was that major cities — New York, Washington — had been destroyed. It was the first time, other than training, that he had loaded his weapon for real. The rest of his military service was in a nation under war.
“It probably reinforced a sense of service for me for the rest of my life,” Paine said. “I mean, I joined the Marines for a lot of reasons that many people join during peacetime. I wanted adventure, I wanted to do something other than college first. There are a lot of benefits to joining the military.”
“After 9/11 it was about serving the country and nothing else.”
At 26, Kelly Lewandowski-MacLagan was a seasoned American Red Cross volunteer. Raised in Superior, she had been volunteering at disaster sites — floods and earthquakes — since the age of 18. Her first volunteer experience was during the Iowa floods of 1993.
When the call came for volunteers to help in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, she answered. Two weeks after the collapse of the World Trade Center's twin towers, the Superior woman traveled to New York. The smoke had yet to clear.
“All the other disasters, there’s nothing like this and nothing to prepare us for this,” Lewandowski-MacLagan said.
She was initially assigned to family service, working with families who were trying to locate a loved one they hadn’t heard from since the attacks and families who knew their loved one had died. She would help them take the next steps, from processing paperwork to contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The cooperation between relief agencies was unprecedented, she said, with everyone focused on helping those affected by the attacks. There were some moments of happiness, like when Lewandowski-MacLagan would hand a stuffed animal to a child and coax a smile, but she said the work was too hard for her mentally.
She was reassigned to disaster assessment.
“I was sent out, I had a list of addresses,” Lewandowski-MacLagan said. “And I have to go to these addresses to see if mail was piled up, because that was a sign that they weren’t home or that they never came back home.”
She traveled through New Jersey for days, checking mail and talking to neighbors.
“When I had all this hope, thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll find somebody, that will be so great.’ But it didn’t happen,” she said.
Every address she visited was vacant. To this day, she can picture the stacks of mail piled up. After a while, she began to dread the next address.
“We’ve never had to overcome something like this. It’s such a mass level,” Lewandowski-MacLagan said.
When a tornado hits, Red Cross volunteers know what cleanup is necessary. When people lose a home, the volunteers know how to help. The Superior native was not prepared for the emotional cost of Ground Zero.
“I’ve never had to talk with so many people who lost their loved ones and their family,” she said. “It’s really sad. Not being able to … I just wish I could, you know, I wanted to just keep digging or, you know, like, go in, but we can’t go in.”
Instead of a full 14-day deployment, she returned to Superior after 10 days.
“I’m going to start to cry right now, just thinking about it because I feel guilty for leaving, for leaving early,” said Lewandowski-MacLagan, who now lives in Woodbury, Minnesota.
Although she still responds to local house fires and helps with fundraising for the American Red Cross, 9/11 was the last major disaster she volunteered for.
Time of togetherness
Looking back after 20 years, people the Telegram spoke to said they remember clearly how the country pulled together.
“We lived in a very different time after that,” Paine said, one where service was emphasized. “Life in the Marines is about service anyways, but in a lot of ways it felt like the whole county became life in the military. We were all committed to the same cause.”
There was, Lewandowski-MacLagan said, a sense of unity.
“I just wish more people remembered how everybody pulled together at that time,” she said. “It was a ... really bad thing that happened, but there was so much good that came through people.
“It shouldn’t take tragedy to get there," she said.
UWS remembers 9/11
The University of Wisconsin-Superior will host a 20th anniversary 9/11 commemoration ceremony from 8:30-10:30 a.m. Saturday. Due to COVID-19 safety measures, only fire, police, EMS, service members and veterans will be in attendance.
It will be streamed live for the community via Zoom at wisconsin-edu.zoom.us/j/96369646390 and the UW-Superior Veteran and Nontraditional Student Center Facebook page.
The event will begin at the UWS flagpole across from the Curran-McNeill residence halls with a Flag of Remembrance and Posting of Colors, followed by a memorial ceremony.
A breakfast for local first responders, active military members and veterans will begin at 9:30 a.m. This event is hosted by the Veteran and Nontraditional Student Center at UW-Superior.