Vail Valley residents recall Sept. 11
September 11, 2016
EAGLE COUNTY — The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, dawned clear and cool in the Vail Valley. The Denver Broncos had defeated the New York Giants the night before. That bright day was quickly turned on its head.
As valley residents woke up, the news started to hit home that a pair of airliners had been hijacked by terrorists and flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
As the towers burned and fell, news came from Washington D.C. and Somerset County, Pennsylvania: Two more airliners had been hijacked. One was flown into the Pentagon. On the fourth, which had left from Newark, New Jersey, bound for San Francisco, passengers had started to hear the news.
Before the four hijackers could fly that plane into another target, the passengers stormed the cockpit, and the plane went down in a field.
“He held my hand
— he could hardly talk,” Keith said. “Finally, the man said, ‘My son is alive
— that’s what we prayed for.’”Brooks KeithReverend, Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration
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The loss of life was staggering — in all, nearly 3,000 people were killed — including the 19 terrorists. It was the most deadly attack on American soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
An empty sky
Vail resident Bob Armour had begun work that morning at the Vail Golf Club. Flicking on the TV, he saw smoke pouring from one of the Towers.
"I thought, 'this is weird,'" Armour said. "Then the second one hit and I thought, 'this is intentional.'"
In the days and weeks following the attacks, "People walked around numb," Armour said.
The eerie thing in those next few days was the shutdown in air travel.
"To see a sky with not an airplane in it … it was like a night sky with no stars," Armour said.
It was hard to tear away from the nonstop TV coverage of the attacks.
That morning, Diane Zatarain was at work at the Eagle Pharmacy. At that time, the store had a Radio Shack dealership on-site, so a television set was hooked up at the business. "Everyone would come in and we were all just glued to the TV," she said. "It was weird how we all just stood still, together, for a while."
Dan Smith, a longtime member of Vail Mountain Rescue Group, was living in Houston at the time of the attacks, working as a public relations specialist for the Exxon oil company.
Smith's office had a TV with a split screen tuned to the major news networks. The TV was behind him, but he saw the reflection of the attacks and their aftermath in his computer monitor.
Smith, a military veteran, said other veterans started wandering into his office. One said, simply, "I think I'll go home and load (ammunition) magazines."
Eagle resident Haylee Beckstead was 5 years old at the time, living with her family in Lehi, Utah.
"I was fixing my hair, getting ready for school when I went out to the living room and my mom and my sisters were all watching it on TV," Beckstead said. "We all just sat there and stared at the television. No one even said anything."
The news traveled quickly and around the world that day.
Rosa Rea, of Eagle, was a high school sophomore spending a school year in Mexico when the attacks occurred.
"I went home after school and it was on the news. It was very shocking," Rea said. "People were scared and shocked and they kept asking me if my family was all right."
Help for the helpers
Vail Valley Cares director Greg Osteen was trying to swing a deal that morning to perhaps buy space for the charity's Thrifty Shop. He and the possible seller kept their morning appointment, but no business was accomplished.
"Neither one of us could really talk about anything else," Osteen said. That day, and the days to follow, were "such a time of not knowing what would happen," he added.
In the weeks and months following the attacks, money poured into charities established for the families of attack victims.
That generosity had an impact on nonprofit groups in the valley, and cash donations grew scarce for a while.
"We felt like it was our job to help the nonprofits," Osteen said.
Where were you?
People of a certain age have several events seared into their brains. Even those who were small children know where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 23, 1963. They remember where they were when astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon July 20, 1969, or when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. The Sept. 11 attacks had the same effect.
Armour is among those who vividly recall all those events.
"It's a moment in life I'll never forget," he said.
Out of tragedy
When Rev. Brooks Keith, of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, heard the news that morning, he headed straight toward the Vail Interfaith Chapel. The doors opened right around 9 a.m. When Keith's administrative assistant asked what they were going to do, Keith didn't hesitate: "We're going to have a service," he said.
"No one will know about it," the assistant said.
"Yes, they will," Keith replied. Word was put out on local radio stations that a service would be held at noon, and people did indeed show up.
"We had more than 700 people," Keith said. "Truckers were pulling off the interstate because they'd heard about it on the radio. Every cleric within (an hour's drive) came. It was one of the most moving things I've ever been part of."
The service was made more moving when a man who had come to pray in the morning returned at noon.
The man, in Vail with friends for a golf outing, was on the phone with his wife in New York. The couple's son worked in the second tower, and had been talking with his mother. When the second plane hit, the phone went dead.
"He hadn't been to church in years, and wanted to know what to pray for," Keith said. "I said, 'Let's pray for what we really want — for that young man to be alive.'"
When the man returned at noon, he sat in the front, weeping openly and uncontrollably. Everyone who knew the story feared the worst.
"He held my hand — he could hardly talk," Keith said. "Finally, the man said, 'My son is alive — that's what we prayed for.'" The young man, it turned out, had taken full advantage of a disobedient streak. When the rest of the employees in his office on the 20th story of the tower were told to stay put, he bolted, racing down 20 flights of stairs and running — literally — for his life another 10 blocks just before the second plane hit.
That father's tears of joy quickly worked their way around the chapel that day.
Later that day, Keith and other ministers went up Vail Mountain to hold a service for everyone competing in that week's World Mountain Bike Championships.
"Everybody worked together… We had almost 1,000 people there," Keith said. "It was that kind of day — the stories are pretty dramatic."
On Sunday of that week, with the nation still reeling, Keith led a service in the gym at Edwards Elementary School. The day before, former President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, had flown back to Eagle County from a Friday service at the National Cathedral. Sunday morning, the Fords, along with their Secret Service detail, were seated in folding chairs in the gym along with the rest of the worshipers.
"No one will ever forget that," Keith said.
That day, as on so many Sundays since, people in congregations around the nation, people prayed for the United States.
"We'll be keeping the country in our prayers this Sunday, too," Keith said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com or @scottnmiller.