At first, New York City, Washington D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania seemed far away as television captured early images of mangled buildings, fire and debris, blood and horror. But in the hours, days and months that unfolded, Arizona — like the rest of the nation — found itself touched by the terrorist attacks that killed thousands on the East Coast.
Even if you knew no one who had died there, you likely knew or heard of someone who did lose a loved one.
Ten years later, Valley residents recall their own fallout from Sept. 11, 2001.
‘The winds at their worst’
There were many things that could have happened differently in the days leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, for the Bird family of Tempe. Any one change, and Gary Bird might not have been at the World Trade Center that morning.
The week prior to that fateful day, Bird was considering two job offers. He accepted the one at Marsh USA — a decision that led to a quickly planned trip to New York City for orientation at the Marsh offices in the World Trade Center.
A decision that would end up with Bird becoming the only Arizona resident to die in the terrorist attacks on the twin towers.
His widow, Donna Killoughey Bird, said she could have dwelled on the “what if” or cried out in anger. But instead, she’s created a book about the faith, miracles and grace she’s seen in the 10 years since her husband’s death. She shared pieces of the book, “Nothing Will Separate Us,” with an audience in Scottsdale last week.
Her hope, she said, is to be “an instrument of peace, so that in everything I’m hopefully interacting with people in a meaningful way.”
Like so many others, she decided this year, the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, that she wants to change the focus and look forward.
“What are we supposed to be doing … rather than focusing back too much,” she said.
Bird told the Tribune that she hopes parents can build strong roots in their children so that when the unthinkable happens again, they have a support system surrounding them.
Like the roots of a tree, the love from her husband, children, faith and community supported her, Bird said, “when the winds were at their worst.”
‘Something was very wrong’
Whenever she hears the lyrics, “And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance,” the chorus to Lee Ann Womack’s popular song, Gayle Schmidt of Gilbert thinks of Nicole Carol Miller. It was the song played at Nicole’s memorial.
“Nicole was energetic and full of life,” Schmidt said. “She was sweet and loved to dance.”
Nicole was the 21-year-old daughter of Schmidt’s friend and former coworker, Cathy Stefani. Nicole was one of the 40 victims who died on United Flight 93 after it crashed outside of Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Stefani called Schmidt that morning, saying that she wanted to wait to hear from her daughter before she came into work that day. Although Stefani had spoken to her daughter earlier that morning, she was still worried, Schmidt said.
“I remember getting ready that morning and after the first plane hit the tower, I thought it must be a fluke,” Schmidt said. “After the second plane, I knew something was very wrong.”
Nicole had gone on a spur-of-the-moment vacation with her boyfriend to New York and New Jersey. Her flight home to California the night before had been cancelled, and, unable to get a seat on her boyfriend’s flight Tuesday morning, she instead took an earlier one that would become known infamously as Flight 93.
‘Like a war zone’
From their apartment in Jersey City, N.J., Stacey Momeyer Kunnari and her husband, Brian, watched as an iconic part of the New York skyline — the World Trade Center towers — crumbled into debris and dust.
The Kunnaris, who now live in the Valley, were just getting their morning going when the nightmarish day began to unfold. Their high-rise apartment building had a subway in its basement that ran a line under the Hudson River to the World Trade Towers.
“I was laying in bed and saw a picture move and Brian felt the shower buckle,” Stacey said. “We ran outside to the walkway and watched with our neighbors. We thought it was an accident.”
In the days that followed, they attended vigils, donated items for care packages for firefighters, and saw New York wallpapered in missing persons fliers.
“The city was like a war zone,” Stacey said.
Stacey, the 1997 Miss Arizona, and Brian had moved to New York, where she was enrolled at New York University in musical theater and he worked as a music composer. But following the terrorist attacks, work in their fields was scarce, so they re-evaluated what was important and returned to Arizona. Both are active in the Valley’s arts scene.
“We’re home doing what we love and doing things with our family and friends,” Brian said. “Sunday will be a day of reflection. We learned not to take anything for granted.”
‘I witnessed too much’
For nearly a decade, John Zoeller couldn’t talk about what he saw as he stood at the foot of the World Trade Center towers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Chunks of concrete. Airplane parts. Pieces of bodies.
Zoeller, 52, of Mesa, who worked as a copy machine repairman in New York and often serviced the copiers for the Merrill Lynch office inside the World Trade Center, still gets very emotional talking about what he saw that day. He was making the trip from Long Island, where he lived at the time, to the World Trade Center to meet a friend for a cup of coffee at the towers’ plaza.
His friend already was in the plaza area when Zoeller, who was en route, saw the first plane strike the first tower. His friend survived, but seven other people Zoeller knew who were there did not, including a New York firefighter and a New York Port Authority worker.
“I witnessed too much,” said Zoeller, who has lived in Mesa since 2006 and will mark Sunday with prayer and meditation. “I couldn’t talk about it, I was afraid to talk about it. I saw a pregnant woman get crushed to death by a chunk of concrete. Pieces of debris flew right past me. Some of them fell within 25 feet of me. I don’t know why God spared me, but I’m thankful to be alive.”
• Staff writers Mike Sakal, Michelle Reese and Stacie Spring contributed to this report