The Day a Generation Changed

By Beacon Staff

Ten years after the terrorist attack, local teachers reflected on a “day of great sadness for America”

Last week Sean O’Donnell sat down with his 14-year-old son at lunch and asked him what he remembered about Sept. 11, 2001.

A few hazy images came to mind, but nothing else really.

O’Donnell, now in his 15th year as a history teacher at Flathead High School, has seen how the images fade a little more with each school year; a new group of students, like his freshman son, have no real memory of 10 years ago. After all, they were only 5 or 6 years old.

As a history teacher, but also as a father, O’Donnell wants his son and his son’s generation to understand what happened that day, what the impact on real people was.

“I’m not particularly sure they grasp the event. It’s a memory that’s been constructed, but they don’t have that vivid picture that all of us have of exactly where we were and what the experience was,” O’Donnell says. “It’s slipping into history.”

It was Tuesday and Flathead High, the largest school in the state at the time, was bustling before first period like any other day.

Kristyn Morin, beginning her 18th year as a social studies teacher, had heard an ambiguous but still disturbing piece of news on the radio while driving to school — one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City was on fire. Morin arrived early that day and as she walked in another teacher hurried over and said a plane had flown into the Trade Center. They both went straight to the only classroom with cable television hooked up and huddled together with a few others who had congregated in front of the screen. Now smoke was billowing out of both towers. Another plane had apparently hit the second building. The newscasters were franticly scrambling to explain what was happening.

The teachers stared at the live footage of the burning buildings as kids started streaming into school, hundreds of them.

O’Donnell, a 28-year-old entering his fifth year teaching at the school he graduated from, arrived later than usual that day. His son Wyatt had dislocated his elbow the night before and had been hurting all night and morning. Scrambling to get to work on time, O’Donnell heard the same mysterious reports on the radio but nothing had fully taken his attention away from his son. When he got to school he could tell something wasn’t right. Like Morin, someone told him to find a television. He walked into the school library right before 8 a.m. and looked at the television screen just as the first tower collapsed.

“It was one of those moments that you look at and go, ‘Oh my goodness. This is horrible,’” he says 10 years later from inside his classroom.

“And as a teacher, my first thought was instantly, ‘I’ve got 50 kids coming soon and I better be ready. We’re going to have to deal with this.’”

It came time, and the teachers returned to their rooms. Televisions were wheeled in and lesson plans for the day were dropped. Sitting side by side, teachers and students spent the days ahead together staring at the television screens and what was unfolding in front of their glassy eyes.

I felt “helpless,” says Morin, now a teacher at Glacier High School. “You’re the one who’s supposed to have answers.”

The first tower collapsed at 7:59 a.m., and chaos followed. Rumors started circulating everywhere. Other planes were in the air and unaccounted for. Another plane had hit the Pentagon. Death tolls were being predicted. Firefighters and police officers were rushing into burning buildings to try to save anyone. Small images could be seen jumping out of the second skyscraper. Smoke filled the skies and streets of New York City.

Flathead principal Callie Langohr hurried into her office and sat down at her desk.

She grew up in this building as a student herself — graduating from Flathead in 1971. As a student she dreamed of one day being a principal. She never imagined what it would be like to have it come true, especially in her hometown at her alma mater.

But she also never imagined being in this position, sitting at her desk on Sept. 11 as the country was being attacked, surrounded by kids and teachers who looked to her for guidance.

“As a leader of a school, you immediately think of the impact that it’s going to have on your students,” Langohr, now the principal at Glacier, says in her office recently.

“You’re immediately trying to figure out who needs to be taken care of. From a leadership perspective, you want to reassure everyone that it will be OK. Have trust.”

At 8:30 a.m., the principal came over the loudspeakers in the classrooms and addressed the school.

“An apparent terrorist attack has taken place in New York and Washington D.C. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon has been a target of an apparent terrorist attack. We do not know the full extent of the devastation. This is an unprecedented historical event. At times of national crisis it’s the utmost importance to separate fact from rumor. Please be appropriate and sensitive in your response to these events. Please feel free to discuss these events in your classroom.”

“I will never forget that morning,” Langohr says. “Almost minute by minute I can remember it.”

The room of 50 sophomores and two teachers was stunned silent. O’Donnell tried to ignore the emotions running through him. Some students cried at times throughout the day, others were stoic and unsure how to deal with the live drama.

“The pictures were so vivid,” O’Donnell says.

He found himself trying to translate history as it happened.

“We tried not to overdramatize it but you knew instantly that this was one of those moments. This is Kennedy, this is Pearl Harbor for their generation,” he says. “They’re going to be grandparents and their grandchildren are going to ask them what was it like?”

Teachers opened the subject up for discussions and students respectfully obliged. Other teachers had students write poetry. But all eyes remained glued to the images on television.

O’Donnell remembers at one point he left the room he was in and walked down the hall to where he now teaches classes 10 years later.

He stepped into the empty room and looked out the wall of windows facing east. A small airplane glided through the air above the treetops of Kalispell neighborhoods. The plane began turning and for a moment pointed its nose toward O’Donnell. He gaped at it, frozen. The plane banked south and continued toward the city airport down the road from the high school, like planes do all the time.

“It’s disturbing that that even crossed my mind,” he says. “It’s one of those things that you never would have thought about before 9/11.”

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States launched a war on terrorism, beginning with Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, followed by Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003, and Operation New Dawn on Sept. 1, 2010.

Today, the U.S. military’s focus has shifted from Iraq back to Afghanistan, where everything started 10 years ago.

While no American casualties were reported in Iraq in August, last month was the deadliest for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Sixty-six soldiers were killed, marking the highest total over the last 10 years.

As this issue of the Beacon goes to print, there are 6,207 confirmed deaths of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Forty-four Montanans have been killed while serving their country in those two countries, including Stewart S. Trejo of Whitefish, Edward M. Saltz of Bigfork and Nicholas S. Cook of Hungry Horse.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense Military Personnel Statistics, the highest percentage of active soldiers — roughly 28 percent — is 18-21 years old. The second highest percentage, a quarter, is in the age group, 25-30, that was in high school 10 years ago.

O’Donnell now has some gray in his hair 10 years later.

A seasoned history teacher, he still can’t tell his students what the historical ramifications of that day will end up being. Ten years later, the country — the world — remains unsettled.

“It was one of those days you’ll never forget and yet there’s an element of disbelief that it ever occurred,” he says.

There is one positive that came from that day and O’Donnell still remembers it as vividly as he does the horrifying images. So do Morin and Langohr.

By week’s end, students had been sparked into action. Morin remembers one girl quietly emptying her savings account with a check she wrote to the American Red Cross. Within a week students had raised a couple thousand dollars for the families of 9/11 victims. Blood drives were organized. Interest in military service increased. In fact, the percentage of students who graduated from Flathead High and entered the military rose every year after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to senior exit surveys. In 2000, roughly 2.7 percent of graduates entered the military. That number had increased to 5 percent by 2002 and reached 9.4 percent in 2004. Over the past eight years, the average has leveled off at around 5 percent.

“We can become critical of young people,” Langohr says. “But if you want to know what this generation is about, the test is when times are hard. If you really want to know what this generation is about, see what they do when times are tough. That will tell you. That’s why I have the utmost confidence that we are in good hands. I saw what they did 10 years ago.”

The events of that day unfolded before a school of students and teachers who had barely spent two weeks together but were united by sudden tragedy.

“I can still remember some of those kids now that were in that class, because we were connected in a way,” O’Donnell says.

The school day finally came to an end and the building began emptying. O’Donnell hurried home to check on his son and eventually took him to the hospital, where he would stay well into the night.

Langohr remained in her office near the end of the school day and wrote a letter to the teachers.

Reading the letter 10 years later, she can still become emotional.

It began with a message of hope.

“Thank you for taking care of our Flathead students today. It’s a day of great sadness for America. The same fundamental characteristics that made us a great country will also help us to recover from this national tragedy. Keep the faith in yourself and your country.”

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