9/11: The Day That Everything Changed

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Deputy Fire Chief Justin Tavano, left, and Lt. Ryan Holmes spruce up the department's 9/11 Memorial in advance of Saturday's 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Every holiday season, a reminder of David and Lynn Angell's affection for Chatham stands at the downtown rotary. It may be just an inflatable snowman festooned with multi-colored lights, but it represents something far larger: a local connection to one of the most significant events in recent history.

The Angells were on American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, returning to their home in Hollywood from a family wedding at their summer house overlooking Mill Pond. They were among the nearly 3,000 Americans who lost their lives on a day that saw the world change.

As in most of the northeast, Sept. 11, 2001 was a beautiful early fall day on Cape Cod with crystal clear skies. “A comfortable fall day with blue skies,” recalled Chatham Select Board Chair Peter Cocolis, who was in Washington, D.C. at the time. As the first news reports of a plane hitting the North Twin Tower began to go out, there was confusion. “Some witnesses were certain it was a small plane, others believed it to be a commercial aircraft,” recalled Chatham Finance Committee Chair Stephen Daniel, who was living in New York City about five miles from the Towers. But when the second plane struck the South Tower on live television, there were no doubts that a catastrophe was happening.

Frank Messina's son worked across Broadway from the Twin Towers. He called him and said, “you don't often listen to your dad, [but] this is not an accident, this is a deliberate act. Please leave the building immediately and try to get home on Long Island ASAP.” His son joined many New Yorkers in leaving the city on foot and made it home safely.

At The Chronicle offices, staff members were just arriving when the second plane hit. Everyone gathered around the television in the production department. It was a Tuesday, the paper's deadline, and it soon became clear that our plan for that week's paper would have to be scrapped. Reporters were assigned to contact emergency agencies and sent out to gauge the public's reaction to the crashes. The full extent of the attack – the planes that later struck the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa., as well as the local connection to Flight 11 – were not yet known.

There was immediate concern about additional attacks. Sentries were posted at the entrance to the Chatham Coast Guard Station, all on-duty personnel were issued sidearms. All aircraft were grounded nationwide, including at Chatham Airport. Many visitors to the Cape were stranded, and local residents were stuck overseas when all air traffic was shut down. School remained in session, but some parents took their kids home.

“We met as a faculty at the end of the school day, which by late morning, was no longer a 'school' day,” recalled Lisa Forte-Doyle, who was teaching at Chatham High School at the time. “At the meeting, there really wasn't much to say other than go home and hug your family.”

The Chatham Board of Selectmen opened its meeting that evening with a moment of silence. Holding the meeting was a way to defy the act of terrorism, said Chairman Douglas Ann Bohman. “In this little corner, we're going to go on,” she said.

For many, the events of the day were surreal.

“We watched in horror as local television had images of people clinging to shattered window frames in the floors above the fires as the smoked poured out around them,” recalled Daniel. “I found the escalation and compression of so many tragic and consequential events in such a short period of time to be incredibly disorienting.”

Orleans Fire Chief Jeff Deering remembers watching the events unfold in the station's day room with disbelief. “From there, it turned into this long event where we realized we knew firefighters who were there, firefighters who died,” he said.

“Seeing troopers armed with automatic weapons at each bridge and knowing the only planes we saw were armed military flights was chilling,” Chatham resident Phil Thompson said of coming to the Cape a few days after the attacks.

Vigils and fundraisers were held locally as residents sought ways to help those who'd suffered losses in the tragedy. Over the subsequent days and weeks, many folks learned just how close to home the tragedy came. Monomoy School Superintendent Scott Carpenter was an administrator in Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and the parents of one of his colleagues had been traveling by air that day. “There was relief to find that her parents weren't on either plane to strike the World Trade Center and overwhelming sadness to later discover that they were on United Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania after the passengers attempted to retake control of the plane,” he said. A week after the tragedy, a woman who had just joined Harwich resident Jeff Handler's Hyannis gym along with her husband came in to cancel the memberships. Her husband was on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower.

For many, the pain of that day lingers even 20 years later. “Each time I watched the towers crumble I wept, and my eyes are welling up with tears as I type this,” Chatham resident Vangie Collins said in an email. Harwich Fire Chief David LeBlanc said he often remembers those who lost their lives from 9/11-related illnesses. “The impact of that day didn’t end on Sept. 12. Thousands have paid for their efforts in the days, weeks and months of cleanup with their health and lives,” he said. The large black chainlink fence around Chatham Airport is a legacy of the way 9/11 shattered the security many Americans felt.

The Angells' legacy goes far beyond a local holiday decoration. In 1996, the couple founded the Angell Foundation, which funds “high-impact efforts that effect change in three main issue areas: education as opportunity, food equity, and transformational leadership,” according to its website. David Angell, a television writer and producer who worked on “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Wings,” is still clearly missed in the Hollywood community. The American Screenwriters Association instituted an annual David Angell Humanitarian Award to an individual in the entertainment industry who contributes to global well-being through donations of time, expertise or other support to improve the human condition.

Angell was a “shy, quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer,” recalled Ken Levine, a friend of the Angells and a colleague of David Angell, in a blogpost that he repeats every 9/11. “There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.”