MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Twenty years ago, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, affected Minnesotans in profound and various ways. To capture that impact, WCCO-TV invited a group of strangers to come together and speak about how they personally experienced the aftermath firsthand. Some of them shared their stories publicly for the very first time.
The individuals include a military commander, a medical examiner, a flight attendant, a firefighter, an educator, and a mental health professional. They were all brought together recently in the Twin Cities to reflect what happened to them two decades ago and how it still impacts their lives.
“I don’t think anyone was prepared that day for the task that was at hand,” said Brooklyn Park Fire Chief T. John Cunningham.
In 2001, Cunningham was a student and volunteer firefighter in Connecticut. He traveled to New York City to search for survivors at the World Trade Center.
“New York is always husting and bustling, you can hardly hear yourself think, and I just vividly remember the silence,” he said. “There wasn’t hardly anything [the scene] resembled other than these pieces of towering skyscrapers that were now reduced to rubble in front of me. And I knew in that rubble there were people, and we had to do whatever we could.”
Watch the extended interview below:
Dr. Andrew Baker is the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, but 20 years ago he was with the Air Force and called to identify the victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Although he and his team were able to bring some closure to 184 families, Baker says he’s still troubled that they weren’t able to identify five individuals.
“I know one of those individuals was the 3-year-old onboard Flight 77,” Baker said.
A father himself, Baker still feels the weight of that works these many years later. “Of the eight children that were killed on 9/11, five of them were onboard Flight 77. At some point, all five of their remains must have passed through my hands during the operation, and I think about those five kids every single day. They would be in their 20s or early 30s now.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Tim Cossalter served as commander of the 148th Fighter Wing based in Duluth. Within hours of an overnight training session, his unit received orders.
“The president’s airplane was heading towards the Midwest, so we launched two airlines to intercept that airplane. Fortunately, a couple other airplanes got to him before we did and took him to Washington.”
Retired flight attendant Kassie Rients was on a plane and scheduled to leave Minneapolis at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. That’s when she heard the news.
“We gathered our things, got off the plane, got into the gate area, and it was chaotic,” she said. “Everything said, canceled, canceled, canceled. All the TVs were turned off.”
Dr. Stanley Brown, a longtime Twin Cities educator, is originally from Harlem. He was working in downtown Minneapolis when the planes struck the Twin Towers.
“It was a few hours if not days that I could not get in touch with family and friends,” he said.
For some of the individuals WCCO spoke with, it took a long time to process the impact of their experience on 9/11.
“It took many years before I could talk about it at all,” Baker, the medical examiner, said.
Likewise, Cunningham, the fire chief, said the emotional toll of the experience took him several years to understand.
Dr. Joshua Zimmerman, a psychiatrist with HealthPartners, was part of the conversation. When asked what people should take away from it, he said: “Be kind to people, don’t judge people for what they’re doing or how they’re acting, and don’t be afraid to ask people how they’re doing and really listen.”