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Letters to the Editor: ‘The start of World War III?’: Trying to fly home on Sept. 11, 2001

A man stands in the rubble asking if anyone needs help after the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11
A man stands in the rubble asking if anyone needs help after the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
(AFP / Getty Images)

To the editor: On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a passenger on a flight from Newark, N.J., to Los Angeles when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. These are some of the memories that remain indelible 20 years later.

My flight was grounded in Toronto, where planes lined up on the runway wingtip to wingtip like cars in a parking lot. Police with automatic weapons blocked our cabin door. Meanwhile, word began to circulate among the passengers that the U.S. had been attacked. Would this be the start of World War III?

After we were let off the plane, I saw hundreds of passengers lined up at immigration in Toronto like Ellis Island in the 1920s. A woman sobbed uncontrollably as her boyfriend tried to comfort her. She said one of her friends was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

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Shock gave way to calm. People realized that the doomed passengers on United Flight 93, which was also headed for Los Angeles from Newark but was hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania, probably walked by us at the airport that morning.

We huddled around airport TVs and got the first glimpses of images that would remain with us for the rest of our lives: people diving out of buildings, and the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground like sandcastles.

After three days in Toronto, flights to the U.S. resumed. Before my flight home, there were endless security procedures but a general atmosphere of courteousness, as if we were all in this together. On the plane, I fought back anxiety as the engines spooled up.

After arriving in Los Angeles, I took a cab with a tattered American flag on its antenna driven by a Middle Eastern man. Despite being back home and seeing the familiar L.A. landmarks, I sensed that something fundamental had changed.

Peter Ventrella, Torrance

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To the editor: As with all Americans, I have vivid memories of the insane events of 9/11. My recall is different than most, because I landed in Moscow on the day it was happening. I was certain I was standing at the center of the start of World War III.

My wife and I were leading a tour. All but a few in our group believed any of what we were watching was true. For the Russians, the experience was novel. We found that for most of their history, there had never been anything on radio or TV that was not controlled by the government.

We found flowers piled high as our heads at the front of the U.S. Embassy. Solders all carried their guns barrel down. People beyond numbers expressed their sympathy, and many had tears in their eyes.

I know that the memories I have of this day are unusual, but they are very real to me. Please pray with me that the horrible events of 9/11 shall not be repeated by those who hate us still.

The Rev. W. Lee Truman, Camarillo

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To the editor: It seems like yesterday, not 20 years ago, that I received the call.

“Turn on your TV,” my neighbor told me. “Something terrible is happening in New York City.”

I was too late to see the first plane crash into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, but I did watch the second plane fly into the South Tower.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Then, little by little, as the story unfolded that fateful day, it became clear: Terrorists had carried out well-orchestrated attacks on American soil. Plain and simple, it was my generation’s Pearl Harbor, and it made me sick.

Watching news reports from 3,000 miles away was one thing, but not knowing where my 21-year-old son was that day was another. He was an undergraduate at New York University at the time of the attack, and he could not get word home if he was OK or not. As it turns out, he was fine, but his entire neighborhood had to be evacuated for several days.

Whatever limited time I spent worrying about him was nothing compared with the anguish so many New Yorkers felt on 9/11.

They say time heals all wounds. I believe rebuilding at ground zero and creating the memorial have been major steps in the right direction.

To those whose loved ones are never coming home, I can only say: This California father of three will never forget what happened 20 years ago. You are a part of me forever.

Denny Freidenrich, Laguna Beach


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