Happiness still shines through a framed picture of Ben Ehmen, 83, and wife Jeannette Davis, 77, during their first joint trip to New York City. Ehmen scoops his wife off her feet in the photo edited to look like he’s balancing on a tight rope between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The pretend peril livens their certain smiles because, there, enveloped in a symbol of American prosperity, they assumed they couldn’t be safer.
Handwritten on the back of the photograph is the date — Sept. 10, 2001.
Three area residents and first-hand witnesses of the horrific Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center said the devastating sights and sounds of the day persist 10 years later.
“9/11 takes a piece of your heart when you’re there because you get caught up in the smoke and the dust and the yelling and the tragedy,” Davis said. “It takes a piece of your heart. It never goes away.”
Davis and Ehmen arrived in New York on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001, in time to catch a Yankees’ baseball game and travel to the home of Davis’ daughter, Linda Bougas, in Millburn, N.J. The couple stayed with Bougas but continued their adventures in the city Monday with a trip to the World Trade Center, where they ascended to the 106th and 107th floors of North Tower to peer out the famous Windows on the World.
“That was big stuff for people from the Midwest,” Ehmen said, noting his Iowa roots.
Burgin resident Terry Gilbert, 54, caught her first glimpse of the twin towers a day later as she flew into New York the morning of Sept. 11.
She was traveling to the city to judge grant applications for American Farm Bureau but took an early flight to fit in some sight-seeing before her meetings.
“The pilot said, ‘If you look out the left side of the plane, you’ll see the skyline of Manhattan and the World Trade Center,’” she said. “Everything was fine.”
But by the time she landed and settled into the car driving to her hotel, smoke began billowing out of lower Manhattan.
Gilbert’s driver, equally mystified at the source, found a news radio station delivering an unbelievable report — a plane had flown into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
Davis, Ehmen and Bougas had nearly arrived in lower Manhattan when they felt their ferry jerk and heard the screams of passengers on the upper deck. Davis and Ehmen ran to the stairs to investigate the cause of the commotion as Bougas’ husband, Ed, called her cell phone. He worked in midtown where he said people were quickly learning the incomprehensible news.
“As he said that, we looked up and saw the second plane hit,” Davis said. “And there it was.”
Two towers burning with thousands of people inside and thousands more stunned in the street below. Murmurs of an accident turned to shouts of an attack, and Davis, Ehmen and Bougas stepped off the ferry a block from the center into a surreal scene of panic and terror.
“We actually saw people come out of windows, you know, jump,” said Davis. “The worst thing to this day is I can still hear the screaming. I can still hear it in my ears to this day.”
Ehmen vividly recalls the street littered with high-heeled shoes that women discarded in a desperate rush to distance themselves from the towers.
The smothering heat, burning smells and crippling fear brought a single thought into the minds of Davis and Ehmen — war.
“As people before have described combat to me and I’ve seen it on TV, that’s what it could have been like,” Ehmen said. “It was smoke and fire and running.”
Davis said her survival instincts kicked in and she began rapidly figuring out how to reach her family, including son James, who worked at the stock exchange.
Gilbert shared similar thoughts as she stood outside her hotel after the second plane struck the South Tower.
She traveled so frequently she rarely left flight information for her family in Mercer County. Sept. 11 was no exception, but this time she had no way to contact her loved ones and tell them of her safety.
“All they knew is I flew out of Louisville early,” she said. “That was really a hard time.”
Fortunately, the American Farm Bureau office in Washington was able to fax Gilbert at the hotel where she watched the day unfold helplessly but safely in her room. The company contacted Gilbert’s husband, Bennie, who informed children Jennifer and Joey of their mother’s safety.
Davis had a more difficult time reaching her family as she scrambled around lower Manhattan.
But she, Ehmen and Bougas eventually were able to re-board their ferry and travel back to Millburn to meet Ed Bougas.
Davis, still in shell-shocked, survival mode, sent her daughter to the grocery store for bottled water and canned food. She learned her son was unharmed but continued readying for more attacks.
The world, however, seemed unusually calm, still.
Gilbert experienced the erie quiet from her hotel, where she learned officials had halted all transportation in and out of Manhattan and canceled all flights. “You see movies and you see all the things, and New York is constant traffic and people,” she said. “But once people had cleared out, it was like a ghost town. The people that were there were the people that were stuck there.”
Gilbert spent the night without her loved ones as reports of fatalities flooded news stations. In all, more than 2,600 people died in the towers and on the ground in New York, while more than 370 perished on the crashing planes and the attack on the Pentagon in Virginia.
The luster and energy of New York City seemed to suffocate in rubble and sadness in the days following Sept. 11.
But, Gilbert found crowds one place — lines for organizations aiding rescue efforts. When she and a fellow AFB employee from Texas attempted to give blood, the line nearly wrapped around an entire city block, she said.
Patriotic colors and symbols began springing up through dust and debris, as people in sparsely populated restaurants shared their stories and comforted one another. “There was that feeling of closeness,” Gilbert said. “Everybody wanted to be close with their loved ones. We’d been through such a tragedy.”
Ehmen and Davis also yearned for their Kentucky home, friends and community once their New York and New Jersey family members were safely secured.
“But every single airplane stopped,” Davis said. “The world stopped.”
With flights grounded and hundreds of people fleeing New York, Ed Bougas had to drive the couple 30 miles out of Millburn where they rented a car to travel to Danville. Both said they now wish they had stayed to help with the aftermath of the attacks. But their hearts and minds could hardly grasp the atrocities they’d witnessed or the reality of a penetrable America.
“I felt that America would never be the same again, never, ever, ever again,” Davis said. “Did you ever hear the word terrorist growing up? That is a word that’s behind my comprehension.”
As the country attempted to understand its vulnerability, Gilbert contemplated her own ephemerality and the loved ones she wanted so desperately to see.
“I think I appreciated home and family much more than I ever had in the past,” she said. “I quit taking little things for granted, things that happen every day — the chance to tell your children you love them and your husband you love him or to be nice to somebody.”
Other New Yorkers and visitors in Grand Central Station the day Gilbert finally left Manhattan about a week later must have reached similar conclusions.
As a group of firefighters passed, crowds paused, stood and applauded, a memory that still brings tears to Gilbert’s eyes.
“I didn’t think I’d be this emotional,” she said. “It’s been 10 years.”