They thought it was an accident — at first. 

Then, the second plane hit. For him, it felt like Pearl Harbor. For her, the death of an illusion: safety. 

His deployment grew uncertain and somber. So did her birthday. They didn’t know people could be so cruel — or so kind. 

Below, people in Tarrant County remember how a Tuesday in 2001 reimagined their world.

He was in middle school when the Twin Towers fell. Now he teaches middle-schoolers.

Morgan Rehnberg, chief scientist at the Fort Worth Museum of History and Science, stands in front of a replica of the Twin Towers. Jimbo Synder, a veteran, built the replica out of legs starting on Jan. 6, 2020. When he finished on July 4 of this year, the replica stood 8 feet and 3 inches tall. (Jessica Priest | Fort Worth Report)

The number of students in Morgan Rehnberg’s sixth-grade class in York, Pennsylvania, dwindled throughout the day on Sept. 11, 2001. Their parents had picked them up early from school after planes crashed into both the World Trade Center and a field about two hours away in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“At the end of the day, my mother met me at the bus stop, which was very unusual, and talked to me a little about what had happened,” Rehnberg recalled. “I know I realized that it was a big deal because I kept — and still have — the front page of my hometown newspaper from that day. But I’m sure I didn’t realize the magnitude of it, or what it would mean for the coming years.”

Rehnberg moved to Fort Worth four years ago to work for the Fort Worth Museum of History and Science, which will be free to visitors on Sept. 11. On display will be a large quilt made up of photographs of the victims of the attacks, a Lego replica of the Twin Towers and a leash and photograph of a canine from Fort Worth who helped rescue and recover victims from the rubble.

“It’s kind of a strange time for talking about 9/11 in history, because it’s too far in the past to be a current event … but it’s too recent to actually have made it into the textbooks.”

Morgan Rehnberg, chief scientist at the Fort Worth Museum of History and Science

For Rehnberg, 9/11 came to represent both America’s strengths and its imperfections. He remembers first responders rushing into the danger to help, but also some people lashing out in fear at those who weren’t a part of the attacks and didn’t deserve ire, he said. 

The day also reminds him of the importance of his work at the museum.

“Right now, it’s kind of a strange time for talking about 9/11 in history, because it’s too far in the past to be a current event, especially if you’re young people who are growing up today, but it’s too recent to actually have made it into the textbooks,” he said while standing in front of a piece of the North Tower that came to museum on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, “and so that’s what makes the museum display so important because that’s the way people are learning about 9/11 today through shared memories from family members. A piece like this — even without any information around it — is a talking point that gets parents who are in their 20s and 30s and 40s today talking with their kids about what they remember and where they were.” 

By Jessica Priest

He watched the towers fall in school while waiting to hear from his father, who was a pilot that day.

Ben Daub is technical assistant to the VP for Aeronautics Strategy and Business Development at Lockheed Martin and an Air Force veteran. Daub remembers being worried for his father, an American Airlines pilot, on the day of 9/11 20 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Chris Hanoch, Lockheed Martin)

Ben Daub was in seventh grade when the Twin Towers fell. He remembers being ushered into a room to watch coverage of the attack. More vividly, he remembers the fear of not hearing from his father.

Daub’s father, Leo, was a pilot for American Airlines. When his father left for work that day, Daub said he remembers he was flying from DFW to the Northeast, so he was scared his dad was a target of the attack.

“I just wanted to hear from him so badly,” Daub recalled. “Every American was impacted that day — and even 20 years from now — thoughts and memories, they don’t go away, they’ll never be erased. It’s something that’s ingrained in each of us.”

In 2011, Daub decided to join the Air Force to serve his country. He now is technical assistant to the VP for Aeronautics Strategy and Business Development at Lockheed Martin.

“Every American was impacted that day — and even 20 years from now — thoughts and memories, they don’t go away, they’ll never be erased.”

Ben Daub, chief of staff for Aeronautics Strategy and Business Development at Lockheed Martin

His service in the Air Force and at Lockheed Martin both are a result of the events of 9/11, he said.

Those experiences, and reflecting on 9/11 20 years later, remind Daub of the privilege of being born American and the importance of respecting people.

“I love the freedoms, I love my country and I love our people, because we come from everywhere,” Ben said. “And I think that it’s easy to lose sight of the diversity that makes us strong as we carry on our lives, and it’s events like this (20th anniversary) that kind of puts things into perspective for a lot of Americans who may have lost sight of that.”

By Kristen Barton

Sept. 11 was just an Arlington teacher’s birthday — then it changed in 2001.

Bettina Dixon, an elementary math specialist in Arlington ISD’s curriculum and instruction department, stands outside of our South Fort Worth home. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

During most weekday mornings 20 years ago, Bettina Dixon was in her Arlington ISD classroom teaching math to fourth-grade students.

But there is one day she takes off every year: Sept. 11, her birthday. That day in 2001 was no exception.

Dixon had made plans for a big 34th birthday dinner for that night. The morning, though, was her time to relax. She was in bed when her friends started to call, waking her up despite knowing her annual tradition.

Dixon turned on the television to watch “Good Morning America.” That’s when she saw a plane crash into the World Trade Center in New York City.

“I was just in disbelief,” Dixon said, recalling how the hosts of the morning show weren’t exactly sure what happened.

The hours and days that followed 9/11 were weird for Dixon. Teachers really didn’t talk to students about what happened on Sept. 11. Dixon remembered they just wanted to protect them from dealing with such a major tragedy.

“When I went back to school, I don’t really remember the kids being so bothered by it,” Dixon said. “But the adults? We were shaken. There was uncertainty. There was a vulnerability that was there that had not been there before.”

Despite those negative feelings, Dixon can still remember how united the nation seemed as it dealt with the ramifications of the terrorist attack and how millions of people honored the victims. Even through that, Dixon felt sad for Americans who looked like the hijackers or shared the same faith.

“I just remember that they were, in essence, guilty by association when they didn’t even know them. People were really ugly to them,” Dixon said.

“We were shaken. There was uncertainty. There was a vulnerability that was there that had not been there before.”

Bettina Dixon, an elementary math specialist in Arlington ISD

Like many Americans, the 9/11 attacks changed how Dixon viewed the world. The event didn’t make her frightened. It showed her that the U.S. was not as beloved as she thought.

“You always hear that people want to come to America and live the great life,” she said. “I just never thought that people wanted to come to America and really harm (people). I didn’t think of that.”

Two decades later, Dixon, who will be 54 on Saturday, still works for Arlington ISD. She’s an elementary math specialist in the district’s curriculum and instruction department. 

“It’s a time I’ll never forget, even though it was my birthday,” Dixon said.

— By Jacob Sanchez

Sept. 11 reshaped this former Marine’s commitment to fellow veterans.

Clint Ludwig displays a local energy drink from Afghanistan in 2010. The bodybuilder on the can “just happens to look very similar” to Arnold Schwarzenegger, he said. (Courtesy of Clint Ludwig)

Clint Ludwig was preparing for a six-month deployment on the Mediterranean Sea — what he and fellow Marines jovially called a “Med cruise” — when the first plane hit.  

He was 23 and a Spanish-speaking “cryptologic linguist,” someone who monitors intelligence communications from abroad. He remembers walking into a language lab on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. 

The TV was on. Towers. People froze. He saw the second plane hit.

“The tone of my entire deployment changed that day,” he said. 

Ludwig still deployed for six months at sea, but instead of Malta and Crete, it was Djibouti, Afghanistan and Bahrain. Back then, the camouflage on his equipment was woodland green. It would take time before he received something tan: the “chocolate chip pattern” from Desert Storm. The atmosphere was sober, the threat of combat looming and real.

After he returned from that first deployment, Ludwig’s commitment to his fellow Marines grew — he knew he wanted to advocate and care for them. Rather than stay enlisted and enforce decisions, he became an officer to help make them. 

For him, Sept. 11, 2001 “meant a lot of change, and not all of it for the good.”

“There was a lot of sadness, a lot of hardship,” he said. “Because of this, I have seen the worst of humanity. I’ve also seen the best.”

When he retired from the Marines after 20 years and multiple deployments, most recently to Afghanistan, he flew his flag over the 9/11 Memorial. 

“Because of this, I have seen the worst of humanity. I’ve also seen the best.”

Clint Ludwig, retired marine and chief deputy at the Tarrant County Clerk’s office

At 43, Ludwig is the chief deputy at the Tarrant County clerk’s office. It’s his first job since he left the Marines, and he’s “fortunate and blessed” to have it. His boss, he said, is especially great. He still serves Marines — and all kinds of veterans — through Cowtown Warriors, a nonprofit that provides support to disabled veterans in North Texas. 

When he thinks back to the world before Sept. 11, he said, Americans were “blissfully ignorant.”

“We didn’t live with terror and terrorism then. It wasn’t that real to us,” he said. “Had there been terrorist events in history? Yes … but it didn’t hit home until that plane hit an American building.”

— By Alexis Allison

20 years ago, she and her friends formed a sewing group. This year, they hand-stitched a quilt for Sept. 11.

Jeanette Garrett poses with her granddaughter at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in front of the victim’s quilt she and her sewing group helped stitch. Other members of the group were Suzi Luger, Laura Chester, Trish Timmons, Teresa Schrack and Betsaida Reyes. (Courtesy of Jeanette Garrett)

Jeanette Garrett, 75, doesn’t remember what happened the day Pearl Harbor was attacked — but she was living on the big island when it did. Her memories crystallize when she thinks about the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy; she was in college on Oahu, passing between classes when someone shared the news. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, she was also in transit: driving over railroad tracks in Arlington (she’d married a Texan) on her way to work at a local doctor’s office. She heard something on the radio; she remembers running to her desk, flinging her things and trying to find a TV. 

In the aftermath, Garrett said, she was naive. She’d hoped things would return, eventually, to the way they were before. They never did. 

“It’s not like a child that can go outside and play, and Mom and Dad’s going to take care of you and everything’s going to be OK,” she said. “I wish it was.”

The victim’s quilt was so large it “filled up our ladies’ Sunday School classroom,” Garrett said. (Courtesy of Jeanette Garrett)

Around that same time, Garrett and a few local women formed a sewing group. They’ve met one Saturday a month for 20 years. 

Earlier this spring, they were invited through a friend of a friend to help hand stitch a “victim’s quilt” to honor people who died Sept. 11. The quilt now hangs in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. “It was immediate,” she said. “Everybody wanted to help do it.”

Hand stitching the quilt — which was so large it “filled up our ladies’ Sunday school classroom” — took two or three Saturday sewing sessions to complete, Garrett said. Still, the work took less time than she expected because the women were doing it together. That communal spirit still gets her when she thinks about Sept. 11. 

“It didn’t matter who you were, but if you needed something, they did it on the spot,” she said. “They didn’t second-guess — they just did it…That was my feeling that I got: that people cared about each other.”

By Alexis Allison

9/11 solidified his career path as a paramedic.

Christopher Cunningham is the director of operations for MedStar Mobile Health.

Christopher Cunningham and his father thought there had been a freak accident as they watched plumes of smoke blot out the New York City skyline. Every channel on TV showed the same eerie, bewildering picture. But then they watched as a second plane hit a building.

“And I looked at my dad and said, ‘Yeah, that was not an accident,’” Cunningham said.

He was 21 years old and had just moved back to Texas after training to become a paramedic in Kansas. He empathized with the first responders at Ground Zero because he remembered staying up for 40 hours straight when he responded to an F3 tornado that hit Parsons, Kansas, on April 19, 2000. 

Then, he went house-to-torn-up house, checking to see if anyone needed help and spray painting Xs on those where everyone who lived there were accounted for.

Cunningham remembers watching the first responders on 9/11 and thinking “that could be me and my friends.” 

“I just remember thinking, ‘Crap. This is going to be life-altering for all of us. It’s like our Pearl Harbor-type moment.’ And being that I was connected so closely to that industry, it was kind of like a piece of my heart got torn out, too,” he said.

He debated enlisting but another conversation with his father solidified his career path in the emergency medical services.

“My dad was like. ‘You are already serving. You can serve here on the homefront,’” Cunningham said.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Crap. This is going to be life-altering for all of us.'”

Christopher Cunningham, director of operations for MedStar Health Mobile

Cunningham is now director of operations for MedStar Mobile Healthcare. After 9/11, walls preventing communication between departments fell, leading to more collaboration and training on how to respond to other attacks, he said. It is hard for him to believe that 20 years have passed. With Cunningham and his colleagues responding to a rise in COVID-19 cases, he hasn’t had time to stop and think about the significance of the day. Thursday he was transferring a patient from Fort Worth to a hospital in East Texas.

“But Fort Worth is so blessed. We have such an amazing community from the hospitals to city leaders to fire and police. We have such great collaboration. We do a lot of really cool things here that other cities should take note of,” he said.

– By Jessica Priest

Business owner prays for people adversely affected by 9/11.

James Norman, 58, in his store Norman’s Hallmark. Norman has owned Norman’s Hallmark for 29 years. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

James Norman, 58, sat at home watching “Mike & Mike” on ESPN, as he did often, when the sports show hosts announced the disaster in New York City. An airplane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Immediately, Norman switched his viewership to “Good Morning America,” where live footage of the day was broadcast. The South Tower was hit and Norman sat in shock.

“You saw the smoke and everything coming out of that building, and as soon as that second plane flew in there while they were watching, I got queasy because I knew at that second that it was deliberate,” Norman said. “Someone was attacking us. This was not an accident.”

On his way to work at Norman’s Hallmark store at 4620 Bryant Irvin Road No. 540, which Norman has owned for 29 years, the first tower fell. 

“I had the radio on, glued to the news,” Norman said. “Everyone that came in that day was in shock — we all were.”

“Oh, it’s through every thread of our society.”

James Norman, owner of Norman’s Hallmark

Norman lives in the flight path of Dallas-Fort Worth Airports planes, but for the days after Sept. 11, 2001, he didn’t hear the rumbling of airplanes above his home as flights were grounded.

The unity the nation felt that day is far from what the country is experiencing now, Norman said. “It’s sad to see that because we can, you know, come together with a common goal, but we’re a long way from that right now.”

“Oh, it’s through every thread of our society. What you have to go through to even get on a plane today,” Houston-born Norman said. “I try to say prayers for those affected by it so adversely, the people who lost family that day.”

— By Cristian ArguetaSoto

Through darkness, a Castleberry ISD trustee vowed to teach all children empathy.

Linda Aguillón is a former educator who now serves on the Castleberry ISD school board. (Courtesy of Castleberry ISD)

Linda Aguillón’s classroom at M.H. Moore Elementary in Fort Worth dwindled from 22 students to just three by 10 a.m. — all under an hour.

Parents were picking up their children because of what they had seen on the news.

“Parents were rushing to the school to get their kids because they were scared. They didn’t know, we didn’t know” what was happening on Sept. 11, 2001,” Aguillón, now a Castleberry ISD trustee, said. “We were under attack as far as we all knew.”

Aguillón, then 28, was in her third year teaching bilingual second-graders when 9/11 happened. She learned about the attack when a friend called her and asked if she knew what was happening on the East Coast.

“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ By the time I got to school, there was this whole conversation around it,” Aguillón said. “Later, it just turned to chaos because, at that point, we really didn’t know what had happened — we just knew something had happened.”

As that Tuesday 20 years ago progressed, Aguillón recalls the chaos and fear building. Uncertainty, sadness and disbelief set in for Aguillón and everyone she knew. 

“I made it part of my personal journey, my personal growth to make sure that I instill empathy, love and kindness in every child’s life.”

Castleberry ISD school board member Linda Aguillón

Just thinking about 9/11 brings back painful memories for Aguillón, now the director of Academic Design for American Reading Company’s Texas region. At the time, all she could think about was how her newborn daughter and 11-year-old son would grow up in a world forever changed by that day.

Even through that period of grief, Aguillón said, the nation had more reasons to come together. She took those lessons to heart.

“I made it part of my personal journey, my personal growth to make sure that I instill empathy, love and kindness in every child’s life,” Aguillón, now 48, said. “Not only for my personal children, but I did it for every student that was in my classroom and … any student that I was able to impact in whatever capacity that was.”

— By Jacob Sanchez

He wishes for his son a more trusting world

Lt. Brent Sanderson is the chaplain corps coordinator with the Fort Worth Fire Department. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Fire Department)

When America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Brent Sanderson had just gotten off his shift with the Fort Worth Fire Department. He lived south of the Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base and remembered the sound of jets taking off, flying fast and low over his neighborhood.

The events that day still break his heart. 

“It seems like it happened a year ago, not 20. I want to remember. I want to honor those that lost their lives on that day. I want to honor those that have lost their lives since that day. I want to teach the younger generation about what happened. It’s important. That day is a part of who we are as firefighters and as Americans,” he said.

Sanderson wishes his son could have seen the country come together in the days and weeks after 9/11.

“I wish my son could see the America that responded in the days and weeks after 9/11. People gave of themselves to help others. People went out of their way to show patriotism. Of course, there were some ugly responses, as well – that cannot be ignored.

“I hate that my son doesn’t know a world without airport security scans, metal detectors, clear bags to carry your belongings, etc. That hurts my heart. He hasn’t been allowed to trust people the way I felt I could when I grew up.”

Sanderson views the world as more divided now.

“I don’t know that 9/11 started it, but we have become a world of people who identify by our divisions. I hate that,” he said.

– By Jessica Priest

Editor’s note: This story is updated to reflect Ben Daub’s title of technical assistant to the VP for Aeronautics Strategy & Business Development and Lt. Brent Sanderson’s story.

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