The road from 9/11: 1,500 miles of pain, hope and healing

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2011 - 4:19 PM

Ten years later, how have the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed us? A journey of discovery begins in Minnesota.

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The rock is the size of a walnut. Granite. Mottled with red and pink, flecks of iridescence sparkling when it's turned just right.

It's the kind of stone a person might pick up at the lake, a souvenir of a trip up North.

But this is a memento from a different kind of journey. It rests like a treasure in a little crystal box on Pam Glenn's bedroom bookshelf in Inver Grove Heights.

The fragment from the World Trade Center in New York binds Glenn to the day when she and Americans everywhere watched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "wanting to jump through the TV and somehow stop it" as the planes hit the towers.

Many asked questions then, unanswerable in the shock of the moment, about what that day would mean. How far would the reverberations ripple through the country, through our lives?

The long road to answers, a decade later, leads from small-town Iowa to the top of a Chicago skyscraper, from a Michigan mosque through misty Pennsylvania hills and, finally, to a site that has acquired a sacred aura: ground zero.

Across more than 1,500 miles, some Americans are still frozen in hate and anger. Many more say the lasting memory of that fateful day inspires them to reach across divides to other people.

It begins here at home, with Minnesotans such as Glenn. Or out at the Mall of America, where a transplanted Israeli and an all-American Muslim are working together to prevent terrorism. Even on the back of a grieving father, tattooed with the image of his fallen soldier son.

An urge to act

For weeks, memories of the Sept. 11 attacks hung over Pam Glenn like a haze. Finally, she realized she had to do something. "Sometimes you don't always know the reason why," she says.

Maybe it was the holiday party a few months later, when she heard a couple say they visited New York but bypassed ground zero.

"That simple comment just stirred me," Glenn says. She put her career as a nurse-midwife on hold, cashed in her frequent-flier miles and arranged to sleep on a friend-of-a-friend's couch in New Jersey. Four months after the attacks, she took her first ferry ride to lower Manhattan with volunteers pouring into the city.

Fires still burned in the seven stories of rubble left after the 110-story towers collapsed. Exhausted workers picked through debris to salvage remains of the nearly 3,000 people who died there. The stench of death hovered over the blare of ambulance sirens and shrieks of steel-cutting tools.

Glenn served up the comfort of food to the recovery crews, a stew of kindness flowing in from around the country. Firefighters from Maine drove down eight hours with hundreds of lobsters they plucked from traps that morning. From New Orleans came steaming pots of jambalaya.

On her last day dropping off food, she met New York firefighter Karl Van Kasten. They talked for an hour. Through his clipped New York accent and her flat Midwestern vowels, a friendship was forged.

"Everyone was united," she recalls. "There was a spirit of unity that I so hoped would continue into the future."

She looked out one cold, windy January night and watched a couple from Europe bend over a makeshift memorial to their son. A gust blew out the candle they lit. They tried again and again. "The scene just broke my heart," she says.

Over the next decade, the grim toll of the attacks would deepen. More than 6,000 U.S. troops, including more than 90 with Minnesota ties, killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Roughly $4 trillion spent on the battlefield as the economy nose-dived. A new generation of veterans -- many jobless, injured, haunted. Muslim-Americans enduring suspicious glares from neighbors and worse.

Now, where that sense of unity once radiated, Glenn feels a void. "It's been replaced with mistrust and divisiveness," she says. "And that really saddens me to no end."

But her chance meeting with Van Kasten grew into lasting friendship. He would take a piece of granite he had salvaged from the smoldering wreckage on Sept. 12, chisel it in two and send half to Glenn back in Minnesota. She would tuck it into a little crystal box and place it on her bookshelf.

They still chat and e-mail. During one call, she could sense melancholy in her ground zero buddy.

"Karl said: 'People are forgetting,'" she recalls. "I tried to reassure him. 'No, Karl, they are not forgetting. They are moving on with their lives. But they're not forgetting.'"

On a recent vacation, Glenn packed a gift of homemade jam in her purse and headed to the airport.

Like the thousands who pass through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport each day, she stood in the snaking security line, ticket and ID at the ready. Ahead were several of the 780 local, blue-shirted Transportation Security Administration officers, new federal agents working for the new Department of Homeland Security.

"All the energy, time and money going into security makes you kind of shake your head," Glenn says. "Taking off your shoes. Making sure I have 3 ounces of shampoo instead of 5. I feel like there's some absurdity there."

They confiscated her jam.

A maze of security

From the bridge over Checkpoint 6, Tim Anderson gazes down as travelers patiently yank off their belts, place laptops in plastic bins and slip off their shoes. They raise their hands over their heads so full-body scanners can flash intimate images examined in a darkened room nearby to ensure no one has exploding underwear.

This is where most Minnesotans confront the reality of post-9/11 America.

"It's nowhere near the world it used to be," says Anderson, 63, a former Air Force colonel and the airport's operations chief. He has been an MSP insider for 30 years. "This is the only place in the United States where you're guilty until proven innocent. We frankly treat everyone as if they're a likely terrorist until you get through the checkpoint and prove to us otherwise."

It is a daunting task these security workers face each day. A moment's distraction could allow that one bag, bottle or shoe packed with explosives to slip through. But their highly visible efforts are only part of the airport security puzzle. Anderson offers a glimpse of the rest.

He starts outside on the tarmac, pointing out nearly $3 million in new perimeter fencing topped with barbed wire and laced with double and triple strands of anchored steel cables.

"It's there to prevent multi-ton trucks from ramming the fencing," he notes matter-of-factly.

Anderson descends into the airport's bowels, below the Burger King on the passenger concourse, where rivers of conveyor belts criss-cross in a maze he calls spaghetti junction. Amid a deafening racket, computer scanners read bag tags and direct each suitcase into a series of X-ray machines. Most bags spit out and trickle back onto the main belt.

But a cluster of electronics inside one bag diverts it to what's called the Reconciliation Room. There, the blue-shirted officers snap open suitcases and swab them for explosive traces before returning them to the streams of conveyor belts. Anderson points out the "guillotine doors" that slice down to prevent anyone from climbing into the secured areas from the baggage carousels.

"Those weren't there before 9/11," he says. "In fact, this entire sterile area used to be a wide-open warehouse where I parked my car."

Anderson reminisced about that pre-9/11 reality when airlines paid private security workers minimum wages to staff X-ray machines at each concourse. "If you couldn't get a job at McDonald's, you worked security at the airport."

After Sept. 11, the feds took over, hiring 50,000 transportation safety officers nationwide. Terrorists haven't commandeered any planes since.

Anderson credits that largely to luck. Rainy streets in Paris dampened would-be British bomber Richard Reid's shoelace fuses. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bungled igniting the bomb in his underwear over Detroit on Christmas 2009 before passengers subdued him. There have been other botched attempts. Each one provokes more security.

"We'll eventually gridlock ourself with more restrictions," Anderson says.

Guarding a potential target

A scant 4 miles away, across a prairie-flat expanse of grass and parking lots, Michael Rozin sits in his windowless basement office at the Mall of America.

The former Israeli Defense Forces corporal was hired in 2005 to prevent a terrorist attack on what many considered the most likely target in Minnesota: the nation's largest shopping mall, packed with 40 million visitors a year, sporting an iconically American name.

"Any counter-terrorism security efforts go through my desk," Rozin explains.

His methods contrast vividly with the airport's, informed by lessons learned as a security agent at Israel's main airport.

"At Ben Gurion Airport, we're not interested in what's in your underwear, we have no liquids restrictions and you don't have to take your shoes off." He points to his head. "We care what's in here -- your intent."

Rozin works behind the scenes, directing undercover officers who study shoppers' behaviors and, if necessary, interview them just like Israeli airport agents do.

"Terrorist incidents don't just happen," Rozin says. "Behavior detection can identify them in pre-execution stages."

He thinks, frankly, that American airport security is too obsessed with weapons and not focused enough on malicious intent. He points out that the 9/11 hijackers breached no security rules, using then-legal box cutters to wrest control of the jets.

The mall's website warns shoppers: "You may be subject to a security interview." Rozin says his 100-member security staff conducts about 1,500 interviews a year with people they view as suspicious based on criteria that include nervous appearance, number of belongings and any hints they might be conducting "pre-operational surveillance" or rehearsing an act.

"It doesn't mean you're guilty, but there are simple indicators that obligate us to take action," he says, adding that more than 90 percent of those interviewed are quickly cleared. The rest might have warrants or shoplifting plans.

Rozin says the interviews are conducted in public, not in secret rooms, and his staff treats people in a "friendly, polite, professional manner." He says about 4 percent of those interviewed complain about being stopped.

The approach, says Rozin, has paid off: Last winter a man became agitated when interviewed, took off running and was apprehended with a loaded handgun.

But "no system is perfect and there's no such thing as 100 percent security," Rozin says. He plants fake packages and runs other tests a few times a month on each of his plainclothes agents.

One security worker's thick beard testifies to his deep Islamic faith. Mohammad Zafar was born in Pakistan, served as a U.S. Marine and helped create the Muslim Student Organization at Metro State University.

Zafar had just finished his four-year stint in the Marines, guarding bases in Japan, when he grew his beard. "I felt I was ready to have a Muslim identity," he says. "It was time."

The day the 9/11 hijackers struck, declaring a twisted Islamist motivation, he rushed to work at the mall despite his mother's concerns about his safety. He was, after all, a U.S. Marine. He knew "they needed me" to help shut down the mall as a security precaution.

In the years since, as Zafar became a graduate student in psychology, the mall has served as both his place of employment and his laboratory.

Rozin and others credit him for bringing in respected Muslim leaders to quell gang-related fights that led to dozens of arrests of Somali youth at the end of Ramadan several years ago. After Zafar's intervention program, the number of arrests dropped to zero.

He uses his job at the guest service desk to study post-9/11 behavior. One man wandered up, clearly not realizing Zafar was Muslim, and began to expound that airlines should allow only one Muslim per flight. Zafar listened patiently, then explained that he was Muslim. The man returned later and apologized.

"It hit me that I'm not going to be an everyday guy anymore," he says. "I'm going to be different and this is my opportunity to enhance understanding."

A wound that won't heal

Near the airport and the mall, rows of bright white headstones mark Fort Snelling National Cemetery. A peculiar signal tells Kathy Wosika when it's time to visit the grave of her son, James Wosika Jr.

"My earlobes will turn bright red and start to itch," she says. "The same thing happens to my mother and his sister and his girlfriend. That's his way of telling us: 'I miss you guys.' After we go to the cemetery, the itching stops."

She knows it sounds strange. But when Jay, as she called her son, was a baby he loved to have his earlobes tickled. As a boy, he would play with his dogs' ears.

On Jan 9, 2007, roughly halfway between 9/11 and today, the boy Kathy Wosika loved so much was killed when a homemade bomb ripped apart the left side of his body while he was on foot patrol near Fallujah, Iraq, with the Minnesota National Guard. He was 24.

She and her husband, James Wosika Sr., have turned their century-old house near the Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul into a shrine to their son.

Two pressed National Guard uniforms hang in a glass cabinet in the dining room. Upstairs, dozens of photos and a framed swatch of the uniform he wore the day he died grace the walls. His mom wears a T-shirt featuring his face and the last words he wrote on myspace -- "Your life is there so grab it!"

His parents wear his dog tags. His father has Jay's face tattooed on his back with the words "To Jay, Love Dad."

People have suggested the memorials are too much. That it's time to move on.

To that, Kathy says, "You never get over the death of a child. Ever."

On a recent afternoon, they head to a ribbon-cutting for a new Fisher House, where families of injured veterans can stay for free near the Veterans Medical Center. On their truck, a bumper sticker reads "All gave some; some gave all."

Afterward, the ends of the ceremonial red ribbon flutter on the ground. James Wosika fishes in his pocket for a knife, bends down and trims off a piece. He tucks it into his wallet. Later he will place it in a thick scrapbook he keeps updating.

"We just don't want people to forget," he says.

COMING MONDAY: RECONCILING PRIDE AND GRIEF IN THE CORN AND SOYBEAN FIELDS OF IOWA.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

 

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As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks approaches, reporter Curt Brown and photographer Jerry Holt travel from Minnesota to ground zero, exploring the ways that day altered America.

Part 1: Twin Cities, MN

In the Twin Cities, living in a post-9/11 world

Ten years later, how have the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed us? A journey of discovery begins in Minnesota.

Part 2: Ames, Grimes, Dubuque, IA

Reconciling pride and grief in Iowa

Three generations grieve in the heartland with faith, humor and a massive stretch of steel.

Part 3: Chicago, IL

Fading fears in Chicago, atop the nation's tallest skyscraper

In Chicago, fears fade as the Midwest's largest city regains its balance and bounces back.

Part 4: Dearborn, MI

Into America's most intensely Muslim city, Dearborn, Michigan

Middle Eastern immigrants have woven themselves into the fabric of Dearborn, Mich., for more than a century.

Part 5: Shanksville, PA

Near Shanksville, Pa., a return to rural tranquility is elusive

A twist of fate ends the serenity in rolling Pennsylvania hills.

Part 6: New York City, NY

 
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