Road from 9/11: In Iowa, pride, grief, loyal neighbors

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2011 - 4:21 PM

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

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CLEAR LAKE, IOWA -- Eleven volunteer firefighters in the van are exhausted.

They've driven 1,000 miles from New York City back home to Iowa, hauling a flat-bed trailer topped with a wooden crate Jim Finstad hammered together, painted red and stenciled with six words: World Trade Center Steel NEVER FORGET.

Inside lies their coveted relic -- a 1,400-pound, 10-foot steel I-beam salvaged from the North Tower that collapsed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is destined for a community-designed memorial at Clear Lake's new firehouse.

Finstad's cellphone starts ringing. Firehouses in Iowa towns -- Coralville, Waterloo, Charles City -- are following their progress on Facebook and wonder if they could stop on their way through. Or at least slow down.

"They wanted to set up their ladders and salute us as we went by," says Finstad, a 40-year-old with straw-blond hair who studies farm soil when he's not putting out fires.

More than 100 motorcycles and a dozen gleaming fire rigs join the entourage across Iowa. Thirty miles out, near Charles City, they begin to see people on corners waving flags. Finstad's wife calls to say about 30 people have gathered outside Clear Lake's firehouse.

"When we turned the corner less than an hour later, 2,000 people were cheering," Finstad says, recalling that day in May. "We were wired and excited and the whole thing was pretty neat. It means people aren't forgetting and they want to make sure they remember what went on."

Iowa might seem an improbable first stop on a journey to understand how America has changed since 9/11. But out among the endless corn and soybean fields is evidence of two powerful emotions unleashed by that day a decade ago.

On one hand, there is the genuine, jubilant, flag-waving patriotism and pride displayed by those firefighters and the crowd that greeted them at the firehouse.

There is also a growing web of grief connecting parents, grandparents, siblings and neighbors of those lost that day and in the wars that followed. Like the pieces of the towers migrating out to towns for use as memorials, grief has also been scattered across the landscape far from ground zero.

From Ames to Waverly, from Dubuque to Grimes, members of three generations describe a desperate struggle to wring meaning out of a tragedy before it simply evaporates with time.

"We were all attacked on 9/11, not just New York and Washington, but the whole country," says Clear Lake's stocky volunteer fire chief, Doug Meyers, 53, a nurse at the local emergency room.

Clear Lake, pop. 8,161, is known for its own tragedy. In 1959, rock 'n' roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash after playing the Surf Ballroom, en route to Moorhead, Minn. The iconic song, "American Pie," called that "the day the music died."

"Now, for 10 years, we've been on our own, and moss grows fat on a rolling stone ..."

Nearly three years ago, Finstad saw an e-mail that mentioned World Trade Center salvage operators were making steel available before scrapping it. Clear Lake applied and won one of the larger pieces of the hundreds disseminated to towns in 50 states and seven countries.

"People here in Clear Lake might not have been affected as severely as the folks we met in New York," Finstad says. "And a lot of people out here might never get to New York City to see the actual World Trade Center site or visit the new museum. Now they can come to Clear Lake, Iowa, and touch it, feel it and see our little piece of history."

But even out here in Iowa, there are plenty of people for whom no memorial is required to trigger memories. Their pain is no abstraction.

Scars on the family tree

Octogenarians Doug and Betty Haviland live in a sedate, low-slung seniors apartment building in Ames, smack dab in the middle of Iowa.

Born in the 1920s, married on Sept. 10, 1950, they recall what they were listening to on the radio when news broke of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Doug: a New York Giants football game; Betty: the symphony.)

History has left its mark on Doug's family tree like lightning scars.

In 1912, when his mother, Mary Doig Haviland, was 10, her mother died after a horse and buggy accident. Mary lived long enough to endure the death of a grandson in the World Trade Center and a granddaughter when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry over Texas.

Timothy Haviland was the fifth of seven children and a Macalester College graduate who lived in the Twin Cities for 20 years. He was 41 and working on the 96th floor of the North Tower when the first plane banked off the Hudson River and plowed into his floor. He died almost instantly.

"We were lucky enough that they found bones with flesh on them," Betty says.

His cousin, Dr. Laurel Clark, a physician and astronaut, attended Tim's memorial service, then died 17 months later on the space shuttle when she, too, was 41.

The family's tragedies didn't end there. The brother of Tim's wife, Amy, was a Bronx firefighter who had just finished his shift on Sept. 11 and was going to the barber shop when the fire alarm rang. He changed back into his gear and was last seen heading into the South Tower four minutes before it collapsed. Five years later, Amy died of a heart attack. Her family attributes it to a broken heart.

For Betty and Doug, a retired Episcopal priest, grieving is mixed with fretting. Tim's younger brother, Andrew, works for the U.S. State Department in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was based in Pakistan on 9/11 when he lost his brother, with whom he shared a childhood bedroom in Iowa.

Humor and faith help pull Doug and Betty through.

"Andrew tells me not to worry because he's good at ducking," Betty says. "Telling a mother not to worry is ridiculous.''

A framed copy of the prayer of St. Francis sits on their end table. Betty reads it softly, like she and Doug did together in the days following Sept. 11:

"Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console."

The Havilands have no special plans for their 61st anniversary on Sept. 10. They'll be thinking of Tim, Andrew, their other five kids and seven grandchildren.

"Our anniversary is effectively ruined," Doug says.

From consoler to consoled

The Rev. Kris Kincaid, pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Dubuque, was heading to a meeting when the hijacked planes started striking their targets on Sept. 11.

He stopped at his older sister's house in Cedar Rapids to watch the tragedy unfold on television. "I wonder if Karen knows about this?" he wondered aloud.

Karen, his younger sister, had somehow overcome her bashful nature to work as an attorney in Washington, D.C. She liked nothing more than coming home to Waverly, to float down the Crow River or visit the Bremer County Fair.

A brother-in-law assured Kincaid that Karen's office wasn't near the Pentagon, so he went on ahead to his meeting.

"Little did we know she was on the plane," he says, his eyes dropping in the stillness of his pastor's office.

Karen Kincaid-Batacan was flying from Washington to a legal conference in Los Angeles. She volunteered to switch flights with a co-worker who had a scheduling conflict that morning. She had a cellphone, but unlike some of the other 57 passengers on Flight 77, she made no call after the hijackers U-turned over Ohio.

"The FBI told us they were sent to the back of the plane and told they were going to die," Kincaid says. "Those last moments run through my mind quite a bit and I could see her helping someone else back there."

In the days that followed, Kincaid went from a lifetime of comforting the bereaved to being the comforted. He juggled his faith with his anger and sadness. The warmth from his community buoyed him.

"The next night, this church was full," he says. "It was a wake-up call, and churches all over the place were packed. There was renewed appreciation for how fragile life is."

Now, Kincaid worries.

"I fear we have fallen back and are lapsing into complacency again," he says, "like we have nothing to worry about."

Iowa has lost seven soldiers in combat in Afghanistan this year, equaling the toll of the last four years combined.

"Every time I hear a soldier has been killed, it takes me right back to that day," Kincaid says. "They've answered that call and I have the utmost respect for those young people who understand the blessings of freedom and liberty and want to protect us."

A promise kept

On April 23, the Saturday before Easter, a U.S. helicopter banged into a hard landing in the Kapisa Province of Afghanistan.

Two Iowa National Guardsmen, Zachary Durham and James Justice, scrambled to help but were ambushed by small-arms fire. Justice, 32, was shot in the stomach and died at the scene. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Durham, 21, is recovering from wounds nearby as an outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

At the Justice family's tidy little white house in Grimes, a small town near Des Moines, the shades are drawn and no one is home.

Across the street, lanky and shirtless Dominick Hayes, 17, mows his family's lawn. He explains that Justice's widow, Amanda Jo, and their 3-year-old daughter, Caydence Lillian, have gone to stay with relatives in Wisconsin.

Hayes was 7 on Sept. 11, 2001. He remembers watching on TV as people jumped from the towers. His neighbor James, he says, "was a cool, laid-back guy who felt like Afghanistan is where he needed to be" once the twin towers were attacked.

He recalls that his neighbor had a fondness for White Owl cigars and that when he came home between deployments, he built a fence around his yard. He was at it long past midnight.

Last time Justice came home, chewing on a White Owl, he thanked Hayes for helping shovel snow at his house.

"He said, 'You helped my wife out and when I leave again, if I don't come back, can you keep an eye out?''' Hayes recalls. "It shocked me, but I said, 'Sure.'''

Hayes had just gotten home from school one April afternoon when he saw two military men knock on the front door across the street, then on the back. They were carrying a white envelope.

"Her reaction wasn't shaking or anything. She was like, OK, I understand."

Good as his word, Hayes is still mowing the Justice family's lawn every week. He has been at it for months.

Sometimes, he hears little Caydence ask for her Daddy.

"Her mom tells her he's in a better place."


Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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.

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

Today: Reconciling pride and grief in Iowa.

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

Wednesday: Into America's most intensely Muslim city, Dearborn, Mich.

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

Friday: At ground zero, as a memorial rises, what endures?

where America stands a decade later

where America stands a decade later

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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