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A relative. A pilot. A recovery worker. Three residents share what they remember about Sept. 11, 2001
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A relative. A pilot. A recovery worker. Three residents share what they remember about Sept. 11, 2001

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It’s been 20 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people and set off a series of events that we as Americans continue to feel the effects of to this day. As the nation prepares to mark two decades since the attacks, the Gazette spoke with three residents about their memories of that unimaginably dark day and how it impacted them.

Paul Manno

Twenty years ago Goochland resident Paul Manno was just beginning his career in emergency management, working as a Planner for a national engineering firm. Given the firm’s contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Manno was familiar with disaster recovery — in fact, he was spending that September in Charleston, West Virginia assisting with flood recovery.

He was taking part in a morning meeting on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. By the next day, he had been advised to prepare to leave for New York.

Manno would spend the next nine months working to support the recovery effort, splitting his time between Ground Zero and the Staten Island landfill where the 1.8 million tons of recovered material was taken to be sorted.

The work was challenging in countless ways, Manno recalls, but he and others soon learned that focusing on the task at hand was the best coping strategy.

“You just tried to stay focused on the mission and try to look at each day and what your job was,” said Manno, who was occasionally able to get away for a rare day off and visit family that lived in the area.

As the weeks went by, Manno says he was struck again and again by the way the nation came together and the way he and other recovery workers were treated.

“I think New York City can sometimes get a bad rap, but even for people like me who were not rescue workers — you would be walking along and people would see your FEMA jacket and start clapping and saying ‘Thank you.’”

Ten years ago, he and others who had been part of the recovery effort were invited back for an anniversary commemoration event, but Manno says he wasn’t ready. This year, however, he plans to attend.

Of all the things he’s been part of in his career, Manno, who now owns his own emergency management consulting firm, says, he remains most proud of the work he did in the aftermath of the attacks.

“I wish we never had to do it,” Manno says. “But since we did I was proud to have been a part of it.”

* * *

Vernon Fleming

On Sept.11, 2001, Vernon Fleming was living in Howard County, Maryland. He had just finished a breakfast meeting with a potential business partner and was driving to his office north of Baltimore when he heard on the radio that a small plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.   

“When I arrived at my office, co-workers were standing around a TV monitor observing the towers burning,” Fleming recalls. “Shortly afterwards, it was announced that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.    Then the towers started to collapse.”

Fleming says he wasn’t thinking at the time that he might have known anyone directly impacted by the attacks. Tragically, just a short time later, he realized that he did.

Later that afternoon, he received a call from his fiancé’s sister, Connie, asking if he had heard from her their other sister Sandra.  Fleming told her that had talked to Sandra, to which Connie responded with tremendous relief.  

“Then I clarified and told her that it was a few days ago,” Fleming said.    Connie then explained that no one had heard from Sandra, who worked in the Pentagon as a Department of the Army civilian.    

The family would soon learn that Sandra’s office had taken a direct hit when hijackers deliberately crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 8:20 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11.   It took nearly 10 days before her death could be confirmed by jewelry identified by her husband.    Sandra Letitia Murray White, who introduced Fleming to his wife, Ann, left behind a husband and two sons.

“My best friend’s wife, an Army colonel, was also at the Pentagon in the area of the crash,” Fleming remembers.   “She was able to escape, but was hospitalized for nearly a week due to smoke inhalation and injuries. She was later recognized for saving the lives of several other soldiers.”     

* * *

Jeff Ottaviano

Goochland resident Jeff Ottaviano, a former commercial pilot, had just wrapped up a four-day trip when he awoke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to the news that a plane had flown directly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

As the tragedies unfolded, Ottaviano, who was flying regional jets for Delta Airlines out of Boston at the time, began to understand that few things about his job were ever going to be the same. Although airlines were back to flying passengers again less than a week after the attacks, pilots and their crews now faced a host of new concerns without much guidance on how to address them.

“In the past, if someone tried to hijack my plane, I would have put on my Captain’s hat and come out and talked to them and taken them where they wanted to go,” he said. In the chaotic weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, Ottaviano says, he and his first officer had to devise new protocols with little input from the Federal Aviation Administration.

He remembers telling the first officer and flight attendants assigned to his flights that the pilots would protect the cockpit by any means necessary, and should they be attacked in flight they would take the plane down rather than have it be used as a weapon.

There are some bright moments that stand out —including the joy Ottaviano took in flying an American flag out of the cockpit window while maneuvering the plane on the runway at Logan Airport in Boston — but he says the tragedies led to shifts in the industry and the job.

Though he would continue to fly for another eight years, “Sept. 11, changed everything,” Ottaviano says. “It just wasn’t the same anymore.”

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