Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 9, 2011

Sept. 11 -- 10 years later

Pleasanton reflects on the day that changed America

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

The young dad at his parent-teacher conference in upstate New York six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, suddenly looked at his watch and jumped to his feet, recounted Theresa Aimar, a Pleasanton resident from New York.

"He said, 'I've gotta go. My wife is taking a college class and I have to go take notes for her until they find her,'" Aimar said last week, fighting back tears. "He was in denial."

His wife had been working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and the first-grade teacher was Aimar's sister, Joan, one of many family members who still live in Orange County, New York, which lost dozens of residents in the tragedy.

Her brother Joe was part of a vigil for the return of his neighbor, the mother of a 3-week-old baby. Her brother Joe was a child counselor, who now had to attend parents' funerals.

"I grew up there -- all the dads were firemen and policemen," Aimar said. "For generations, those neighbors are missing dads. First responders kind of hang together -- now they're helping raise each other's kids."

Pleasanton residents awoke Sept. 11, 2001, to the news that the United States was under attack by terrorists. Two hijacked planes had flown into the World Trade Center, and one had collided into the Pentagon. Another crashed in the fields of Shanksville, Pa., shortly after 7 a.m., PST. By 9:15 a.m., American airspace was cleared of all commercial and private flights. Americans had seen attacks in other countries, even against its embassies and ships, but now it was happening here.

City staff lowered its flag to half-mast, and people erected impromptu monuments. Pleasanton held a community-wide ecumenical service at the Fairgrounds that Saturday night, a chance to join together at that time of national mourning. The Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters held a pancake breakfast at the Veterans Hall to raise money for the emergency services personnel in New York City.

Pleasanton was also impacted because one of the hijacked airplanes, Flight 93, was bound for San Francisco. Tom Burnett, 38, Thoratec Corp.'s senior vice president and chief operating officer, was on board; he and his fellow passengers were credited with diverting the hijackers from a more populated target. Burnett made four phone calls to his wife Deena in San Ramon during the hijacking, which helped form a coherent idea of what was happening on board.

In March 2002, Thoratec renamed the street off Stoneridge Drive where it's located in Pleasanton after Burnett. At the street dedication, Deena Burnett said that even six months later, parts of the phone calls were still coming back to her. "They are like little gifts," she said.

On that fateful Tuesday morning, Aimar was at her home on Second Street getting her three young sons ready for school.

"My sister called and said, 'Both boys are fine.' She meant our two brothers were fine. They both work in Manhattan and one was on his way to the World Trade Center," Aimar recalled. "I said, 'What are you were talking about?'"

When her sister responded, "Our tower's down," Aimar understood.

"I was about 13 when my father finished building the World Trade Center," she said, "putting in air conditioning and refrigeration. He'd come home every day talking about the World Trade Center. At about 13 I remember him saying they were the tallest buildings in the world, and his pride."

As events unfolded after Sept. 11, she became unsettled, and it struck a note with her when Mayor Rudolph Guiliani pleaded with people to visit New York and spend money. Six weeks after the tragedy she traveled to New York, inviting family and friends to join her in a place she rented on Park Avenue at 59th Street.

"I sat with them for several days, and then realized I was the only one in their entire surroundings that could only sit and listen. Everyone else they tried to talk to had a story; here was an outsider that could absorb it and feel it, without going, 'Yeah, I lost one, or two, people.' That's what my calling was," Aimar said.

"They so badly wanted to tell outsiders how bad things were," she explained. "When everybody's bleeding, there's nobody to get the band-aid."

One evening about 20 of them headed out to dinner and located a restaurant south of Canal Street that was hurting.

"When the waiter brought us a flier with the specials, I told him, 'I came from California to spend money. We're not here for a deal, we're here because we're Americans,'" she told the Pleasanton Weekly soon after that trip. "He was a grown man and had tears coming down his eyes."

They bought hotdogs from vendors in Central Park and pictures and souvenirs.

"We tipped the taxis extra and the bellhops. 'Our hearts are bleeding for you,' we told them."

Aimar's first attempt to visit Ground Zero was thwarted when the subways were halted due to a suspicious package at Grand Central Station. As her group tromped down the city streets, trying along with everyone else to hail a cab, she said she "realized I was literally living the lifestyle that New Yorkers have become accustomed to."

The next day they made it to Ground Zero. A quarter of a mile away, as she exited the train underground, the stench -- "like a deer decaying in the woods" and of burning metal -- left her clutching her stomach, fighting for self-control as those around her ignored it.

"When we got to Ground Zero, people from all walks of life, from babies in their mothers' packs to seniors, were looking and mourning. They were standing in disbelief. You could tell they were praying. Those with children were holding them tightly," she said, breaking down at the memory.

She saw also saw a homeless man crying. "He had friends in there, too," she said. "It affected everybody, from the homeless man to the president."

When she called her husband from New York, he said, "I can hear in your voice that you're back." And indeed, she was feeling like herself again after her pilgrimage.

Now, as the anniversary approaches, Aimar is again feeling the anguish.

"I was in Manhattan for the Christmas holidays last year, and I would notice that when we would hear an airplane, to this day their heads still go up," she said last week.

She now worries about her niece at college in NYC being a target. And her sister Barbara lost the travel agencies she had spent her whole career building, when people quit flying.

"I don't think things have been quite the same for her since then," Aimar said.

She recently asked her visiting 11-year-old nephew how the kids in her old hometown were doing but he didn't understand the question.

"It made me realize that kids from ages 0 to 20 don't have the effect that the rest of us have had," she said. "That's what a decade has done. A whole generation becoming adults, not knowing what it was like before. Now people are much more vigilant, not just in New York but in all public places. The world has changed. In general people aren't as relaxed. In airports for sure."

"I text my kids prior to taking off when I travel and tell them I love them knowing the risk of flying nowadays," she added.

A positive change has been everyone's appreciation for those who protect the public, she noted. "They've been noticed and respected."

She hosted an exchange student from Spain recently and asked him about it. She just had to say "9-11," she said, and he responded that it was a tragedy for the whole world to see America attacked on its own land.

"We're still in shock but then we realize it's national and international. It changed the world," Aimar said.

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