A look back on a day we’ll never forget

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — So many stories about Sept. 11, 2001, begin with a description of the sky over Manhattan just before the attacks.

It was a beautiful early fall day. Nothing but blue skies and comfortable temperatures.

The skies over Grand Rapids were a carbon copy that morning.

At Grand Rapids City Hall, city commissioners met for a work session. Everything from the agenda on paper to the demeanor of commissioners screamed routine — until someone walked in and told them to turn on the TV.

The same thing was happening at offices and restaurants, class rooms and break rooms across West Michigan.

“I feel for the families … I can’t even imagine if I had someone that I knew who was in Washington or New York or that type of thing,” said one concerned viewer.

“I’m just in shock. I never thought anything like this could happen,” said a high school student watching coverage in a classroom. 

“It’s time to kick somebody’s tail. Find out who did it … take care of them. Period,” a factory worker said.

The decision to empty the skies brought frightened travelers to places they never expected to be, including West Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford International Airport. 

“All the planes had to land. And they didn’t know what the situation was. They didn’t know if it would be hours or days,” one weary traveler said.

On the streets, something we hadn’t seen in generations appeared as the Grand Rapids Press put out an extra edition.

As day turned to evening, the uncertainty continued.

Lines formed at gas stations for the shortage that never came.

THE DAY AFTER

As the sun rose on the day after, we took to talk radio to vent our frustrations over the attacks.

“And we need to make sure for our children now, and for the future of this country, we do not let them win,” said a caller to a WOOD Radio talk show. 

We began to realize the local impact. Gull Lake native Bradley VanHoorn died in the World Trade Center. West Michigan native Barbara Edwards was among those killed on flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.

“You always think it happens to somebody else. You never realize, it could happen to us,” said Edwards’ father, Jack VanderBaan.

As the days wore on, flag sales soared and young men and women arrived at local military recruitment office to sign up.

But an ugly side effect also began to emerge.

West Michigan clergy of all denominations gathered, expressing concern over potential threats and intimidation aimed at Arab Americans.

“The love of God is the love of all humanity … regardless of what their denomination or what their race or ethnic group may be,” said one member of the clergy group.

Still, many avoided the divide.

By the end of the week, thousands gathered at Ah-Nab-Awen Park for song and prayer.

LIFE GOES ON

As the leaves began to fall, we tried to return to some version of normal.

But tensions continued.

That fear that the other shoe could drop at any time.

In early October, a sight few would have ever considered became a reality as armed National Guard troops arrived here to secure the Ford Airport and at airports across the county.

“It’s kinda scary at first to see people in camouflage and big combats boots, but it’s definitely reassuring,” said one air traveler who witnessed the National Guard’s arrival. 

The fear would soon extend from the air to our mailboxes. A white powdery substance known as anthrax was mailed to high-profile politicians and others, creating fear of opening the mail.

“We had probably 15 calls before noon yesterday, ranging from completely hysterical people, to people just having questions about something they’d just gotten in the mail,” a Kent County 911 dispatcher said.

Yet, our resolve to do something positive, something meaningful continued.

The attacks and anthrax scare made us appreciate our firefighters, police officers and even our letter carriers even more.

West Michigan donated untold sums of money to the effort.

Then, on a late fall day on Staten Island, a semi-truck pulled up to an elementary school full of some 20,000 teddy bears donated from West Michigan. Many of the students at that school lost someone they knew, someone they loved, in the Trade Center attacks.

“It makes me really happy because, with everything happening I felt so sad and now this cheers me up,” said one student.

“Just to know that people care…. it’s better,” added another. 

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