Two retired Creston Community High School social studies teachers vividly remember the most unusual school day of their careers.
Just as classes were beginning on Sept. 11, 2001, three commercial airliners became weapons of war in the deadliest terrorism attacks on U.S. soil. A fourth dove into the ground in rural Pennsylvania as passengers overpowered hijackers allegedly intent on flying it into the U.S. Capitol.
For Randy Hughes and John Rose, two social studies teachers who would end their careers at CCHS later that decade, the tragic events triggered memories of the Vietnam War breaking out when they were teenagers. Now, they faced the task of helping young students cope with somber news that could see the nation at war again.
But, first they had to process the news themselves. Nobody, regardless of age, had lived through such an attack on U.S. civilians.
Hughes was a history teacher who retired from CCHS in 2006 before spending 11 years on the Southwestern Community College faculty. Rose retired in 2006 as a teacher of government, sociology and economics classes. Both were both in their prep hour as school began that day.
“I was sitting in my room, and Charlotte Roberts, the teacher next door to my room, stopped in and said a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers,” Hughes recalled. “My first response was, ‘Oh, that’s a bad accident.’ I envisioned a little private plane and maybe an erratic pilot.”
Rose, meanwhile, was listening to a Des Moines sports radio station because it was the week of the Iowa vs. Iowa State football game and he was interested in updates. Two local boosters had arranged for Rose and other members of the Creston football staff to attend the game scheduled in Ames that weekend, as former Panther star Kyle McCann was the starting quarterback for the Iowa Hawkeyes. (The game was postponed to Thanksgiving weekend after the 9/11 events.)
“Those guys on the radio were the ones who broke the news to me that something weird had happened in New York,” Rose said. Then I turned on the TV in my room to the (NBC) Today Show and that’s when I saw the second tower being hit.”
At that moment, Hughes was standing by other teachers huddled around a television in the library. Suddenly, special education teacher and coach Darrell Frain yelled, “What’s that?!”
It was the second plane striking the other World Trade Center tower as it zeroed in on its target, just a fraction of a second before impact.
“That’s when the intellectual realization hit me that this is an attack,” Hughes said. “We stood there and just watched in stunned silence. Then the news came about the Pentagon being struck by a plane. We all thought, ‘OK, what else?’ The broadcasters said there was one rogue plane — Flight 93 — not responding to air traffic controllers. It was truly a stunning event.”
After both World Trade Center towers collapsed during that first 90-minute instructional block at the school, Principal Todd Wolverton asked Hughes if he would address the student body in the auditorium. Hughes had perspective as a history teacher and former state representative from the district that included Creston.
“Everyone was in there, and you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium,” Hughes said. “I drew on history. I said, it’s a tragedy. It’s sad. Let’s find out who did it. Who are they, where are they? Eliminate the threat. I said your life will never be the same.”
Hughes remembered being a junior at Fort Madison High School in 1964 when the Gulf of Tonkin incident triggered the Vietnam War. He remembered watching his cousin and two of his buddies talking about it in a school hallway. Later, those two friends would die in the Vietnam War.
“I remember looking out over the students in that auditorium and wondering if some of them would serve in battle resulting from this attack,” Hughes said. “Would I see them at their five-year reunion? As it turned out, I don’t believe anyone from Creston died in the Middle East war, but some were wounded.”
Rose remembers sensing that some students were worried in class later that day, and during the week. Yet, after school football practice carried on as usual, except for one memory that sticks with everyone who was there.
“All air traffic had been grounded by then,” Rose said. “We all stood and watched a plane fly over us during practice. It was Air Force One, heading east toward Washington, D.C. from Omaha.”
President George W. Bush had been in a Florida elementary school early in the day for an appearance related to his education agenda, and had flown to Offut Air Force Base to form strategy with other officials in a bunker there until Washington, D.C. was deemed secure and safe. Later that evening he would address the nation on television.
“It was really an emotional speech,” Rose said. “Bush did a fantastic job. And, I was impressed that (United Kingdom Prime Minister) Tony Blair came over and was sitting there in attendance.”
Both teachers said as the rest of the week unfolded, it was important to briefly stay updated on the latest developments that could answer some of the questions regarding the attack, but they also focused on learning what had been prepared for those classes.
“Getting that normality back was big, too,” Hughes said. “There is comfort in routine. It was a very subdued mood, though. I try to run a very vital classroom. I want interaction. It was definitely more subdued in class that week.”
The recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan ended the 20-year conflict in the region. Al-Qaeda used Afghanistan as training bases for the terrorist group formed by Osama bin Laden. It became a refuge for terrorists. That was the initial link.
Both retired teachers say it’s likely current high school students don’t fully grasp the link from recent events in Afghanistan to the terror felt in the nation that day. But, Hughes said there can be a lasting lesson drawn from it.
“If I was teaching today, what I would want them to know about that day and that period is that the United States has enemies, seeking to harm us, and we have to be eternally vigilant,” Hughes said. “But, also, be careful that when you kill somebody, you kill them forever, so be real sure the people you are targeting are seeking to harm you.”
Rose said the events of 9/11 will fade over time, much like other tragic events in history, but that doesn’t diminish the impact it had on the country, or those who experienced it.
“In perspective, 20 years out, it’s one of those things that happened,” Rose said. “For people who were there, they will never forget. For folks like me, it’s like a lot of other things that have happened in my lifetime that you remember, like JFK’s assassination or the Challenger explosion. Or, for my dad’s generation, Pearl Harbor. And, there will be other things come along that will make us remember exactly where we were when we first heard about it. This was certainly one of those.”
Sept. 11, 2001 timeline
7:46 a.m. - American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles crashes into floors 93 through 99 of the World Trade Center North Tower in New York City.
8:03 a.m. - American Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles crashes into floors 77 through 85 of the South Tower.
8:37 a.m. - American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles crashes into the Pentagon.
8:42 a.m. - The FAA grounds all flights.
8:59 a.m. - The South Tower collapses in 10 seconds after burning for 56 minutes. More than 800 people in and around the building are killed.
9:03 a.m. - United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco crashes near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers and crew storm the cockpit.
9:28 a.m. - The North Tower collapses after burning for 102 minutes. More than 1,600 in and around the building are killed.
11:16 a.m. - The last flight still in the air above the continental United States lands.
4:20 p.m. - After burning for hours, 7 World Trade Center (near the two towers) collapses, There are no casualties.
7:30 p.m. - President Bush addresses the nation from the White House, assuring Americans that a search is underway for “those who are behind these evil acts.” The president had been in Florida speaking at an elementary school early in the day before being transported to Offut Air Force Base in Omaha, and then the White House after security was assured in the nation’s capital.
A total of 2,977 people were killed that day, and 1,100 were never found. In 2014, the National September 11th Memorial and Museum was opened in honor of their memory.