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Thursday, April 18, 2024

From This Day Forward: 20 Years Later

On a crisp, clear September morning 20 years ago, four planes descended the sky and introduced terrorism to the American mainland. Aside from Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that launched U.S. participation into World War II, terrorism was something many Americans considered a foreign problem; it only happened in other countries. That day, terror came home.

At the time, Evansville Living was in its second year of publication, and the magazine’s editors set about finding local stories of that day to tell. The resulting series, “From This Day Forward,” ran for five issues and recounted the experiences of reporters, search-and-rescue task force members, military personnel, and everyday citizens on Sept. 11 and immediately following. Many had their lives turned upside down and plans uprooted. Some saw the best of America, and others, the worst. All were changed forever by the terrorist attacks.

As Evansville Living prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, we reached out to some of the original storytellers in the “From This Day Forward” series. Some described how their initial shock at the attacks gave way to new, deeper concerns. Others told of struggling to cope with the horrors of that day. All expressed gratitude to be living in a country that values freedom, rallies together, and supports each other.

These are their stories, 20 years later.

Seeing Devastation Firsthand

Marti Vanada was one of the first people in the Tri-State to see the true horrors of the terrorist attacks. As a member of the Indiana Federal Emergency Management Agency Task Force, she and her search-and-rescue dog, Polly, a border collie/retriever mix, were deployed to Ground Zero and arrived on Sept. 12. Over the next 10 days, the task force searched for people — alive or dead — in the rubble of a disaster site where it soon became apparent that no physical bodies existed anymore. Their story was the first in the “From This Day Forward” series in the November/December 2001 issue of Evansville Living.

Spending more than a week among the devastation at the World Trade Center took a toll on both Vanada and Polly. The rescue dogs especially were losing heart at not finding any survivors, so the task force employed a morale-boosting tactic.

“We were transferred from Fire Station 1 (the group’s base of operations) to a bank building about two blocks away, and we went to the upper floors and searched. A rescuer would hide, and we’d go and find them. It really brought the spirits of the dogs up,” Vanada says. “My dog was trained for cadaver work also, and I used her that way once it was recovery and not rescue. But she didn’t like it well. I could tell. So when it turned to recovery, we had to do more playing and more search staging.”

The impact of their work at Ground Zero followed Vanada and Polly home, and they struggled to adjust to their “new normal.”

“It was emotionally very difficult, and it took a long time to get past it,” Vanada says. “It was a new normal. Things that I used to think were earth shattering — they weren’t earth shattering. I played with Polly a lot, and I slept a lot, and I cried a lot. I made a scrapbook. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures from the Indiana Task Force, and they shared them with us. I made a scrapbook with those pictures, and with some things that I found — there was a baby shop in the lower floor of one of the towers, and it had little bibs and bows and things like that, and they had survived — and I made a scrapbook and did a lot of journaling, but I haven’t looked at it in years. Because then, it was yesterday. Now, it’s been years.”

Driving to work at a nursing home in New Harmony, Indiana, that morning, Elizabeth Lyon heard the first reports of the attack while listening to the radio. She wasn’t alone in her shock.

“Many of the (nursing home) residents were in various stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s and things like that, but they knew something was off that day,” Elizabeth Lyon says. “Even if they couldn’t verbalize it or express it, they felt the bad vibes.”

Absorbing the enormity of the attacks, Lyon says she could barely drive herself home that day. She canceled plans — but not her entry — to run in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., the following month. But a particular mantra from her memory — “Life is one-way street, and it only goes forward” — compelled Lyon to join her friend Diane Floyd at the race. As she crossed the finish line to chants of “USA, USA,” she pulled out an American flag she had been carrying and hoisted it overhead. That image was captured by a photographer and ran in the May/June 2002 Evansville Living article that Lyon wrote with Floyd.

“When Diane and I returned (to Evansville), neither of us really had closure,” Lyon says. “I went back and ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2002, because I felt like I had unfinished business. I needed to see my nation’s capital rebuilt, and I needed to see that Pentagon strong and rebuilt, in all its majestic grandeur.”

Investigating Allegations of Terrorism in the Tri-State

Fear of terrorism struck the Tri-State, too. On Oct. 11, the one-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Tarek Al Basti, an Evansville resident and co-owner of the Crazy Tomato restaurant on Green River Road, was arrested by federal agents, partially on account of the flying lessons his parents-in-law had bought him as a gift.

Randy Wheeler, then the news director at WIKY, had spent a month pouring his attention into how the effects of the terrorist attacks were unfolding. Then, he got a call.

“Mary (Baugh), the mother-in-law of Tarek, called me and said, ‘Have you heard what’s going on?’” says Wheeler, who was interviewed for the “From This Day Forward” story in the January/February 2002 issue of Evansville Living. “A court date had been set; it was all being done very quietly. I used my contacts in Henderson to get information about their transit, and I covered the hearing.”

Al Basti and seven other Egypt-born men in the Evansville area were transported to Chicago and held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center as material witnesses. No charges had been filed, there was little information coming from prosecutors, and family, friends, and even legal representatives for the men were at times barred from speaking to them. Immediately, concerns were raised about the legality of the government’s tactics.

“We thought, ‘Why is this being done? Is due process being performed? Where are they? How are they being treated? Why are they being held — what are the charges?’” Wheeler says. “Due process is due process being followed — and it was not being followed.”

The federal investigators’ actions were a precursor to the USA PATRIOT Act — which allowed foreign terror suspects to be detained for up to a week without charge — that went into effect on Oct. 26, 2001, as a direct result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The story of the “Evansville Eight” made national news, as other American cities learned of similar roundups in their communities.

“This had happened before: President Lincoln suspended parts of the constitution during the Civil War because of threats to the Union. Providing safety to public was #1,” Wheeler says. After the Sept. 11 attacks, “the country was very nervous, and it was justified in being nervous. The government wanted to make sure everybody’s kept safe, but part of keeping us safe is guarding the constitution, and I felt that they weren’t doing that.”

After speaking with Al Basti’s family, Wheeler’s concerns were amplified, and he began transmitting the news of the detention of the “Evansville Eight” to the Associated Press, which took the story national.

“I was really torn: I understood why (Tarek’s arrest was) happening, and it may be something legitimate, but after talking with Carolyn, I was convinced that there was nothing there, and I shared those concerns raised by Carolyn’s family in our reporting,” Wheeler says. “After a few days, I saw it on the national news of this happening in other places, and they were all asking the same question: Is this justified?”

Within a week of his arrest, Al Basti was released from federal custody, and he and his friends were cleared of any wrongdoing; the tip that had led to their arrest was erroneous. In April 2003, FBI officials visited Evansville to issue a very rare public apology to the “Evansville Eight” for the way their investigation had led to immense negative attention on the men. But the damage was done. For Al Basti, business did not return to normal at the Crazy Tomato, and he and his family ultimately moved away from Evansville.

It stirs a distinct feeling of shock to read about Evansville-area residents — at least one, Al Basti, was a naturalized American citizen — being rounded up and detained by U.S. marshals for fear of terroristic activity. But Wheeler reminds that the River City has not been immune from the effects of Sept. 11. On Sept. 14, 2001, just three days after the Twin Towers fell, an Evansville man drove his truck into the city’s Islamic Center, then next door to St. Benedict Cathedral at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and South Willow Road. The man later told police that his actions were retaliation against the Muslim community for the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I did an hourlong interview with Carolyn, Tarek’s wife, at their house while he was detained. It was a pretty dramatic interview: He had been rounded up on scant charges, their business was shut down, so their family income was shut down,” Wheeler says. “When they married, Carolyn had converted to Islam, and she felt that people saw her as a dangerous Muslim. When I interviewed her, she said, ‘I love Evansville, but I don’t know if I can live here.’ And they had to leave town.”

Long-Term Effects

Sept. 11 led to American legislation, policies, and protocols that have significantly impacted parts of everyday life. The Department of Homeland Security, and with it the Transportation Security Administration, were formed. Guantanamo Bay off the coast of Cuba was established as a detention camp and lives on in notoriety for the many allegations of human rights abuses that occurred to terror suspects there. The National Security Agency was given broader powers of national and global surveillance. Federal Air Marshals became a mainstay on flights. Even the news ticker that is a near-constant feature on 24-hour news shows owes its increased usage to Sept. 11.

“There are a number of things we can’t do anymore, because we had to harden ourselves because we saw what can happen,” says Wheeler, who retired from WIKY in 2014. “At the Newburgh Locks and Dam, they saw that it could be that somebody would try to interrupt the river system and our commerce, which is the lifeblood of the nation. They put up a gate to the locks and dam, and they didn’t allow you to walk out onto the dam. When our daughters were growing up, you could walk right onto the dam; they would run a siren when the water was high, but otherwise you could walk right onto the dam. Now, you need employee badge or government ID to get in the gate. At the time, that was unheard of.”

Perhaps most poignant for this year’s anniversary, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001 in response to the Taliban’s refusal to turn over al-Qaeda operatives suspected of orchestrating the attacks. “Operation Enduring Freedom” stretched into various campaigns over 20 years, and its chaotic end on Aug. 31, 2021, has become yet another somber chapter in the post-Sept. 11 story.

Polly the search-and-rescue dog lived another nine years after the attacks. After retiring from FEMA in 2006, Vanada turned her sights to aiding military personnel and veterans — a direct result from her experiences at Ground Zero.

“While I was in New York, we were right across from Fire Station 1. The firefighters would come streaming in — when the machinery came out to move rubble, they had to leave Ground Zero, too — and they’d walk by our tent and see the dogs, and they’d drop to their knees and just sob into the dogs. They were just so upset. Then we went to war, and we started hearing about all the horrible effects this was having on our military, like PTSD and suicides. So when I got home, I kept thinking, ‘I have to do something to help the vets,’ because I saw it in the firefighters. I saw it in the four dogs from our team who helped the firefighters. I started looking and found Pets for Vets and decided it was going to be a good fit for me. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel; I knew there were good organizations out there that I could work with.”

Pets For Vets, a national organization with a southwest Indiana chapter that Vanada directs, matches pet companions with veterans. Although she was not military personnel herself, Vanada says 10 days searching in the rubble of the World Trade Center gave her a kind of crash course in military life, and as such, she now better understands the kind of support veterans need when they come home from deployment.

“I was there (in New York) for 10 days, and yet when I came home, I didn’t know what to put on to wear the next morning. (At Ground Zero) there were no decisions about what to wear, where to go, what to do. It was regimented. And it was 10 days’ worth. I can’t imagine being a veteran and coming home after years on deployment,” she says.

This anniversary will be the first since Lyon parted with the American flag she triumphantly waved as she finished the 2001 Marine Corps Marathon. After taking the flag with her to the 2002 marathon in Washington, D.C., she carried it in her wallet “every day, everywhere I’ve ever gone.” After moving to Edmonds, Washington, in 2014, Lyons continued working with international students and ultimately found a new purpose for her treasured flag.

“I finally gave it away this year to one of my international students, Ziwen, who was losing faith in America: He’d been profiled, wrongly accused of something, and he was cleared, but not until after he’d been held at a detention center. They had him in handcuffs, and the handcuffs were shackled to his waist. … He was losing faith in America, and I said to him, ‘Don’t ever lose faith. This country and I love you.’ And I gave my flag to him, and he has it now.”

For Vanada, like Lyon, the Sept. 11 attacks left an indelible mark on her life, something that stays constant with each passing anniversary.

“It seems like it was yesterday, and then it seems like it was a long time ago,” Vanada says. “For everybody that was of age at the time, there is a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Sept. 11.”

Post-Sept. 11, Lyon struggled to fully embrace her mantra and marched confidently into the future. But upon returning to Washington, D.C. in 2002 for the Marine Corps Marathon, she saw that life, indeed, was moving forward.

“The limestone used for rebuilding the Pentagon came from Bedford, Indiana — which is 30 minutes from where I grew up — and it felt very serendipitous to me,” Lyon says. “We had survived. Everything came full circle.”

Read Evansville Living’s original Sept. 11 series, “From This Day Forward,” here.

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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