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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Remembering 9/11: How they learned of it, how they felt it

    Scott Peirce poses for a portrait Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, at his home in Groton. At the time of 9/11, he was living in Florida, where some of the terrorists took classes. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

    When he heard the news, he immediately thought of the Fitch High School students he used to lead on excursions to Manhattan’s Financial District, annual outings that included visits to the World Trade Center complex, including the South Tower’s observation deck.

    What if 9/11 had happened during one of those trips?

    And then, in an instant, Scott Peirce’s mind’s eye filled with “Grumpy’s” hateful visage.

    [naviga:img class="img-responsive" alt="9/11 We Remember" src="/Assets/news2019/911weremember.jpg"/]

    Click here for more stories in our 9/11 We Remember series.

    “In all my years of teaching, I never saw a look like that,” Peirce said during a recent interview at his Groton condominium. “He didn’t say a word. He’d just look me straight in the eye, as if to say, ‘I hope you die and go straight to hell.’”

    While working part time at a flight training school in Vero Beach, Fla., Peirce had encounters with a man he believes may have been one of the 19 terrorists who made up the four teams that hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.

    Peirce and a number of others in the region shared their memories of the moment they learned of the attacks. A few of them follow.

    After starting Fitch's distributive education program, which morphed into a marketing course, Peirce, now 91, retired from teaching in 1990 and moved with his wife, Gisela, to Florida. He worked for a time at a bank, and later on weekends at FlightSafety Academy, one of the many flying schools in Florida. A dispatcher, it was his job to assign students an instructor and an aircraft and to retrieve “the can” containing keys and instruction materials when the lesson was over.

    “In the spring of 2001, we had a class of Saudis that were not at all friendly,” Peirce said.

    One in particular, the one the school’s staff dubbed “Grumpy,” returned his can with a cold stare, “silent, like a dead person,” Peirce said. “He’d just chuck it into the bin. It was pretty clear he didn’t care about the course.”

    Within days of the attacks, FBI agents descended on the flying school and searched homes in Vero Beach, according to reports at the time. Enrollment at the school plummeted, Peirce said, and he and many others who worked there lost their jobs.

    Peirce’s wife died in 2013, and he moved back to Groton.

    Smoke from the Pentagon

    Rob Simmons, the former Stonington first selectman, was eastern Connecticut’s freshman congressman at the time of the 9/11 attacks. His fifth-floor quarters in the Cannon House Office Building afforded him an over-the-rooftops view of the Pentagon.

    He recalled this week that he was watching television when the first hijacked airliner plowed into the north tower of the World Trade Center shortly before 9 a.m. that Tuesday.

    “I was thinking, ‘How the hell could that have happened?’ when the second plane hit,” Simmons said. “I called in my chief of staff and told him to call everyone in and send them home. ‘Everybody needs to go home.’ ... I went back to my office, and there was a big noise, windows rattled and I looked out to see smoke coming up from the Pentagon.”

    Without knowing what had happened, Simmons immediately "felt" it was related to the events that had transpired in Manhattan. Just that morning, he’d met with the American Legion and had spoken about terrorism.

    It was now a few minutes past 9:30.

    A sound like a crash followed at the State Department’s headquarters, which was the sound of the Pentagon crash reverberating off the other building, Simmons said.

    “Within minutes, Capitol Police snipers and guards were on the rooftops,” he said. “Police officers came screaming down the halls, hitting doors with their nightsticks. ‘Get out, get out, get out.’ I told my chief of staff he had to go as well.”

    By then, Flight 93, the fourth hijacked airliner, which would never reach its target, had turned toward Washington.

    Simmons remembered attending a briefing later in the afternoon on al-Qaida’s suspected involvement in the attacks. He and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut headed to the steps of the Capitol, where Simmons said 75 to 100 members of Congress gathered to hear congressional leaders speak.

    Remarkably, he said, there was no jockeying for position.

    “Everyone was quiet and filled in behind the leaders, regardless of party or race, religion or ethnicity. The diversity of America was captured in that scene,” Simmons said. “After a few speeches, someone began singing ‘God Bless America’ and the whole group picked it up. That, to me, was the most unique, special, gratifying moment I ever experienced as a member of Congress.”

    Days later, Simmons was among Connecticut, New York and New Jersey representatives who were asked to join then-President George W. Bush at ground zero in Manhattan, site of the World Trade Center attacks. Someone in the crowd yelled, “I can’t hear you.”

    Bush, bullhorn in hand, responded:

    “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

    Simmons remembered being about 20 feet from the president.

    “I had an overpowering feeling that if we were as united as we were then and as we were on the Capitol steps," he said, "we will never be defeated.”

    Terror, two brothers

    For Frances Bonardi, 9/11 delivered terror on two fronts: One brother, a pilot, was flying for United at the time; another worked at the Pentagon.

    Raised in and now living in Pawcatuck, she then lived in Charlottesville, Va., where she was vice president of nursing at Martha Jefferson Hospital. She learned of the World Trade Center attacks when someone burst into a meeting and announced the two towers had been hit.

    “‘It looks like we’re under attack’ — I remember that’s just the way they said it,” Bonardi said Thursday. “We just got up and went to television sets.”

    When she learned the second hijacking involved a United Airlines flight out of Boston, her thoughts went to her youngest brother, Paul Sainsbury, a retired Air Force pilot who flew for United. She knew he occasionally flew out of Boston and Newark, N.J., where the fourth hijacked flight originated.

    She called his East Lyme home.

    “I’m fine, I’m home,” he said, answering.

    Michael Sainsbury, another of Bonardi’s 10 siblings, was an Army officer stationed at the Pentagon at the time of the attack there. He wasn’t there when the crash occurred, however, because he had taken a daughter to a doctor’s appointment that morning.

    He lived in Arlington, Va., at the time, learned of the attack while driving his daughter home and was unable to reach the Pentagon in the chaos of the aftermath.

    When Bonardi called him, he, too, was at home.

    “I couldn’t get through to them right away because the phones were jammed. It was so nerve-wracking,” Bonardi said of her brothers. “Michael had been in Iraq — Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We were just hoping his luck hadn’t run out.”

    After their marriage, Bonardi and her husband, Fordan, left the area for 30 years and were in the process of moving back when the attacks occurred.

    “That weekend, we were scheduled to fly back here to start looking for houses, but no planes were flying,” recalled Bonardi, who was about to start as vice president of nursing at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London.

    So they drove, she said, which afforded them the unforgettable experience of seeing American flags planted on overpasses and all along Interstate 95.

    The last flight-deck tour

    Twenty years ago, Art Hammer, then chief engineer for Ship Analytics, a North Stonington company, was traveling home from Malaysia when he boarded a 747 for the last leg of the trip, from Japan to JFK. When the plane landed in Vancouver for refueling, he peeked into the cockpit. A flight attendant asked if he'd like to visit the flight deck.

    Invited to sit with the captain and co-pilot, Hammer, a Gales Ferry resident, was given a running commentary "on where we were and where we were going," he wrote in an email account of the experience. "Once in the air, I was invited to return to my seat to have dinner and watch a movie. I was told to come back when we approached JFK."

    When he returned to the flight deck, Hammer was given ear phones that enabled him to listen to the chatter between the air traffic control tower and the aircraft taking off and landing.

    That was Sept. 10, 2001.

    "I think I can safely say that I was the last passenger to have such an experience," Hammer, 86, wrote.

    The next day, Hammer's attention was focused on the news in Manhattan, where three of his five children were living in or near Greenwich Village. All of them were safe.

    The wetlands officer

    Kathy Waterhouse, a Pawcatuck native who lives in Mystic, was working in the Stonington building official’s office on 9/11 and vividly remembers the activity in the office that morning.

    Those working in the Town Hall’s second-floor offices gathered around a small television a custodian set up when the first hijacked airliner struck the north tower. As word spread through the building, more people came up to the second floor, where a bigger TV eventually was placed in a meeting room.

    Some were still huddled around the smaller TV when the south tower was hit, Waterhouse recalled.

    An older man, the wetlands officer, who came into Town Hall every day, was kind of quiet later that day, she said. His grandson worked in one of the towers and the wetlands officer said no one had heard from him. For days thereafter, co-workers would ask the wetlands officer if he’d heard from his grandson.

    He never did.

    Waterhouse said she watched so much of the 9/11 news coverage, she started having trouble sleeping. She said she’ll never forget what it smelled like outside Town Hall the next day.

    Smoke.

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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