Dec. 7, 1941.
Nov. 22, 1963.
Sept. 11, 2001.
Each of these infamous dates in American history began as ordinary days that turned suddenly surreal, seared into our collective memories by heinous and unthinkable events.
Anyone alive on those dates remembers exactly where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and when terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon — their last thwarted effort crashing into a Pennsylvania farmer’s field.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, dawned mild and sunny in the Valley. The weather was starting to cool a bit from summer’s heat. People headed for work, school and errands.
Rushing to a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting, school district administrator Dan Kaiser skipped the morning news shows he usually watched. He didn’t know about the attacks until he arrived at a meeting.
Heaton Elementary Principal Carla Hartunian heard the first news bulletins as she was getting ready for the school day.
Father Arshen Aivazian and cotton merchant Roger Glaspey of Fresno both heard the news on their car radios.
When Aivazian arrived at St. Paul Armenian Apostolic Church, he asked the custodian to bring a television into his office. He says now that watching the horrible events unfold, “I couldn’t stop crying.”
Glaspey, then president of Dunavant of California, an international cotton merchant, says his first thought about the impact on crop markets quickly melted away. “Normal things ceased to be the concerns of the day. It was startling, hard to process.”
Dunavant had an office in another building in the World Trade Center complex that was dominated by the 110-story Twin Towers. Glaspey was relieved to learn from the company’s Memphis headquarters that their New York employees were safe.
Hartunian arrived at Heaton before school started and joined teachers gathered around a television in the library.
“My first concern was if teachers could carry on and teach that day. They all could,” said Hartunian, who stopped in each teacher’s room later that morning to see how they were coping.
During recesses and at lunch, teachers stopped by the library to watch news updates, but classroom televisions were turned off. “We were protecting the children,” Hartunian said.
After school, Hartunian and Heaton’s 30 teachers gathered in the library to talk about how to field questions the next day.
“I think only my fifth- and sixth-graders knew what was going on,” Hartunian said. “I know a lot of kids were in shock and surprised that something like that would happen in our country.”
Kaiser, then a Clovis Unified School District administrator, learned about the attacks when he walked into the district office where others were gathered to hear then-superintendent Walter Buster deliver the annual “state-of-the-district” speech.
“People were kind of transfixed, in shock,” he said. “It was sobering. You couldn’t do anything or understand why someone would do that.”
The disbelief, grief and fear people were feeling reminded Kaiser of Nov. 22, 1963.
“It was just like when Kennedy was killed,” said Kaiser, a junior at Fresno High School then. “We had to try to get through the school day the best we could.”
Life put on hold
As the day wore on amid fears of more attacks, there was little that was normal.
Airports across the U.S., including Fresno Yosemite International Airport, were closed for security reasons.
The California Air National Guard’s 144th fighter wing, based at the Fresno airport, was placed on alert. So were local law-enforcement and emergency workers.
Government buildings throughout the Valley closed. Fresno City Hall remained open, but the flag was lowered to half staff — as it was many places — and employees were allowed to go home if they wished.
Employees in the Golden State Plaza, the former Del Webb building that houses many county offices, were evacuated after a bomb threat. Officials believed the threat was a hoax, but didn’t want to take a chance.
Many businesses also closed as the morning wore on. The former Gottschalks department store chain, based in Fresno, closed all of its 75 stores.
Valley schools canceled back-to-school nights and evening sporting events.
Throughout the week, professional, college and high school sports continued to be canceled as a nation mourned.
Reaching out to help
Our response to the attacks was both emotional and practical.
People of all faiths filled services and vigils that began at several local churches within a few hours of the attacks, to pray, cry and hold on to each other.
Even people who didn’t attend church regularly said they felt compelled to come, to share their grief with others. Services continued through the evening.
Driven by a need to do something — anything — to help, almost 2,000 Valley residents waited for hours to donate blood at Central California Blood Centers.
Donors broke a one-day record of 1,200 pints — one pint per person — on Sept. 11. The next day, 771 more pints were given.
By Tuesday afternoon, a disaster-action team from the local chapter of the American Red Cross was preparing to go to New York City to help. Team members were trained in first aid, damage assessment, mass care and driving relief vehicles.
Local hospitals tallied supplies and surveyed patients to see who could be sent home to free up beds in the event of more terrorist attacks on the West Coast.
There were no more attacks and in the weeks and months that followed, the grim task of recovering and identifying the dead and deconstructing the World Trade Center and repairing the Pentagon held our attention.
Hard lessons, new realities
In the decade since, the terrorist attacks have reverberated through many strands of life as we knew it in America.
“A new form of evil entered the world. It changed all our lives,” said Glaspey, now director of Western operations for Allenberg Cotton Co., which bought out Dunavant. “We have a loss of personal freedom. Look what you have to do to go into an airport.”
Now retired, Kaiser said the terrorist attacks reinforced “the urgency and frailty of our lives. And I consider safety much more than before.”
“To realize there was so much hatred” against Americans, “that kind of rocked you,” Kaiser said.
For Aivazian, who was born in Beirut, Lebanon, the attacks brought another type of sadness.
“I had childhood friends who were Muslims and Christians. Now when people hear ‘Muslim’ they immediately envision a terrorist,” he said. “But judging a whole religion by the wrong actions of a few is wrong.”
For the first anniversary of 9/11, Heaton students invited a firefighter and a police officer from the neighborhood — the school is across McKinley Avenue from Fresno City College — to plant a white crepe myrtle tree in remembrance.
Hartunian, who retired in June, says she wanted Heaton students to learn the legacy of 9/11. “They should understand there are people who love our country that lost their lives. It’s worth remembering.”