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Minnesota's September 11
By Elizabeth Stawicki
Minnesota Public Radio
September 9, 2002


The effects of the Sept. 11 terror attacks rippled throughout the United States. But the attacks cast an especially long shadow over Minnesota, and in some unexpected ways.

Manny Velivasakis of Manhattan-based LZATechnology was on a flight from New York that landed in Minneapolis on Sept. 11. His firm was central to managing the safety at the World Trade Center site and surrounding buildings after the collapse. A year later, he talked with MPR's Elizabeth Stawicki. (Listen)
(MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)

Early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 immediately after Minnesota Public Radio carried a story about the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, news broke that one of the World Trade Center towers was on fire.

MPR's Perry Finelli made the announcement. "We have breaking news. Apparently a plane has crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers..."

MPR reached Minnesotan Melissa Creighton on her cell phone. She witnessed the events unfolding in Manhattan.

"Melissa Creighton can you hear me?" asked Finelli.

"Yes I can hear you," Creighton answers.

"You're in New York City this morning?

"Yep, I was just on my way to work."

"OK. What are you seeing?"

"I was walking down the street in the West Village on 14th Street and just down Hudson. There was a group of people everybody staring in one direction. So I looked and the World Trade Center is right there smoking and burning. One plane had already crashed into it and I stood and watched with another group of people as the second huge explosion, the fire which was the second plane, hit the second building," said Creighton.

Not long after, the FAA cleared the nation's airspace by ordering jets to land at their nearest airports.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, passengers stepping off a flight from New York looked stunned.

"We don't know what's happening," said one unidentified man.

As Manny Velivasekis deplaned, images on the airport TV monitors caught his attention. Black smoke enveloped the World Trade Center towers, where he had worked as an engineer.

"I have dozens and dozens of friends who work in the world trade center, at the port authority all of my friends the engineers there. I'm incredibly worried and concerned that they didn't make it," Velivasakis said.

A little less than an hour after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center tower, Gov. Jesse Ventura spoke in downtown Minneapolis.

"I wish we could be here under better circumstances than the news we got. How many people know anything?" Ventura asked.

Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton urged citizens to stay calm.

"Right now we have no information that the city of Minneapolis is under any kind of direct threat. We are however at a full alert preparedness state," Sayles Belton said.

The Mall of America in Bloomington, the IDS tower in Minneapolis, St. Paul's World Trade Center and other businesses shut down. Workers poured out of Twin Cities office buildings and reacted to the attacks with the same shock, anger and sorrow that swept the nation.

"I started to shake I got really scared. I just can't get over what's happening," said woman who identified herself as Barbara.

Richard Tweeden was heading home to be with his family. He told a reporter he was physically sickened by the attacks. He'd had enough of the dramatic television coverage which held the attention of so many for so much of the day.

"There's kind of tingling in my body and a pit in my stomach. I want to get home and see if I can get my children and just kind of huddle up. I don't want to watch television right now I'll tell you that. I don't need anymore trauma right now," Tweeden said.

Shaun Miller of Minneapolis was one of the few Minnesotans who voiced even a small amount of empathy for the motives of the attackers. "I just think we get what's coming to us. I have a lot of negative things towards the government. It just shows that we're not as powerful as we think," he said.

Minnesotans learned in the next days that the terrorist attacks had killed at least two of their own. Blake School graduate Gordon Aamoth, Jr. called his home in Wayzata from the World Trade Center's north tower to say he was OK. Aamoth, an investment banker, worked on the 104th floor of the south tower and was never heard from again.

Tom Burnett called his wife from United flight 93 to tell her that he and other passengers were going to "do something" to thwart a hijacker's attempt to crash the plane at a Washington D.C. target. Tom Burnett died along with the 45 other passengers after their plane crashed in western Pennsylvania.

At a memorial service for Burnett, family and friends like Keith Grossman talked about Burnett's courage.

"What I do know is that United Flight number 93 was the only element of a terrorist attack that failed at its evil and destructive goal. Now I don't know what happened in those dark moments high up in Pennsylvania, but I think I know enough. And I don't doubt for a moment that Tom was not only involved but he helped lead that effort," Grossman said.

Manhattan structural engineer Manny Vilevasakis, whose plane had been diverted to Minneapolis from Vancouver, caught one of the last flights out of Minneapolis to Baltimore. He drove straight to the World Trade Center site. His firm would later be placed in charge of maintaining the safety at the site.

"The amount of dust, the amount of debris, everywhere. The smoke, fires, number of people a lot of them being disoriented running up and down and the amount of rescue workers at the site made it the most unsafe site I have ever seen," Velivasakis said in a recent interview.

Minnesotans could take cold comfort that the attacks had occurred 1000 miles away. It would be days before they would learn that the Sherburne County jail was holding Zacarias Moussaoui, a man who had links to Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network.

Only weeks before the attack, Moussaoui had enrolled at Pan American International Flight Academy in Eagan. The school's Vice President Marilyn Ladner says staff grew suspicious when Moussaoui paid for the $7000 course in cash and enrolled in a class far beyond his spotty aviation training.

"Those professionals at the center very quickly talked about his name came up in conversation and they discussed the fact that they didn't think he should be there," Ladner said. "And it went far enough in their concern that maybe we should notify somebody."

The school alerted the Minneapolis FBI and police arrested Moussaoui on immigration violations. Special Agent Coleen Rowley and other staff began investigating Moussaoui. Soon, the French Intelligence Service confirmed Moussaoui was linked to bin Laden. The Minneapolis office repeatedly sought warrants to search Moussaoui's computer. But the FBI headquarters in Washington denied their requests.

On Sept. 11th, Pan Am's Marilyn Ladner says members of the Eagan flight school suddenly realized that their actions in August may have been more on target than they ever imagined.

"Here they are like the rest of the nation, watching these buildings collapse and knowing people are dying and of course the mind starts thinking of all the things that could've happened or didn't happen perhaps because of our intervention and it just knocks you to your knees," she said.

One of the state's largest employers was knocked to its knees financially in the aftermath of the attacks. Northwest Airlines and the rest of the airline industry were already suffering a drop off in business travel due to a slowing economy in the fall of 2001.

Ten days after the attack, Northwest CEO Richard Anderson discussed the airline's future at a news conference.

"The events of Sept. 11th fundamentally changed our business and I believe significantly impacted the way we live our lives in the United States," Anderson said. "It's always difficult, and next to watching the horrific events of Sept. 11th on television, the next most difficult thing for all of us at Northwest is the impact it has on the people's lives at Northwest."

Northwest layed off 10,000; about half were from Minnesota.

The flight school that first alerted the FBI to Moussaoui also took a hit. It laid off 20% of its workforce nationwide, including at the Eagan school. Pan Am International Flight Academy Vice President Marilyn Ladner said as the airlines cut back after the attacks, they also reduced their use of flight training schools.

"We've certainly layed off and closed centers and will make it, but it's hard; it's very hard right now," she said.

In the days following the strike, New Yorkers, celebrities and the just plain curious flocked to the spot that became known as "Ground Zero" including Governor Jesse Ventura.

"You realize that it is reality now," Ventura said. "It's standing out there amongst it and you look up and they're just gone; they're gone."

Ventura's visit was controversial because he left Minnesota while 23,000 state workers were on strike. He said he took offense that reporters would question why he made the trip. But construction workers like New York pipefitter Ron Sellers said he appreciated Ventura's visit.

"You can't just have a television image of what it is. You have to have people in power come in and see it first hand....what the destruction was done; how many lives were lost. You see the tear in somebody's eye. When you see that tear then you'll have a tear. And when Ventura comes down and sees it, he can convey that to the people. His constituents will see. He can paint the picture for them."

Back in Minnesota, investigators started looking for links to Osama Bin Laden's network. They focused their attention on recent immigrants from Africa and other countries.

Treasury Department investigators suspected terrorists were skimming money off the $500,000,000 dollars Somali immigrants in Minneapolis and other U.S. cities sent to their relatives in refugee camps. The government shut down the Somali wire services known as hawalas. At a Minneapolis rally, Abdi Hersy said the networks reach places Western Union can't.

"We are asking the United States government if they mean all the hawala is to be shut down? It's a matter of life and death, and there isn't any other provider except the hawalas," Hersy said.

Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols was quick to say the immigrants themselves were not under suspicion.

"We realize that these Somali immigrants that were using these global terrorist financing networks were not at all aware that they were being duped," said Nichols. "The immigrants, in our view, are completely innocent. They are not a target of the investigation. These are folks who are not going to be questioned with regard to their use of this hawala."

The U.S. department of Justice has since removed two of the wire services from its terrorism list. It's filed no terrorism related charges against any of the businesses it closed.

Somalis in Minneapolis were on alert again when the FBI began interviewing immigrant men in the Twin Cities as part of a nationwide probe into the Sept. 11 attacks. The government interviewed recent immigrants from countries the U.S. suspected had links to terrorism. They included Minnesota's Somali community, one of the largest in the nation. It includes many young and recent immigrants.

Officers questioned men between 18 and 33 who'd been in the U.S. since January of 2000. It became part of a federal effort to interview 5,000 recent immigrants from countries the U.S. suspects of links to terrorism. Somali leaders viewed the interviews as a sign of troubling changes in their adopted country's legal system.

Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Communities in Minnesota, was worried the interviews would frighten many Somalis.

"In Somalia there was a dictatorship for 20 years, and if the police knocked on your door, you were in real trouble. It's not like, 'come here and talk to us voluntarily,'" he said. "So I'm really sure that people will be worried if they were called by the police or the FBI for an interview."

Somali leaders said they assured law enforcement authorities that the community was willing to cooperate with the terrorism investigation. They urged anyone with information that may be helpful to come forward. But Osman Sahardeed, assistant director of the Somali Community Minnesota said investigators should use solid leads, not throw a net over an entire community.

"What we do not agree with is simply to have a net-casting of people, simply because of their religion, simply because of their ethnic background, or simply because of their country of origin. That is not the American way," he said.

U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger said he respected and understood the community's concerns. He says for that reason he'd held a series of meetings with leaders of the Somali and Muslim communities.

Heffelfinger said he simply wanted members of the Somali community to keep their promises to cooperate with law enforcement. He said that since they are not suspects, those being interviewed are not being advised of their right to have a lawyer present. However, they are being told they don't have to answer questions.

"We are attempting to approach not only the Somali people, but all people that we will be interviewing with respect, with courtesy, and with recognition that these are voluntary. And we're asking for no greater or lesser cooperation from this group of people than we would ask from any person living in the United States and taking advantage of the freedoms and liberties of this country," Heffelfinger said.

Sahardeed still worries that the country is changing in ways he hasn't seen in his 20 years in the United States. He warned that there's more at stake than what happened short term.

"This will pass us by. Sooner or later this will be over. What will always stay with us in the U.S. is really the pillars that this country was founded on. What the forefathers of this country have done is really unique around the world. And for that to be just to be trampled in seconds, no matter how big the tragedy, is tragic itself," said Sahardeed.

Heffelfinger says the FBI ultimately interviewed 65 people in Minnesota. He wouldn't say whether those interviews yielded any substantial information related to the September 11th attacks.

Months later, the FBI itself came under intense scrutiny based largely on a letter sent from the Minneapolis office of the FBI.

FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke of the letter and its author.

"Let me take a moment to thank agent Rowley for her letter. It is critically important that I hear criticisms of the organization including criticisms of me in order to improve the organization and improve the FBI," said Mueller.

Minneapolis special agent Coleen Rowley was so concerned that the FBI did not heed her and other agent's warnings before the Sept. 11 attacks, she wrote a highly critical letter to FBI Director Mueller. In the letter Rowley said FBI headquarters skewed the facts and circled the wagons to protect the FBI from embarassment.

Rowley, who lives in Apple Valley, was called to testify before Congress. Rowley told a congressional committee that hundreds of other FBI agents telephoned and emailed her after her letter became public. She said a common theme emerged: The FBI was so thick with bureaucracy and micromanaging that intelligence gathered at the grass roots level often never made it to the agency's top echelon.

"Other agents told me similar stories about cases that had maybe unjustifiably not gotten anywhere. I have a whole stack of those. The main thing, a strong consensus, is that we need to streamline the FBI's bureaucracy in order to effectively combat terrorism," Rowley said.

Rowley's letter and testimony set off a major reorganization at the FBI. She still works at the FBI in Minneapolis but sought protection under the federal whistleblower act.

If there was one moment that may have symbolized the connection Minnesotans felt to the horrors of September 11th, it was a service at the State Capitol mall on the Sunday following the attacks. Tens of thousands stood in a light, but steady rain listening to speeches.

Erik Aamoth spoke about his brother Gordy who perished in the World Trade Center attacks.

"Normally we think of heroes as the ones represented here. But I think Gordy and the other victims of the attack are also heroes. Because they gave up their lives pursuing their dreams: working, striving, achieving and exercizing the freedoms that define democracy," Aamoth said.

Tuesday afternoon, the Blake School will dedicate its new stadium in honor of Gordon Aamoth and the others who died on Sept. 11.

More from MPR
  • Audio: Marilyn Ladner, Vice President at Pan American International Flight Schools. Pan Am's branch in Eagan was the school that alerted the FBI to the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui. She says Moussaoui contacted the school's sales department by email.