9/11: Ten Years Later
How the events of Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed the Philadelphia suburbs
by Bill Donahue

Somehow, a decade has passed since the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. Although the multiple attack sites have been mended and the ashes swept away, the event now known as “9/11” remains a fresh wound in the memories of many locals—from those far from the chaos who watched the events unfold on TV, to those who helped restore order in the immediate aftermath, to those who lost someone close to them in the World Trade Center in New York City, or at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., or in an unremarkable field in Shanksville, Pa. Here are their stories.


What a terrible accident.


Such a thought crossed Peter Shihadeh’s mind early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, upon hearing news of a plane—a small private plane, he guessed—striking the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Later, when he arrived at a business meeting near the corner of 12th and Locust Streets in Center City, a weeping secretary informed him that it had been a commercial airliner that crashed into the tower and, worse, a second had followed close behind, striking the North Tower’s twin.


“So I said, in an offhand way, ‘I think my sister works in that building,’” says Shihadeh, who runs the family business, Shihadeh Carpets, in Ardmore.


Like many people living in the northeast corridor of the United States or, for that matter, around the world, Shihadeh had his life upended in the aftermath of the event now known as “9/11.” Few, however, have had to endure a sense of heartache as severe or as lasting: His 54-year-old sister, Bonnie Smithwick, died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, leaving behind a husband, two children and a life cut sinfully short.


He remembers his sister, a graduate of Harriton High School in Rosemont, as vivacious and smart—a self-starter who helped establish the women’s golf team at Bucknell University, where she studied math and began creating a path toward a bright future. In weaker moments, he dwells on the many good experiences she was robbed of as a result of the terrorists’ actions.


“My overriding feeling is that I feel sorry for my sister because she’s missed so much already: both of her kids graduating from college; her youngest graduating from high school; all the normal events a family goes through—she’s missed everything,” he says. “If I had to say how does [9/11] affect my life, I would say I feel sorrow, not as much for me but a lot of sorrow for Bonnie.”


Ten years have passed since Shihadeh’s sister—and nearly 3,000 other Americans—died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite the time that has passed, the memories are still fresh in many locals’ minds: the Twin Towers smoking and then crumbling to the earth to leave Manhattan choked by a cloud of ash; the smoldering Pentagon; heartbreaking images of men and women grieving over lost or missing loved ones; the resulting invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden; the chilling anthrax scare in the weeks after the attacks, followed by the sniper attacks in and around the nation’s capital; warnings to safeguard one’s home against possible chemical attacks; the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was toppled (then captured and, later, executed) over alleged weapons of mass destruction, etc.


Nearly every major news event that has happened in the time since has had some sort of tie to 9/11. Just a few months ago, in fact, the world was once again reminded of 9/11 and its aftermath when bin Laden was killed during a raid in Pakistan.


Although Shihadeh admits having “a great satisfaction for the country” when bin Laden was finally been brought to justice, the event had special meaning because bin Laden was taken out by Navy SEALs; Shihadeh’s brother-in-law Jim, who died 20 months after his wife Bonnie’s death, had been a Navy SEAL. Any retribution, however, has been tempered by the deep regret Shihadeh feels over the tremendous loss of life.


“When I think back,” he says, “it was such a waste of so many great people.”


Lingering Effects

One didn’t need to have lost a loved one in the attacks to have suffered some prolonged trauma in the wake of 9/11. Joey Lynn Barlow of Parkesburg was a stay-at-home mom in 2001, caring for her two sons, who were 4 and 2 at the time. She had been getting ready to leave the house to go to the nail salon when she heard the news.


“My 4-year-old could barely grasp it, and he’s watching me cry,” says Barlow, who now works for a prominent Chester County nonprofit. “I went through this big moral dilemma: Do I explain this to him, and if so, to what degree? I felt like I’d be doing a disservice to him if I didn’t explain it to him, because he’d be in a classroom in a few years learning about this event. … It was the first time as a mom I had to explain to my son that there are horribly, horribly bad people in the world, so much worse than someone taking a toy from you on a play date.”


What she remembers most, besides the images on the TV screen, is the tremendous sense of vulnerability that arose and, unfortunately, has lingered.


“That day [9/11] was proof that anything could happen despite your best efforts to be secure,” she says. “My kids had not flown on a plane at that point, and it took me a long time to feel remotely comfortable enough to put them on a plane—probably not till five years ago.

“I don’t think the vulnerable feeling has ever gone away, and I don’t think it will ever go away,” she continues. “I would love to take my kids to New York, but I’m so paranoid I haven’t done it. I think the lingering effect is the feeling that we’re not exempt from [the attacks] repeating themselves.”


New York native and artist Russell Joseph Buckingham has a unique tie to the World Trade Center. He also has a chilling bond to the tragedy itself: He was supposed to be at what became known as “Ground Zero” at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, delivering a painting of the towers that was commissioned for display in the South Tower’s mezzanine. Instead, he was at his studio near Kutztown, putting the finishing touches on the painting, which took slightly longer than expected because of all the detail involved.


“I heard about it on the radio,” he says. “I did lose a few acquaintances I knew [in the attacks]. When I heard the buildings had collapsed, it was absolutely shattering, to say the least. … I loved those buildings. I went up there hundreds of times, had brought friends up there. It was an amazing way to look at the city.”


Buckingham, who has painted portraits of and for notable area residents, had done another painting of the towers as a photo opportunity for tourists; it had been displayed the South Tower mezzanine for years and was to be moved up to the observation deck. He estimates more than 1 million people had their picture taken in front of the painting before its destruction. The surviving painting, which had been on display for a time in the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, will now be featured at the Freyburger Gallery on the Penn State Berks County campus as part of the “9/11 10th Anniversary Memorial Exhibition.”


Greg LaMonaca, a family-law attorney whose practice is based in Media, learned about the attacks from an unlikely source: “shock jock” Howard Stern, whose morning radio show was based in New York City in 2001. At the time LaMonaca and his staff were in an office down the street from their current office, gathered around a little television and “watching everything happen.”


“[Stern] is as irreverent as you get, and when I heard [about the attacks] he was incredibly solemn,” says LaMonaca. “He was one of the few news sources in New York who could get out information.”


One of the practice’s attorneys had been friends with the wife of Michael Horrocks, first officer on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower on 9/11. He recalls the days after the attacks, going to vigils outside of the Horrocks’ home, which at the time had been only miles from LaMonaca’s office.


“Every single day is riddled with horrible things you see in the news, but you wanted to impress upon your kids that this was something different,” he says. “This was my generation’s version of [the John F. Kennedy assassination]. Certain dates come and go, but September 11th, it’s iconic.


“Every year you take a breath and realize how fortunate you are.”


Time to Remember

Although most people might not know it, the Philadelphia suburbs played an integral role in erecting the North and South towers of the World Trade Center. More than 150 trident-shaped steel beams used to frame the bottom floors and lobbies of the Twin Towers were forged by a Coatesville-based firm once known as Lukens Steel (now part of global steel giant ArcelorMittal of Luxembourg). When the towers came down, the only structures left standing were these fork-shaped “trees” crafted decades ago in the beating heart of Chester County.


The Graystone Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving Coatesville’s history, has acquired 10 of these structures—some of which are 40 to 50 feet tall—from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, making it the trustee of one of the largest collections of 9/11 relics outside of Manhattan. The beams, which returned to Coatesville in April 2010, will become the centerpiece of the National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum, which is currently in development.


“When the disaster occurred … it sent a shudder through us,” says Eugene DiOrio, vice president and treasurer of the Graystone Society. “The steel was born here, and the trees’ coming home doesn’t mean they’re being buried here in Coatesville. [The beams] are in storage until we can develop an appropriate memorial. They will have a new life.”


Such memorials have sprouted elsewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs, which now boast numerous sites to honor those lost in the attacks.


The Garden of Reflection 9/11 Memorial in Lower Makefield, for example, celebrates the lives of nearly 20 men and women who were born or lived in Bucks County and died in the attacks; the memorial includes steel pulled from Ground Zero, as well as side-by-side fountains in tribute to the Twin Towers. In warmer weather, it’s akin to a walk through a tranquil park, a sanctuary far removed from the bristle of everyday life.


A bronze-and-steel memorial at County Courthouse Plaza in Norristown, meanwhile, honors the 11 people with close ties to Montgomery County who died in the attacks. The dramatic sculpture, which includes a twisted shaving of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center site held aloft by two massive bronze hands, was unveiled in 2005.


‘Emotionally Wrenching’

Although everyone can claim a connection to 9/11, few are as intimate as Dr. Fredric “Rick” Hellman’s. Hellman, medical examiner for Delaware County, had come into his office the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to see people gathered around a television. He was about to ask what was going on when he saw United 175 hit the South Tower.


“As it became clearer we were under attack, I touched base with the county leadership and reached out to people I knew,” says Dr. Hellman, who had previous experience with aircraft investigations as a U.S. Army flight surgeon, among other posts. He volunteered his services to help in any way he could and was quickly thrust into action. With the crash sites in New York City and Arlington, Va., already under intense scrutiny, he was sent to Shanksville, Pa., where United 93 had crashed after passengers heroically tried to regain control of the plane from the hijackers; further investigation suggested the terrorists had likely planned to hurtle United 93 into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.


Hellman arrived in Shanksville on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001—just two weeks after his wife, Holly, had given birth to twins—to oversee forensic pathology. He stayed for nearly two weeks, spending his days handling as many as 1,000 DNA specimens from the victims of the “mass homicide,” and spending his nights in a Somerset hotel.


“It was very emotionally wrenching,” he says. “In medicine you’re taught to keep your emotions on the sidelines and just work, but it was really hard to do that. The bodies were badly fragmented, and when things came through that were recognizable, you would tear up a bit.


“It’s a strange, kind of surreal experience when you’re examining the tissue of people who gave their lives for their country,” he continues. “You realize these aren’t military personnel who know what they’re getting into. … It made me staunchly patriotic in recognizing how these ordinary people stepped up to this degree and essentially sacrificed themselves.”


He remains close with many of the 35 to 40 professionals who worked alongside him at the Shanksville site. He intends to go back for the 10-year anniversary of the attacks for a commemorative service; he expects he’ll feel “a spectrum of emotions” and believes it will be “one of those experiences I’m sure I’ll be telling my grandchildren,” he says.


For his part, Peter Shihadeh, has found peace in the years since the attacks that claimed his sister’s life. He’s sure the 10th anniversary will be “a tough period of time” to endure for everyone, and he and his family have chosen to stay away from the New York memorial site for the actual anniversary; instead, they will return in November. In the meantime, he and his family have been able to “talk and laugh about the good times” rather than focus solely on tragedy and heartache.


“My wounds have mostly healed, and it’s been very gradual,” says Shihadeh. “Our first September 11th after the attacks, in 2002, my brother-in-law Jim came down with the kids; we went to Manayunk and just hung out in restaurants. We didn’t turn on the TV. We didn’t listen to the radio.


“We were happy when September 12th came, and it’s been the same way every year since.”