On September 11, 2001, Brookfield High School (BHS) graduate Kristan Exner was working as a paralegal on the 52nd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center when a plane struck the building at 8:45 a.m. some 30 floors above her. On the 10th anniversary last year, “It still feels like yesterday,” she said.
Exner along with two other Brookfield residents, who were not as fortunate, were among the first victims that day, as the single most significant and violent attack on U.S. soil rocked the nation.
Now 11 years later, that day is still ingrained in all of us.
When the first plane crashed, “The whole building shook” and there was a muffled sound above, “not something you would immediately associate with anything,” Exner recalled, stating that it felt like “standing on a boat and that one big wave hits the side; and the whole building began to sway,” but no one knew what was really happening.
Exner and her fellow office workers were able to find the exit and were two blocks away before the first tower collapsed an hour later.
Not 50 floors above Exner, Brookfield resident Judith Hofmiller, 53 in 2001, worked as a senior software consultant for risk management firm Marsh and McLennan. The company occupied the 93rd through 100th floors of Tower 1, dead center of the initial impact.
BHS grad Christopher Orgielewicz, then 35, lived in Larchmont, NY, with his wife and three children, working as a research analyst on 102nd floor of the south tower, just eight floors from the top, when the second plane crashed between the 77th and 85th floors.
The attacks also took the lives of two others with Brookfield connections: 35-year-old New York firefighter Sean Hanley, who would frequently visit his brother Bryan and his family in Brookfield; and 31-year-old Paul Fiori, who left behind his wife, former Brookfield resident Lynda (Scarcella), and two young children.
For a time, Exner said she visited New York annually on September 11, stopping by Ground Zero for the remembrance ceremony and visiting with military and fire department friends. Now, with a newborn daughter at home, Exner said she prefers spending “a quiet day at home.”
The haunting memory of that day is “always going to be just as painful,” she said, but asserted she was “not going to allow them to take away my joy.”
“Now, with my daughter growing up, I want her to be fearless,” she said. “You can’t live your life constantly in fear of some terrorist coming to kill you.”
The news that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed on Sunday, May 1, came as a shock to many who had let him slip from their minds during the near 10-year search. For those who, like Exner, were in New York City on September 11, 2001, the news hit much closer to home.
“I was able to wake up this morning for the first time in a decade and feel safer,” Exner said the day after the news. “The things I saw that day… I’m always going to remember.
Exner said she watched the news that Sunday night with her husband and daughter and could clearly remember the events of that day.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” she said. “I don’t mean to be a dramatic person or wish death on anyone, but I’m glad.”
As she watched President Obama address the nation Sunday night with her family, she thought, “I almost didn’t have that in my life — my daughter and my husband — because of that man.”
Brookfielders Bill Tinsley and Matt Grimes rode into the city together on the train that morning, Tinsley off to his consulting practice on Broadway and 50th and Grimes to his job with AIG on Water Street, five blocks from the World Trade Center.
Grimes remembered leaving the office around quarter-to-nine to try a new coffee place that had opened in the company’s main building and seeing paper floating through the air and covering the streets. Then he realized the paper was burning.
“I looked up and the Trade Center was on fire,” he said.
Grimes ran back to the office to find out what had happened. Out the window, he and his co-workers could see people throwing computers and desks from the towers. One employee had a pair of binoculars and a closer look showed that “it was not computers and desks coming out of the Trade Center,” Grimes recalled.
As they looked on in horror, the second plane struck the south tower.
“We could feel the heat of the explosion through the glass,” Grimes said. “With the first plane, there was never a thought but it was an accident. With the second, there was never a thought but terrorism.”
The death of bin Laden is “hugely important to those of us who were there,” Grimes said the day after hearing the news. “That man is so squarely responsible for bringing Hell to Earth that day.”
While the news is important to Grimes, he also noted that nothing could truly assuage the grief wrought by that tragic day.
“Does it bring closure? No, but it brings some justice,” he said. “Is the world a better and a safer place? Yes. Will it every truly be safe, probably not.”
“It was an important day for all of us there,” Tinsley said of being in New York on September 11. “It really rattled us to the core.”
Tinsley was awoken to the news that night by a call from his son, Pfc. Patrick Tinsley, who had recently completed a tour in Afghanistan and was preparing to redeploy once more.
“It’s a very exciting time for everyone in the military — it’s like getting the head of the snake,” Bill Tinsley said, however, for Patrick and the other soldiers on duty, the fight continues.
“By no stretch of the imagination does [Patrick] think it’s over,” Tinsley said.
While bin Laden was the head of the terrorist group known as al Qaeda, the influence of his and others’ doctrines is still strong in areas of the world.
“We want to keep them on the run over there and not here on our streets,” Tinsley said, asserting that this is his son’s belief as well and the reason he continues to fight.