Originally, I wasn’t going to do a 9/11 post. A lot of folks are and I’m sure all of us that were alive on that day carry the memories – and the scars both physical and non-physical – fresh in our minds today.
One year after the attacks that changed us all, I was working at the Merced Sun-Star as a sports writer and our editor wanted a story to run in our section with a local connection to the event of the year before. I knew of one local athlete who was in NYC that day, Brent Danieli of Chowchilla, who was attending Columbia and playing football for the Lions. I reached out to him and his family and they shared with me what they went though on 9/11/2001.
Even though a full year had passed, everyone’s emotions were on high as we approached the first anniversary of the attacks. My Sports Editor read the story and was nearly in tears as this family’s account brought back his own memories of the year before. Our managing editor came up to me the evening the story ran and said he wished we’d have let him know we were running it, because they would have run it on the front page of the newspaper. I will post it here for you to read, just as it ran in the Merced Sun-Star on Sept. 11, 2002.
Whenever I reflect on 9/11, this is the first story that comes to mind. A story of one family, thousands of miles away, who did not know the fate of two loved ones for several agonizing hours. And how close one of them came to being on one of those doomed flights that terrible day:
Chowchilla family recalls brush with Sept. 11 tragedy
Published September 10, 2002 – Merced Sun-Star / Section: Sports
By Richard Paolinelli
It was 8:44 in the morning in New York City and former Chowchilla High School football standout Brent Danieli was making his way back to his dorm room at Columbia University following a morning football meeting.
Three hundred miles down the Atlantic coastline, Danieli’s mother Carolyn had boarded an aircraft less than an hour earlier and had taken off from Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Her flight was heading west for San Francisco, bringing her home after visiting her son and a quick sightseeing trip to the nation’s capital with her friends.
Three thousand miles to the west, Brent’s father, Randy, was already at work before the sun could rise over the Central Valley. The elder Danieli was milking the cows on his dairy as he does every day. It was, for the most part, a routine September morning.
It was September 11, 2001.
One minute later there was no longer anything routine about their lives, or anyone else’s life for that matter.
By the time Brent Danieli completed his walk back to his room, the World Trade Center had been struck by two jetliners, another plane was striking the Pentagon a few miles from where Carolyn Danieli’s plane had just taken off and a fourth plane — United Airlines Flight 93 — came crashing down in Pennsylvania.
But while the campus lies on the same island as the towers, it is situated some 60 city blocks to the north of the complex, and Danieli would not become aware of the unfolding tragedy until his roommate greeted him in the dorm.
“I walked into the room,” Danieli recalled. “My roommate told me that the WTC had been hit by a plane. My immediate reaction was ‘The WTC down the street?'”
Danieli and his roommate watched the drama on their television and eventually went outside and saw the smoke and dust churning up as the two towers collapsed a few hours later.
As the day wore on, several members of Danieli’s family were trying to get in touch with him. Although they knew it was unlikely that he would be anywhere near the towers, they still wanted to know for sure.
At the same time, Danieli was trying to reach home, trying to let the family know that he was okay. He was also trying to find out where his mother was.
“She was almost on one of those flights,” Danieli said.
Had Carolyn Danieli not changed her original travel plans and returned to the D.C. area before flying home, she would have taken off from Newark International Airport on Flight 93. She came that close to being one of the hundreds of innocent passengers to perish in the attacks.
But while she escaped that deadly fate, she was still very much caught up in the aftermath of that morning’s events.
In the minutes following the New York attacks, the pilot of Carolyn Danieli’s plane informed the passengers that something had happened without going into full details.
“The pilot came on and said there had been two acts of terrorism against this country,” Carolyn Danieli recalled. “He said there was a threat to all aircraft, including this one, and that he had been instructed to land immediately.”
That was all the passengers were told, but one passenger made a cell phone call and in the hush that followed the captain’s announcement, Danieli heard him mention planes and towers.
“We all thought it was a bomb, that’s what terrorists do, they bomb things,” she said. “We couldn’t think of planes being crashed into buildings.”
Within 20 minutes of the pilot’s announcement Danieli’s flight landed in Lincoln, Nebraska as the entire air traffic system was shut down while authorities tried to find out how many planes were involved in the attack.
“When we got into the terminal all of the monitors that showed arriving and departing flights were blank,” Danieli said. “The entire terminal was deserted.”
It wasn’t until a few minutes after exiting the plane that the passengers found a television showing the events unfolding in New York and Washington, D.C. and the harsh reality finally hit home.
“We just couldn’t wrap our minds around what was happening,” she said.
Adding to the sense of disbelief was the fact that just a few nights before, Danieli and her friends had dinner with Vice President Cheney at a small gathering, had a picture taken with the Vice President and had toured the Pentagon during the trip as well.
Had it not been suggested by the father of Danieli’s friend to fly out of Baltimore instead of Newark, Carolyn Danieli would have been on the flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers battled with the hijackers for control of the plane.
Even as the horror of the day’s events unfolded, Danieli found herself facing an even more terrifying thought.
Her son’s school was over 60 blocks away from the towers, but he was known to roam all over the island on school and personal business. Brent carries a cell phone with a 559 area code number, but in the chaotic aftermath of the attacks very few phone calls were getting in or out of the island.
“The worst thing (about that day for me) was that I could not get a hold of Brent,” Carolyn Danieli said. “All the circuits were busy. Columbia is a ways from the towers but he travels around the city a lot. You never know when he might be down there.”
Randy Danieli — who didn’t hear about the attacks until five hours after the first plane hit — was also trying to reach his son later that afternoon. Despite the delay in hearing the news, he at least had the comfort of knowing that a few minutes after the attacks, a cousin of Brent’s had spoken to him. He knew his son was alive and well at the time, but then communications were cut off.
It wouldn’t be until Dustin Medeiros — a friend of Brent’s who is a cadet at West Point Academy — got an e-mail through to Brent at Columbia later that day that all three members of the family knew that each of them was safe and sound. They would have to wait until the following day before they could finally speak to each other over the phone.
A year later
In the year that has passed, the harrowing hours of that day have faded but have never completely disappeared from their thoughts.
Brent has continued his studies at Columbia and is a starting wide receiver for the Lions’ football team, despite coming off an injury plagued 2001 season.
“The city is definitely not the same,” Brent Danieli said. “We go out to the top of our dorm and look at the skyline. It’s still kind of weird not seeing the towers.”
But there has been a positive impact on the city he now calls home.
“It seems like everyone is more concerned with everyone else,” Danieli said. “People are reaching out and doing a lot of other little things.”
Despite her close call, Carolyn Danieli continues to travel by air. Last October — less than eight weeks after the attacks — she got back on a flight to New York to watch her son play in a game.
“Life goes on,” Carolyn Danieli said. “You just can’t have a siege mentality. I’m not going to tell you that I wasn’t nervous, or that I’m not worried about him, but he’s made it through it and he loves it there.”
She plans on flying back to New York later this year to watch her son play once again.
“We’ve already started making plans,” Carolyn Danieli said.
Randy Danieli also worries about his son living in the city.
“I think about it a lot as the anniversary draws near,” Randy Danieli said. “I’m always concerned about him being there, but you can’t bring him home and lock him in his room.”