Local leaders reflect on events of 9/11

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 8, 2021

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MADISON HEIGHTS/HAZEL PARK — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 — the fateful day when terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The attacks killed thousands and changed the course of history, leading to protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While no one knew at the time what would come of 9/11, many remember where they were and what they were doing that day. In a series of emails, City Council members in Madison Heights and Hazel Park shared their stories, reflecting on the legacy of the day.

Alissa Sullivan (Hazel Park)
“I was working at a veterinary clinic and was pet-sitting on my day off — my alarm still went off, and I woke up to the radio talking about the first plane crashing into the Twin Towers. I remember being so confused and thinking I was hearing a radio (drama), like ‘War of the Worlds.’ I couldn’t figure out what was going on — I was caught so off guard. I spent all day calling friends and family, glued to the TV and listening to the radio. It was so overwhelming.

“In the weeks following, I organized a fundraiser at my work, where I made and sold red, white and blue ribbons, and donated all of the funds to the rescue dogs that went into the Twin Towers to try to recover any survivors. I raised over $750. I remember seeing American flags everywhere: on cars, in windows, on people’s lapels.

“I also distinctly remember the fire departments collecting money, making sure I always had cash on me so I could donate every day, and feeling …  so proud of the way our country was supporting each other, and wishing that (support) would never change.”

Robert Corbett (Madison Heights)
“I was at my office (at Century 21 Campbell Realty in Madison Heights) the morning of the attacks in 2001, working on a large marketing project, when I heard loud voices in an adjacent office.

“A few of my coworkers were watching TV coverage on the initial plane strike when the second tower was hit. We all stood in silence watching the reporters trying to make sense of an increasingly chaotic torrent of events. Little did we know then how different the world would become in the months and years to come.

“My grandchildren shake their heads and can barely envision the world of merely 20 years ago where a plane traveler could be accompanied right to the boarding gate by their family and friends, or entering a government building without being screened by security.

“Balancing the need for security and protection of our citizens against the potential loss of privacy in everyday life is an ongoing concern for all of us in government, even here at the local level. Citizen involvement and input is crucial in order to maintain and defend our freedoms.”

Emily Rohrbach (Madison Heights)
“I was living in Italy on Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, I had been there for almost two years at that point, and my parents and grandmother had just arrived the day before to visit. We spent the morning visiting the Vatican, and I had left my dad and grandmother at a pizzeria while I helped my mom retrieve a bag from the airport.

“When I arrived back at the pizzeria, all the shop owners had crowded into the small reception area of the restaurant and were shouting. Some were crying as they watched the tiny TV behind the cash register. I didn’t know what I was seeing at first, but as I stood there, I watched the second (tower) fall.

“After that, on our travels, everyone who met us or interacted with my family was so gentle. They asked, ‘Do you know what happened?’ Many would say, ‘We are all Americans — we all feel this tragedy.’ We watched from afar, but I very quickly learned that people were ready to reach out and care for strangers in a time of crisis.”

David Soltis (Madison Heights)
“I do remember that day, so vividly. At that time I was selling cars, and it was earlier in the morning when someone said that a plane crashed, so we all went to the TV and literally saw the second plane strike and explode in a fiery ball — live, right on TV. We were all dazzled with disbelief.

“My first reaction was to call my wife at the time and make sure the kids were OK in elementary school. Then we kept glued to the television, and saw such devastation as the towers crumbled. I remember images of people covered in dust and debris, walking in a daze.

“We learned that all the first-responder heroes that went into those buildings, as others were running out, perished as the towers collapsed. I still have that photo of firemen and the mound of rubble with the American flag. Even recalling the events makes me emotional. It was like nothing that had happened before, except Pearl Harbor.

“My initial instinct, like many others, was to sign up for Armed Forces duty, but I was told that I was too old. … But the courage the first responders displayed made me become a first responder myself as an EMT for numerous years. And that was my first step into a medical career.”

Mike McFall (Hazel Park)
“That day was a day of disbelief. I remember watching the news with coworkers (at Packaging Services Corp in Madison Heights, now defunct), and everyone just sat in silence. No one knew what to say, or how to react.

“We watched the heroic New York City Police and Fire Departments scrambling to help people. The sight of everyone covered in that white dust is still fresh in my mind. But everyone came together that day. Americans did what we do best, and helped where needed.”

Mark Bliss (Madison Heights)
“When Sept. 11 happened, I was in school at Lamphere High working on a creative writing project when my teacher rolled a TV cart up to us, and put on the coverage. We were all a mix of shocked, scared and angry as we watched the live coverage throughout the next couple of classes, with typical school work seeming less and less important.

“The days that followed were somber days as my family and I prayed for the families who lost loved ones, and for our military and first responders. We helped raise money to send supplies to them at Ground Zero. It was a chaotic time, and every presidential address on TV seemed to stop time.

“That time shaped me more than any other event in my lifetime. The world seemed a bit smaller, and scarier, but it showed me firsthand how strong and determined our country is. The American spirit that we’re taught in history books was there, live on display. I watched as Americans pushed past any small differences that they had, all for the common good, proving that we were and are stronger together.

“The following year, I had the opportunity to serve as a student ambassador in a group of about 30 high schoolers from all over Michigan, in a two-month trip to the UK. It was the first group that the People to People International Program sent since 9/11 happened. There we got to share our thoughts with members of the Parliament, and really just feel a bit more connected in this new, suddenly smaller world that we lived in.”

Roslyn Grafstein (Madison Heights)
“I was still living in Toronto, working on the 34th floor on Bay Street, overlooking downtown and Lake Ontario, just a short flight away from New York. The news was always on in the trading room, and some of the guys were on the phone with traders in the Towers when the lines went dead and we just watched, helpless, in shock and confused.

“We were all a bit numb, trying to make sense of everything, starting with it being a horrible navigation mistake, because who would do this intentionally. But then, it happened again, and we knew it was so much worse.

“Stock markets froze, and an hour later we were ordered to evacuate. There was a concern that any rogue planes that were still in the air could turn north, and our building would be next.

“A few weeks later when I visited Michigan, there was a somber undertone at the border crossing, with a very open display of weaponry by the guards. Friends and colleagues were worried about my safety, but I felt everyone coming together. When I went out and heard ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ people seemed to stand stronger and sing louder, as if to say, ‘We’ve got this.’

“Seeing this hesitation from Canadians, and hearing the best way to help New York was for people to visit, my cousin Jerry (Grafstein) organized ‘Canada Loves New York Day.’ In December 2001, over 25,000 Canadians visited New York. On busses, by plane, in cars and by train, Canadians descended upon the Big Apple to show New Yorkers and Americans that they were not alone. The world mourned with them.”