When Life Stands Still: 9/11 Reflections from Several DEM Staff Members

5-sided 9-11-01 remembrance logo


Most remember where we were and what we experienced the morning of September 11, 2001. For many it is the ‘JFK moment’ of our recent memories; a moment when life seems to stop, as we all divert our attention to one profound incident of collective significance. In this em4SF blog, we commemorate the tragedy of 9/11 with several DEM staff members’ memories of that fateful morning 11 years ago. And we ask you: what did you experience on 9/11?  


Aram L. Bronston EMT-P, DEM Pre-hospital Coordinator, Emergency Medical Services

I had just woken up and was getting ready for school. I turned the television on and saw footage of the North Tower burning out of control. I figured that it was footage from an upcoming “Die Hard” movie because there was no way that what I was seeing could be the news. Just then, the second airplane slammed into the South Tower. I heard Peter Jennings curse on live television and I knew immediately that the whole world had just been thrown upside down. I went to my History class and we all sat watching the television coverage in complete shock. About 20 minutes into class, I received a call that my cousin had narrowly escaped the North Tower before it collapsed, but five minutes later I got the call that my brother had been scheduled to be on Flight 11 from Logan Airport that crashed into the North Tower. For the next two days, I believed that my brother had been killed, but by an amazing twist of fate he had given up his seat because the flight was overbooked. He had been unable to contact anyone due to phone services being overwhelmed, but was safe in Boston waiting for air services to be reinstated so he could return to his family. It was a time filled with some of the worst lows, and best highs, of my life.

Dr. John Brown, Medical Director, DEM Emergency Medical Services

I was getting ready for work at the EMS Agency on the morning of 9/11/01. I was up early as this was the date of the anniversary of my dad’s death a year earlier (9/11/00) and was planning on attending mass that I was having dedicated to him. The EMS Administrator, Michael Petrie, called me just as I stepped out of the shower and asked me if my TV was on—I said no, so he told me to turn it on and call him back. At that time the first tower had been hit and there was confusion if it was a plane crash or an explosion. Then as I watched the second tower was struck and I knew that we would be in for a long day. I called the church and had them switch the dedication of the mass to the victims, finished dressing and packed my “go bag”. I watched the first tower collapse, while simultaneously feeling overcome with grief (knowing that there were likely many people still in the first tower). I left directly for the EOC (Mike had already activated our phone tree) and met the staff there, where we queried hospital preparedness for casualties, moved all system ambulances that were not occupied with 911 calls to standby status, and worked with DEM staff on multiple issues, mainly dealing with health care resource preparation. The biggest problem we had was the decision to close the schools, which meant many parents had to leave to pick up their children, negatively affecting the hospital staffing. In all, though, I thought we had a good response—about 70 ambulances on standby, over 160 critical care beds available, and somewhere around 600 hospital beds identified for rapid availability if the need arose (all of this before noon on that day). Focus shifted to supporting SFO with all of the stranded travelers that were there with the air space closure and law enforcement/infrastructure protection activities. By that evening we moved to 12 hour shifts and the EOC remained open for several days in a “watch and wait” status. I remember being very tired, but very proud that we had a cohesive response, that we had a DEC/EOC that was “cutting edge”, that we had an inter-agency public safety communications system that worked well during the event, and that we had exercised our capabilities prior and had some plans and training to rely on.

Kristin Hogan, DEM Strategic Communications Planner

I was on a business trip in Salt Lake City, Utah and scheduled to return home to Northern Virginia the morning of September 11, 2001. I was focused on getting ready for my return trip before I turned on the television. When I did, I remember seeing the first tower in flames and as I was processing what I was seeing, saw the second plane hit. Foolishly, I thought I was still going to be leaving and was rushing to zip up my suitcase. I called my co-worker who was on the same flight home and with whom I was sharing a cab to the airport. He laughed at my naiveté and said coolly, “we aren’t going anywhere.” Then I started to think about my sister who had just moved to New York City and called her to be taunted by a busy signal; next were calls to my father, mother, brother, sister, friends, neighbors--just about anyone I could think of-- in Northern Virginia to be confused by a “all phone lines are down due to a tornado” message. My only successful call was to my grandfather in Rochester, NY, who became my out-of-state contact (before I ever knew the importance of identifying someone to call in the event of an emergency). And then the plane crashed into the Pentagon, where many friends and some family worked, including an aunt and uncle. This was the first time I experienced apocalyptic-like fear; a feeling that life as I…we… knew it was at risk.

Thankfully, I knew no one who died. I was eventually able to contact my parents who as it turned out had a panic-stricken morning because they thought I was on a United flight destined for Washington, DC. It took many days for me to be re-booked on a flight, but after an additional week in Salt Lake City, I finally returned home to a very somber, yet bonded and patriotic DC metropolitan area.

Stephen La Plante, DEM Emergency Medical Services Administrator

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was awakened by a phone call from a former employee from when I was running the Hospital Police for the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH). I immediately turned on the television to watch the coverage. After seeing the second plane rip into the second tower, I quickly prepared for work and headed straight for the DPH Operations Center (DOC) at their headquarters building.

Within the hour, 15-20 people had arrived and we began getting organized, under the leadership of a woman executive who is now the Director of Health, Barbara Garcia. It was decided that the group would be split in two so that the DOC could be staffed overnight. I was naturally selected for the Night Team. I went home ostensibly to get some sleep.

At home, all I could do was lie on the couch crying while watching CNN, which I did all day and into the night until I went back to staff the overnight shift at the DOC. The night was completely uneventful. It was a day that I will always remember as well as I remember the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Jim Turner, DEM Private Sector Liaison

On the day of September 11, 2001, I was getting ready for work and engaged in a heated discussion with my first wife when she noticed something strange on TV. We watched the whole thing unfold until the towers finally fell. We had just moved from New York to Los Angeles, so we spent the whole time considering if we knew anybody who worked in or near the towers. Even though years ago I had done some training at a firm that had been in the towers, we thankfully did not know anybody. What is more auspicious is three years later on September 11, 2004 I married my second and current wife in Topanga Canyon Park near Los Angeles. It was a beautiful day filled with the love of friends, a potluck, and fond memories. We truly feel as if we brought some much needed love to the day.

Diana Vanderburg, DEM Special Events Planner

On September 11, 2001, I was working for a helicopter company in Skagway, Alaska as a glacier guide. We awoke to the news on the TV and all flights were grounded. What was difficult was that we were in the middle of operations to take our Dog Camp off of a high ice field. Without support, supplies of food and water, they were stranded. We attempted to continue operations, but were shut down by NORAD. Alaskans were in a difficult situation as a lot of hunters and people who live in the wilderness rely on re-supply by air and those missions were shut down. At the same time, there was a plane that was circling over the nearest large airport located in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. They weren’t responding to communications and there was some panic – but it finally responded and landed as it was running out of fuel. The people on the plane had to be housed in Whitehorse and bused out. Big drama for our little neck of the world!