Ask anyone with a memory of Sept. 11, 2001, and they can recount where they were when nearly 3,000 people were killed in a hijacking plot against America as if it were yesterday. But it wasn’t yesterday. This modern day of infamy will reach the 20th year anniversary on Sept. 11, 2021.
As we remember the lives of those who were lost on that fateful day, as well as the lives of first responders and soldiers that were lost in the aftermath of illness and war as a result of that day, Cobb Life spoke to Cobb County residents whose lives were especially touched by the Sept. 11 attacks.
A Memory Lives
Cobb County resident Marianne Burke had just returned from a weekend at the beach with her friends when news broke that airplanes had crashed into the Twin Towers. Burke, who had grown up on Long Island, knew she was going to know victims of the attacks. That morning, she was concerned for her brother-in-law, Brad Noack, who worked at the World Trade Center in New York City.
“My dad probably called sometime around 11 o’clock or so,” she said. “I had no idea my sister would be (at the World Trade Center).”
Burke’s youngest sister, Katherine “Katie” McGarry Noack, was asked by her boss the night before to attend a conference at Windows of the World on the top floor of the North Tower. That morning, she traveled to the World Trade Center with her new husband, Brad Noack. They had married just five months prior, with plans to travel to Australia, Brad Noack’s homeland, soon.
After American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., Brad Noack received a phone call from his new bride.
“She said that it was very smoky and she knew she was going to die so she had gotten someone’s cell phone… she wanted her family to know that she loved us,” Burke said.
Burke said her family had also lost a first cousin in the attacks. For a long time, her family held out hope that Katie Noack would be found among the wreckage after the towers fell. Her remains were never recovered.
“Sometimes it feels like yesterday and sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago,” she said.
Today, Burke’s middle daughter is the same age as Katie Noack was when she lost her life that day. A newlywed herself, Burke’s middle daughter wore Noack’s veil in her wedding ceremony.
“She lives on in all of us and our kids and their memory,” she said.
When asked what she will be doing on the 20th anniversary of her sister’s passing, Burke said she will attend the Field of Flags at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. The ceremony, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Marietta, will feature a flag for each life lost on 9/11.
“I wish that people wouldn’t forget the day, the time and the way the world changed,” Burke said.
Marnie Levy, a Cobb County resident of 15 years, said her brother, Ryan Levy, and a friend were visiting New York City the weekend before the attacks for Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Celebration concert at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 10, 2001.
Marnie Levy, who was working as a broadcast news reporter at a FOX affiliate in Tampa at the time, said that morning her brother went to the Lincoln Square studio to sit in the audience of the “Live! With Regis and Kelly” show.
“They were turned away because they were already full,” she said. “They had received tickets to the World Trade Center observation deck in lieu of tickets to the show.”
Ryan Levy traveled 110 floors to the rooftop observation deck on the South Tower.
“My brother isn’t good with heights to begin with,” Marnie Levy said.
Clouds and fog fuzzed the details of the New York skyline that morning, but observers could look out and still see the sprawl of lower Manhattan.
Ryan Levy peered over the edge, 1,362-feet from the ground. He pulled coins from his pocket and slipped them into the penny press. He squeezed out a flat penny with the New York Yankees’ emblem and put the memento in his pocket for good luck. Ryan Levy’s friend offered to use the last picture in the roll of a disposable camera to take a snapshot of him, his back against the white railing. It would be the last picture they would take that day.
The time stamp on Ryan Levy’s ticket to the observation deck reads: “09/10/01 09:30.”
Twenty-three hours and 33 minutes later, five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into floors 77 through 85 on the southern façade of the tower. Less than an hour after that, the South Tower would crumble into dust, ash and smoke with an unknown number of souls lost in the rubble. It would take just 10 seconds to fall.
“Basically in a nutshell, 24 hours saved my brother’s life,” Marnie Levy said. “He very well could have been on top of one of those two towers at the point of impact.”
Ryan Levy was supposed to be on a flight home to Florida on the morning of Sept. 11. But the day’s events grounded more than 4,500 commercial and general aviation flights.
“We had no way of getting in touch with him and whether or not he was on those planes,” Marnie Levy said. “At that point, it wasn’t identified which planes were going where. They just knew at the time two planes struck the towers and they were commercial airliners.”
Marnie Levy and her family were a nervous wreck until they realized none of the planes hijacked that day were scheduled flights to Florida. Phone lines were jammed and it would take Ryan Levy five days to get out of the city on a 27-hour Greyhound Bus ride, but his family knew he was safe. Before he left, Marnie Levy said he reached as close to Ground Zero as he could to deliver socks and Gatorade to rescue crews.
“Obviously it was a scary time, but the picture just tells a thousand stories,” Marnie Levy said. “He was probably one of the last groups of people to have that experience of going up on that observation deck and with that one last photo in the camera roll he had shot, it was quite incredible.”
After the towers fell, the family felt a new appreciation of life and gratitude, knowing that a day can change everything. Just one month prior, on Aug. 12, 2001, Marnie and Ryan Levy lost their father.
“Twenty-four hours later, people are here and then they’re not,” she said. “It’s just right place, right time… It’s hard to believe 20 years, to be honest.”
A New Yorker at Heart
Former Georgia Postsecondary Education Commission Chairman Arthur Vaughn has lived in Marietta since 1995, but two years prior to his migration to the South, the New York City native was working as a bond underwriter for Dean Witter on the 16th floor of the South Tower. He grew up in a small place in Brooklyn called Roosevelt.
On February 26, 1993, Vaughn was at work with more than 40,000 people in the Twin Towers when a group of terrorists drove a bomb-laden van into the public parking garage below the World Trade Center Complex. The 1,200-pound bomb exploded, creating a crater 150-foot wide and several stories deep under the North Tower. Those on the top floors of the towers and surrounding buildings felt the force of the explosion that killed six people.
“It was scary,” Vaughn said. “The entire building shook and there was smoke coming up through the building, you’d smell like a fire burning.”
People began running down the stairways, afraid but unaware of what was happening, Vaughn said. As they descended lower through the stairwells, the smoke became thicker and the burning smell grew stronger.
“You didn’t realize what was going on until you got out of the building,” he said. “Imagine that uneasiness of not knowing what’s going on but know something bad is going on… The lower you get, the more excited people are, and excited in a bad way.”
Years later, Vaughn recalled any time the words “bomb” or “fire” were mentioned, colleagues would pack up their items and leave at the slightest incident or possibility of a threat for fear of another tragic incident.
“The emotion attached to it was just really frightening,” he said. “The first one, we didn’t know what it was. You could see smoke, so you assumed fire, but the word ‘bomb’ didn’t go through your mind at that time. When you started getting to the lower floors and people started saying it was a bomb… It hit you that you could have died that day.”
Vaughn left the South Tower with his life that day, and two years later he would make his way to Atlanta to pursue a PhD. But his story doesn’t end there.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Vaughn was in a meeting in Atlanta when news broke that a plane hit the North Tower. At first, Vaughn, who had not seen any news coverage of the event, assumed the plane must have been a small charter flight with one or two passengers – an accident. The meeting ended when news broke that a second plane hit the South Tower. After hearing that a plane had hit the Pentagon, Vaughn said he realized America was under attack.
“You just get scared and angry, in disbelief,” he said. “A lot of emotions overcome you at one time.”
Through the shock and confusion, Vaughn tried to reach his family in New York City, including his oldest daughter, whose elementary school sat just five blocks from the World Trade Center.
“The landlines aren’t working, the cell phones aren’t working, there’s just no way to communicate,” he said.
After picking up his middle daughter from preschool in Atlanta, Vaughn sat down with his daughter and went numb, unable to reach his aunts, his uncles, his 5-year-old daughter and others in New York City.
“You couldn’t reach any family members and figure out who was alive and who wasn’t,” he said. “But you obviously knew people were going to die.”
Vaughn lost an unknown number of friends, colleagues and schoolmates that day. One of his closest friends growing up, Jeffrey Dingle, a married father of two, died in the World Trade Center. He was only a year older than Vaughn.
“When we get old, people pass but you don’t expect someone your age to die,” he said. “We were in disbelief and shock.”
In 2019, Vaughn traveled to New York City and visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. At first, he couldn’t remember where the towers stood, until he realized he was standing on them.
His hand rested over the name he sought to find among the 2,983 inscribed on the bronze parapets on the memorial pools: Jeffrey Dingle. On the twentieth anniversary, Vaughn said he will attend the Field of Flags at Kennesaw Mountain to reflect and later join the 100 Black Men of North Metro Atlanta for COVID Vaccination Day for community service.
“I think that we can always reflect on how privileged we are and fortunate we are to live in America,” he said. “Being the imperfect country that we are, there’s no other place I’d rather live.”