HAWTHORN – Like many Americans, Heather Walters, of Limestone, can remember exactly where she was when she first heard the news of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a senior in Mr. Ed Wasilowski’s economics class,” said Walters, a 2002 graduate of Redbank Valley High School, noting that she can vividly remember her exact seat, who was sitting in front of her, Wasilowski turning on the wall-mounted television with a yardstick and the horrifying news that filled the screen. “As soon as they said the word Pentagon, I immediately stood up with this sick feeling.”
Walters’ reaction was in response to the fact that her father, Jerry Myers, was to have been working at his job at the Pentagon that very morning. Walters said she started crying and was escorted to the office by Wasilowski where she and her brother waited for their mother, Tina, to arrive.
“My dad was a construction and engineering manager for Quest Communications,” Walters said, explaining that her father’s company was hired to install fiber optic cable at the Pentagon during a renovation project, which included the construction of 720 new offices on one side of the building. “He had worked there every day for the last six months before Sept. 11.”
Knowing her father’s whereabouts, Walters said her family attempted to contact him several times but he couldn’t be reached.
“We couldn’t get a hold of him, and we just cried all day,” she said. “It was a day of the unknown, just waiting and pacing and crying.”
Finally, around 3:20 p.m. that afternoon, Myers was finally able to get to a phone to let his family know that he was safe and had been a mile-and-a-half away from the Pentagon gates when Flight 77 crashed into the western side of the building at 9:37 a.m.
“My dad told me that he was close enough to see the mushroom cloud of smoke [from the attack],” Walters said, noting that military police blocked him from going any closer.
It was further revealed, she explained, that while Myers could have easily already been at the Pentagon that Tuesday, an early morning meeting with a group of inspectors off site delayed his commute to work that day.
“If he would have left for work a minute earlier he would have been there and things would have been different,” Walters said, pointing out that the hijacked plane struck the very section of the building Myers had been working in. “It’s only by the grace of God that none of them were there.”
Fast forward to Sept. 10, 2021, the day before the 20th anniversary of that fateful day in America’s history. Walters, now a nurse, was working with a patient at Redbank Valley Intermediate School, and it just so happened that Wasilowski, now retired, was assigned as a substitute teacher at the school.
“It’s crazy how it all came crashing back when I saw him,” Walters said, noting that she hadn’t seen Wasilowski since her senior year of high school and was instantly transported back to his classroom on almost the exact same day 20 years before. “It just brought me goosebumps.”
Walters said that she tried to work up the courage all day to speak to her former teacher and eventually approached him in the hallway, reminding him of their unique connection.
“It’s hard to explain how I was feeling, but I was shaking,” she said, comparing the reunion to a spontaneous celebrity encounter. Walters said she then asked Wasilowski for a photo and he happily obliged.
“Seeing him exactly 20 years later almost to the day was crazy,” she said, adding that the encounter changed her perception of the whole day. “You don’t realize until you’re older what could have happened.”
In fact, Walters said, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have shaped her family’s perception on what really matters in life.
“That day taught us all to never take anything for granted,” she said. “Family is everything, and you never know when you could be saying goodbye for the last time.”