Like so many people this week, Mike Brown is recalling details of a bright and sunny, yet tragic, morning two decades ago.
Brown, Grand Forks' mayor at the time, also was a practicing obstetrician on Sept. 11, 2001. As hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and other sites in the East, he remembers watching events unfold from a patient’s room at Grand Forks’ hospital.
"We shared our grief. We shared our common shock and grief,” Brown remembers. “That is something that is unimaginable, unthinkable. But it was real. And we all watched it on TV, live-time."
Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, when terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., transfixed the nation. Although the attacks were more than 1,000 miles from the Red River Valley, the news quickly reverberated throughout Greater Grand Forks.
According to reports in the Sept. 12 edition of the Grand Forks Herald, residents throughout the city were transfixed by the images that played out that morning on live television. As the day went on, residents gathered in prayer and unity, according to the Herald. School activities were called off and some residents quickly went to gas stations to fill their cars and gas cans as rumors spread that fuel prices would drastically spike.
Phillip Meyer, who on Sept. 11 was principal at Sacred Heart School, told the Herald that day that he reminded students of the speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
"This is a day that will live in infamy," Meyer said, quoting Roosevelt just hours after the terrorist attacks. "And this will be true of this one, too."
A report in the Sept. 12 Herald quoted a UND student who was among the many who attended prayer services in town.
"In any tragedy like this, it's so important to trust in God just for peace and understanding," said Arika Lerud. "I feel this is the only thing I can do to help out the people who have been affected."
Brown recalls that Grand Forks tightened security at City Hall and around its water treatment facilities. It speaks directly to the fear and helplessness felt at the time.
“Just like when the Challenger exploded (in 1986), you know, people just stand in front of the TV (and think) ‘This can’t be happening,’” Brown said. “And so that’s exactly how that Tuesday was, and it was just a profoundly sad, emotional experience. You didn’t even talk. You just looked at each other. You were just numb.”
Throughout the region, federal courthouses and the state Capitol were barricaded, the Herald reported at the time. Highway 200 across Garrison Dam was closed due to fears that a terrorist bomb could flood the Missouri River valley downstream.
All across the state, people were springing into action. Mark Nelson — now Grand Forks' police chief — was a lieutenant, just recently placed in charge of patrol. And as the phones started ringing, Nelson faced his own leadership test.
“Like anybody else will tell you, there really wasn’t a playbook designed for this,” Nelson remembers. “The start of the focus was centered around the airport. … When all flights were ordered to be grounded, there were a lot of planes at the airport, and a lot of people, and the airport calling saying, ‘Hey, what are we supposed to do with these people?”
One of the most tense moments of the day came as the airport was being secured.
“The angst was, could there be some type of explosive device in any of these planes?” Nelson said. So alongside the Air Force, the police department sent a bomb-detecting dog out into the planes.
And on one of the aircraft, the dog “alerted” — signaling to handlers that something was amiss.
Nelson said a police sergeant dismantled an airplane bathroom in search of whatever the dog had detected — a dangerous mission, given the stakes. He found nitroglycerine pills, for use with a heart condition.
“So there was a totally dismantled bathroom over a discarded pill bottle, but you didn’t know, and you had to be safe,” Nelson said, recalling the unpredictability of the morning. “... It was almost a lot like sandlot football. You had certain things in place that you knew what your job function was. But some of it, you almost had to formulate a plan as you went, based on what was happening.”
The Herald's Sam Easter contributed to this report.