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Remembering: Witnesses

Several Utahns were in New York City near the World Trade Center and another at the Pentagon when the hijacked planes struck Sept. 11, 2001.

Each of them found their way out of the terrorized cities without physical injury. But their hearts and minds remain wounded, some more than others. Their memories are vivid, their feelings tender.

Here they reflect on their lives five years later:

· · · · ·

It was with trepidation that Jan Crispin-Little went to Boston this weekend to attend the same conference she did five years ago in New York City.

Since two hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Center, the National Association of Business Economists has avoided Sept. 11, until this year.

The psychological effects of being caught up in the worst act of terrorism in American history linger for Crispin-Little. She remembers every detail of the day she found herself alone on the streets of a wounded city with nothing but the clothes on her back.

"I think sometimes I still have reactions," she said. "I still can't look at pictures of the buildings on fire. It's too gut-wrenching."

Crispin-Little boarded the plane to Boston not necessarily suspicious or fearful but more aware. She pays closer attention to what others around her are doing. She stereotypes Middle Eastern men.

"I wish I didn't feel that way," she said.

Her hotel room is not above the fifth floor. She scans the lobby and conference room for exits. She studies the building layout on the inside of her door.

Crispin-Little won't be watching the five-year anniversary reports on TV "because I can replay everything in my mind. There's no reason to watch it anywhere else."

Another more recent tragedy has also reshaped her perspective on 9/11. Her husband of 26 years died of cancer in July.

"If something happens, it just happens. You can't live your life waiting for negative things to happen," Crispin-Little said. "I'm going to live my life, and what happens happens, and I deal with the consequences of everyday life."

· · · · ·

The gift Joyce Jensen opened on Christmas morning 2003 made her mad: two airline tickets to New York City.

After being in the heart of Manhattan when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Jensen vowed never to return.

"I'm not going," she told her husband, Carl Jensen.

"I said, 'Bull. We're going,"' Carl recounted.

Carl prodded and pushed over the next five months until Joyce agreed to go. But she wouldn't stay in Manhattan. They stayed in a hotel near JFK airport and took a cab to and from the city for three days — a $50 proposition each way.

The Jensens retraced their escape route — Joyce again pushing Carl, who has multiple sclerosis, in his wheelchair — on Broadway to the Amsterdam Hotel, where they were staying. "It was deja vu," she said.

They stopped at the hole where the Twin Towers stood and were speechless.

"We just sat there stunned," Joyce said.

"We shed a few tears. We felt sorry for the people" who died, Carl said. "I can't imagine what those people went through."

They bought a bouquet of flowers from a nearby shop and placed it at ground zero.

Had their first trip to New York City gone as planned, the Jensens likely would have been at the Twin Towers when the planes hit. Carl would have been on the observation deck in his wheelchair taking in the skyline. Afraid of heights, Joyce would have been waiting on the ground.

"It was just very emotional. Very, very emotional," Joyce said.

But she is glad Carl insisted they return.

"It was a great experience to go back," Joyce said. "After we got back I put my arms around him and thanked him for making me go."

· · · · ·

Covered in soot, Tony Smith and some business associates escaped smoke-filled New York City on a New Jersey-bound ferry that veered off course to rescue people fleeing the horror. They rented a car and drove across the country.

After dropping off the last of his passengers in Denver, Smith looked for an American flag to place on the rental car.

Unable to find one, he bought a towel with a flag image and tied it to the antenna for the final leg of his incredible journey home to Centerville.

"It looked really dorky," he said. "But it was kind of an expression that we would get through this."

After the initial shock wore off — he no longer jumps at every explosion or expects every jet to crash into a building — Smith was able to work through his anxieties. Writing down much of what he felt and saw, including body parts strewn in the streets, proved to be good therapy.

Smith and most of his colleagues returned to New York the following year for the business meeting they didn't have. They walked the city "to get a sense of where we were."

Prior to 9/11, Smith said, he took freedom for granted. The Iraq war, suicide bombers in particular, changed his perspective. He said he has greater reverence for national leaders and the military.

"Now all of a sudden I'm beginning to understand better what freedom costs," he said.

· · · · ·

Nearly the only thing that lingers from Andrea Wilko's Sept. 11 experience is a lifelong friendship.

Wilko, Utah's chief economist, was attending the same National Association of Business Economists convention at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel as Jan Crispin-Little when the attack occurred.

She witnessed the second plane hit the south tower. She saw debris rain down on the plaza. She saw body parts on the ground. She saw the thunderous cloud roll through the city when the towers collapsed.

A frequent visitor to New York, Wilko knows her way around. She walked about 10 blocks to Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, where employees gave her access to a phone. She called her mom to let her know she was OK. She and a friend traveling with her started dialing LDS Church bishops in the area. They found the wife of one at home with her two toddlers.

The Holman family invited them over, saying, "Come on home."

"You know how you meet some people in life that are meant to be your friends? That's how it was with them," Wilko said.

Wilko spent the next four days there playing with the two boys, which she found relaxing and cathartic.

"They made me feel so welcome. The children reminded me of my nieces and nephews. It was kind of like being home," she said.

Wilko has returned to New York at least a dozen times since 9/11. She celebrated her 40th birthday there last November with the Holmans, who have since added three more children to their family.

"I wouldn't change their friendship for anything in the world," she said.

· · · · ·

Retired National Guard officer Craig Morgan laments what he sees as complacency about liberty since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The United States is a great country. I don't know if we tend to be forgiving or forgetful. But at this point we're not as passionate about freedom as we were Sept. 12 (2001)," he said.

It saddens him that some people don't support American troops in the Middle East. "I'm retired, but they continue to struggle every day," he said. "That's commendable."

Morgan, who last January ended his 35-year military career as lieutenant colonel, was walking to the south entrance of the Pentagon when the jet smashed into the west side. Thick smoke poured from the building, and people streamed outside. Trained as a paramedic, he started treating the injured, their blood staining his green Guard uniform and his hands.

"I probably would hate to admit it, but there's probably not a day that goes by that I'm not somehow one way or another reminded of that," he said.

News reports, a thought, even a smell trigger memories of what he saw.

One scene the next day that left an indelible impression were rows of what he initially thought were firefighters sleeping in the Pentagon courtyard. They were bodies covered in sheets.

Taught duty before self, Morgan has since had time to reflect on 9/11, and it has affected him.

"How can it not?" he said. "I didn't realize that I had, but it has. Every once in a while I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't sleep. Then I have personal things that I don't want everybody to know about."

Morgan said he has learned to appreciate little things more, like a canyon breeze.


E-mail: romboy@desnews.com