The elements had taken a toll on the plaques bearing the faces of Mary Alice Wahlstrom, Carolyn Beug and Brady Howell at the 9/11 memorial in Kaysville. The faded and cracked brass over the past decade looked as if it had shattered.
On Tuesday, new porcelain plates replaced the old weathered ones, in a perhaps symbolic healing gesture as Utah and the nation prepare to commemorate one of the worst days in American history.
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, destroyed lives across the country. It ignited a prolonged war that took a toll on even more lives.
Now, as President Joe Biden has ended U.S. involvement in the 20-year war in Afghanistan during a global pandemic, the future seems as uncertain today as after terrorists flew hijacked commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed another in a Pennsylvania field.
Utahns and their families who experienced the horror in a very personal way have tried to move on with their lives. It has been more difficult for some than others. But they cling to notions of hope and unity that often become lost in the turmoil.
The dedicatory prayer at the memorial amid the gardens at the Utah State University Botanical Center reads in part, “through the difficulties now behind us, and those that most assuredly lie ahead, we choose, through thy grace, to move forward, to heal and to rebuild, toward a bright hope in our future.”
Though the images on the plaques had deteriorated, the families of those Utahns who died have not forgotten them. Nor have they let their deaths ruin their lives.
“It takes a while to come to terms with how awful it is,” said Margaret Wahlstrom, who lost her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. She recalled her husband’s words upon hearing the terrible news. “He very quietly said, ‘You know, it’s so cruel to cause that much pain to so many people.’”
Wahlstrom, 78, an avid reader and silent movie fan, and her daughter, Beug, 48, an accomplished musician who worked on the Disney movie “Pocahontas’’ and on a music video for the rock band Van Halen, died after terrorists took over an American Airlines plane and flew into the north tower of the World Trade center in New York. The two women were returning from a trip to take Beug’s twin daughters to Brown University in Rhode Island.
Howell, a 26-year-old Utah State University graduate, died when another hijacked American Airlines plane crashed into the Pentagon where he was working. He was a presidential management intern in a civilian post for the Chief of Naval Operations.
In all, 2,977 people died that day, Wahlstrom, Beug and Howell among them.
Norman Wahlstrom, a soft-spoken pathologist who lost both his mother and his sister in the attack, attributed 9/11 to selfishness and misguided loyalties of people who loved their God but not their neighbors as Jesus taught.
“They were devoted to the point that they would kill themselves for their God and what they thought was evil. It just shows you the misguided perceptions in the world today. For those who taught them that, they share that blame, too,” he said.
“We’ll never get rid of that as long as there’s an evil influence in the world. They’ll use those feelings to put us against one another. To me, that’s a terrible tragedy, not just for the victims but for those who are so misguided that they would do that and kill themselves doing that.”
Norman Wahlstrom said he never had to forgive the terrorists because he never held what they did against them. He just felt sorry for them.
That was one of the first realities the Wahlstroms say they came to grips with.
“I used to think God would forgive you for hating someone that murdered your spouse or murdered your child, wouldn’t he?” Margaret Wahlstrom said.
“On that day, it was amazing to me, we as a family realized because we do love Christ or we love our God, we couldn’t hate. He didn’t hate. It was kind of a new reality to me. I thought I would but I didn’t. We did not hate.”
Neither of the Wahlstroms had any inclination to hold a grudge or seek revenge, though they said the U.S. was justified in going after Osama bin Laden.
“On that day, it was amazing to me, we as a family realized because we do love Christ or we love our God, we couldn’t hate. He didn’t hate. It was kind of a new reality to me. I thought I would but I didn’t. We did not hate.” — Margaret Wahlstrom
Since American troops arrived in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and its founder in October 2001, nearly 2,400 service members have died in the country, including 28 Utahns.
Late last month, 13 American service members, including Utahn Marine Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover — the first American casualties in 18 months — died in a bombing outside the Kabul international airport amid the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Other Utahns in New York and at the Pentagon on 9/11 survived the mayhem.
Now retired Utah National Guard Lt. Col. Craig Morgan 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 uniform and his hands.
He is still battling the demons that crept into his head after that traumatic experience. Psychiatrists and medication keep his short temper in check and prevent him from spiraling too low. He has recurring nightmares and jumps in his car for long drives out of state on a whim.
Morgan’s wife of 44 years, Tammy, has stuck by him, though it’s difficult. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be sneaky. She tries to recognize his triggers and help him recognize them as well.
Part of what makes him sad is thinking about the young soldiers he recruited and trained who were sent off to war and never came back or who returned emotionally and physically scarred.
“That really breaks my heart,” he said.
Morgan also laments what he sees as a lack of passion for freedom today.
“I’m concerned about the attitude and complacency of our people,” he said. “If freedom isn’t sacred or even just special to everyone, it will never work.”
A lifelong friendship is about the only thing that lingers from Andrea Wilko’s 9/11 experience.
Wilko, Utah’s chief economist, was attending a convention at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel in New York when 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.
Covered in soot, she took refuge at 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 bishops of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the area. They found the wife of one at home with her two toddlers just 10 blocks away.
The Holman family invited them over, saying, “Come on home.” They spent the next four days there helping people in the neighborhood.
Wilko, 55, and Glade and Lucie Holman and their now six children, who have since moved to Utah, remain friends today.
“Not very often that you can actually trace the day you met one of your best friends, but this one I always remember,” Wilko said.
Wilko said gratitude was among the lessons the experience taught her. She had opportunities to see goodness in action despite the things that went wrong for so many people.
“I think we’ve become so cynical in the world we live in,” she said. “But there’s good in the world, and when push comes to shove, I think we actually look out for each other.”
The 9/11 memorial in Kaysville includes a large sculpture of a New York firefighter on one knee looking heavenward while holding a small child. The words unity, remembrance and hope are inscribed on the wall behind it.
Margaret Wahlstrom worked with Youth of Promise, a group of 14- to 18-year-olds in Davis County, to raise about $200,000 to build the memorial. Relying on only private donations and having to cut through lots of red tape, the project took 11 years. It was dedicated on Sept. 11, 2013.
The Wahlstroms have a replica of the Angela Johnson firefighter sculpture on their living room table. To them, it represents selfless love.
“Sure, I miss mom and Carolyn, but so many people die every single day needlessly at the hands of selfish people. This is no different than that. This just has more notoriety, that’s all, because it was such a big event,” Norman Wahlstrom said.
“I have no doubt that through my faith I’ll see them again. I hold to my religion and that gives me hope through the Resurrection. I’m fine with it now. I just wish more people would put down their prejudices and come together more.”
Two plaques at the 9/11 memorial Kaysville bear the names of Utah military members who died between Sept. 11, 2001 and June 1, 2013. One of the names is Nigel Olsen. He is among those Utahns who were determined to serve the country after the attack.
Then 12-year-old Olsen went to Orem Junior High School on that day not knowing that terrorists had turned the world upside down.
He watched the horrific aftermath of the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 from a classroom. What he saw cemented his desire since the time he was 4 years old to join the military.
A quiet kid, Olsen didn’t get mad and say out loud that he wanted to go fight for America. But his mother, Kim Olsen, knew from his demeanor that’s what he wanted to do. She saw his focus shift more toward the armed forces. He checked out books on military strategy from the library.
“He didn’t need to use words. He used actions, which is typical of him,” she said. “That was the turning point for him: ‘America is under threat. I’m going to do something about it.’”
While still a student at Mountain View High School, Olsen signed up for the Marines, unbeknownst to his parents. They couldn’t do anything but get behind him when he told them.
“This is what he knew he was meant to do,” Kim Olsen said.
Eight-and-a-half years after the al-Qaida attacks on the United States, which were coordinated from Afghanistan, Lance Cpl. Nigel K. Olsen died while escorting a Taliban prisoner to a light armored vehicle that rolled over an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province on March 4, 2010.