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20 Years Later, Hawaiʻi Residents Share Their Memories of 9/11

Sept 11 Anniversary 9/11
John Minchillo/AP
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AP
Flowers are placed in the inscribed names of deceased at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Saturday marks 20 years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon. Two planes hit the Twin Towers, another targeted the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to wrestle control from hijackers.

Do you remember where you were on Sept. 11, 2001?

That was the question posed to parkgoers at Magic Island — where a memorial bench is placed to honor Hawaiʻi arborist and Kalaheo High graduate Christine Snyder. She was one of nine people with Hawaiʻi ties who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Kevin Higashionna was watching the sunset at Ala Moana Beach Park, not realizing the story behind the bench he was sitting on. The Conversation asked where he was when he heard the news about the terrorist attacks 20 years ago.

Christine Snyder bench 9/11 Magic Island Ala Moana
Catherine Cruz
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HPR
A memorial bench for Christine Snyder sits overlooking the water at Ala Moana Beach Park.

"I was at home in Mililani at my parents house, and then I think I woke up, I was supposed to go to work. Then my parents was telling me, come downstairs, and I went downstairs and it was on TV. And I was like, 'Okay, what's going on?' So they kind of explained to me. I was like, this doesn't look real. After the reality hit me, I was kind of freaking out like, wow, this is real," Higashionna said. "Every year that 9/11 comes it's like I'll see it, but then I feel bad because I don't really think about this, like, okay, it happened and it's been a while ago. I don't know how to feel about it anymore."

For former Queens resident Kevin Chin, who just happened to be walking by Snyder's bench, 9/11 has much more intense personal meaning. The New York native moved to Hawai’i a few years ago. He recalled watching from his window as the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that day.

"On 9/11 I was still in college, but was in New York City, had a pretty much line of sight to the towers. It was early in the morning in New York at that time too, so I was still getting out of bed. And I heard my roommate kind of say something that made me concerned enough to run out of my room and see what he was seeing. And both the Twin Towers had already been on fire after the planes had crashed. So pretty much from that moment on, we were just watching TV and seeing what was gonna happen, speculating what was going on. But one of the things that definitely is stuck in my head was, I was watching TV and the news and you see on the news, the tower starting to crumble. I guess I didn't believe it, I thought it was something just on TV. So I, again, ran out into our common living space where you could see it with your own eyes. I just saw at least one coming down and then a few minutes later, the other. We were just kind of in shock and all," he said.

"As a New Yorker, it was kind of crazy to be close enough where we were in, like, the southern portion of downtown Manhattan so that they when they closed it off, there was like no traffic in and out of that Ground Zero area. And the other thing that I remember is just a lot of the people who were coming north from there because they'd closed off all the subways, all the tunnels, the bridges and everything. So everybody just had to walk north to try to get home or wherever they needed to go. And a lot of them were like covered in the dust, in the soot. It was just eerie because New York City's never that quiet. Just the gravity of that situation and seeing everything that was going on, it's still kind of haunting. I tell my girlfriend that's a day that I'll definitely never forget. I mean, coming up on Saturday, and we're already like, talking about in our own way, just remembering that day and all the people who got lost on that day, and what happened to the city and the country, and the world as a result of that," Chin continued.

Another young man out for a jog on Magic Island was Justin Layko. This summer he made a decision to join the U.S. Air Force. Come January, he ships off to Texas for basic training. With a military career ahead of him, the recent world events and 9/11 events gave him pause. He recalled he was just beginning grade school back on 9/11.

"I was like six years old, just running around and then my mom turned on the TV and all I saw was like an explosion. And they kept on saying the plane crashed into the Twin Towers. For me, it was just, it was just kind of scary. But the deep down inside, I kind of felt like a little security just because I live in Hawaiʻi, and we're kind of remote from the mainland USA, especially in New York, but just to know that there's terrorists, and they can come from anywhere and, you know, just terrorize the United States is kind of scary for me," Layko said.

Christine Snyder kalaheo high school
Catherine Cruz
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HPR
A 9/11 memorial for Christine Snyder at Kalaheo High School.

And finally, Maunawili resident Betsy Connors distinctly remembers where she was 20 years ago. She was with fellow members of the Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle at Kalaheo High getting ready to plant a rainbow shower tree that very morning when they got the bad news.

It was a project that Christine Snyder had been involved with, but that day she was attending an American Forestry Conference on the East Coast with then-Outdoor Circle CEO Mary Steiner. After the conference and taking in the sights of the Big Apple, Snyder and Steiner went to the airport and boarded different planes to begin the journey back to the islands.

Snyder boarded United Airlines Flight 93, initially headed for San Francisco before being hijacked by terrorists.

"When we gathered we had known what had happened and Mary Steiner had called in and said that Christine (Snyder) was on the flight in Pennsylvania. So we just said a prayer for everybody and planted the tree and watered it and just said this will be her tree," Connors told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "She just got so enthusiastic about everything she did. She added new life to everything. She had this pink crash helmet and everything because when she became an arborist, she had to get up on the cherry picker and say that she could do this and that."

Christine Snyder kalaheo high school plaque
Catherine Cruz
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HPR
A 9/11 memorial at Kalaheo High School for Christine Snyder, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93.

Connors, who has three daughters of her own, knows that finding your passion is key to making your mark in life. Snyder found her love in trees as one of the few certified female arborists around.

At 7:45 a.m. Friday, a remembrance ceremony will take place by the trees on the Kalaheo campus. Because of COVID, last year's event was virtual. This year, there'll be readings, a moment of silence — and there's talk of a release of doves to mark two decades past and to remember Kalaheo alum Christine Snyder and her love of trees.

These interviews aired on The Conversation on Sept. 9, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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