Locals recall events of 9/11: ‘It’s not a cliche when we say, “We’ll never forget”’

  • The 9/11 memorial at the Greenfield Fire Station. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The 9/11 memorial at the Greenfield Fire Station. From left to right, Chief Robert Strahan, Capt. Dan Smith, Lt. Peter McIver, Capt. Alex Cooley, and firefighters Michael Cachat and Matthew McCarthy. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Smoke billows across the New York City skyline after two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. AP FILE PHOTO/PATRICK SISON

  • In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, a helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington as smoke billows over the building. Partial remains of several 9/11 victims were incinerated by a military contractor and sent to a landfill, a government report said Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012, in the latest of a series of revelations about the Pentagon’s main mortuary for the war dead. The terrorist-hijacked airliner that slammed into the west side of the Pentagon killed 184 people. AP FILE PHOTO/HEESOON YIM

Staff Writer
Published: 9/10/2021 4:23:13 PM

Editor’s Note: The following is a series of recollections from Franklin County community members regarding the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, published on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

George Lanides and his wife, Gina Coletti, had a wedding to attend on Sept. 15, 2001, and Lanides needed a new shirt for the occasion. So he jotted down his size and arm length on a note for his wife to buy one at the Mall at the World Trade Center that week.

“We always say, ‘Thank God she couldn’t read my handwriting,’ because God knows what would have happened,” said Lanides, almost exactly 20 years later. He now works as the principal of Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield.

Coletti worked at Goldman Sachs a few blocks away from the World Trade Center and had planned to buy the shirt on the morning of Sept. 11, but when she couldn’t decipher her husband’s penmanship, she decided to not disembark the subway train at the towers and continued one more stop to work.

Later that morning, after terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center buildings, employees started to leave the Goldman Sachs building and Coletti intended to walk toward the towers and take the subway home until a co-worker advised her against it. She and a different co-worker decided to share a cab out of the immediate area and had just gotten in the vehicle when it was engulfed by dust that enveloped the street — the South Tower, the second one to be struck, had just collapsed.

“We realized the cab wasn’t going to go anywhere and so we hopped out of the cab and went to FDR (Drive), where there were no cars. And we’re all running up FDR Drive,” she recalled.

Coletti said she and her co-worker could see the North Tower smoldering and watched in horror as it collapsed, though she could not yet process that people were still inside. Coletti said people around her falsely mentioned the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in Chicago and the Empire State Building had also been struck, though the Pentagon was hit and a fourth hijacked plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers attempted to overpower the terrorists. A total of 2,996 people (including 19 al-Qaida terrorists) were killed that day.

Coletti said she and the co-worker got to the latter’s apartment, where the co-worker’s mother, who was visiting from India, made them tea.

“I was covered in dust,” she recalled, adding that she got home to Manhattan at around 4 p.m.

Lanides explained he and Coletti had returned to New York from the Boston area that summer. He was teaching in the South Bronx that fateful morning when the assistant principal approached his windowed classroom door and held up a sign that read something along the lines of, “Don’t tell the kids anything.”

Confused, he went into the hallway, where the assistant principal told him a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Lanides assumed it had been a propeller plane until an announcement of what was transpiring was made via the school’s intercom system. Within minutes, parents started arriving in droves to pick up their children.

Lanides said he used a co-worker’s cellphone to try contacting Coletti, but he could not reach her all day. He eventually called his mother-in-law in Quincy and learned his wife was safe. He remembers the traffic in the Bronx being at a quiet standstill, with no one honking their horns or yelling.

“It was unbelievable,” he said, adding that he was forced to park his car in the Bronx and walk home to Manhattan. “I remember getting home and seeing my wife and we just cried.”

Lanides, who before he entered education worked as a production assistant in the entertainment industry, later learned he knew a victim on the plane that struck the South Tower. William Weems, a 46-year-old freelance producer of TV commercials, was headed from Boston to Los Angeles aboard United Flight 175. He lived in Marblehead, north of Boston, and had a wife and daughter.

“He was a really wonderful guy,” Lanides said.

Lanides and Coletti moved out of New York City in 2011. They said September is a solemn time for them, as they both relive the trauma and try to avoid the reminders the public is bombarded with this week.

“It seems like just yesterday,” Lanides said. “It makes you realize that every day is so precious, right?”

Coletti said that a month after the attacks she had left the corporate world for a job teaching pre-kindergarten in East Harlem, where the students were life-affirming.

“It did a lot for my soul,” she said. She now works as a real estate agent.

Coletti also said the close call inspired them to start a family, and their oldest child was born in August 2002.

Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan

The Greenfield Fire Department responded to a second-alarm building fire at Leyden Woods the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and firefighter Robert Strahan, who had been at home, went to the station and he saw on TV the North Tower billowing with smoke. He was released and drove home, where he saw a plane crash into the South Tower.

“I remember being on the phone with my mom when the first tower fell and instantly got emotional because I knew that we ended up losing a lot of firefighters,” he recalled while staring at the 9/11 memorial a local artist crafted at the firehouse years ago. “I remember being in shock and being saddened by the loss of life, especially the loss of life of firefighters. And the same when the second tower fell.”

Strahan said 343 firefighters were killed on 9/11, though at least 200 have since died of illnesses caused by working at the scene in the aftermath of the attacks.

“It’s just a reminder on how dangerous firefighting can be. And you never know what to expect,” he said. “It’s not a cliche when we say, ‘We’ll never forget.’ We always remember the sacrifice of the firefighters that day.”

Strahan said all Greenfield firefighters came into the firehouse to offer to go to New York City to assist with the rescue efforts, but the Office of the State Fire Marshal feared an attack in the commonwealth. Strahan recalled an overwhelming response in the following weeks, as people dropped off supplies to be sent to New York. People also laid flowers at the base of the station’s flag pole.

He mentioned the Greenfield Fire Department received a piece of the World Trade Center steel, which will be incorporated into some type of memorial at the new fire station.

“The fire service is a pretty unique occupation,” he said. “Firefighters are truly like family ... and when there’s a loss of a firefighter it affects everybody, because we all know that it could be any of us ... on any given day.”

Turners Falls Fire Chief John Zellmann Jr.

Zellmann was on duty as a captain that day, and was having coffee and watching TV when the news flash came on.

“We were glued to the TV,” he recalled. “We couldn’t believe it at first. As soon as (the North Tower) collapsed, we knew it was going to be a bad day. When the second one collapsed, we definitely knew it was going to be a bad day.”

Zellmann said his department received a few calls that day, but the firefighters continued to follow the latest developments.

“A lot of thoughts went through your mind. It makes you think,” he said. “On the anniversary everybody wants to talk about it, but we then to talk about it off and on throughout ... the year.”

Jeremy Bucci, Northwestern District Attorney’s Office chief trial counsel

Bucci was in his eighth day on the job as an appellate assistant district attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston and had not yet received his first paycheck when terror struck the United States.

He was sitting in on a session of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court when a court officer approached Chief Justice Margaret Marshall with a message.

“He whispers to the chief justice ... and I remember her saying words to the effect of, ‘The United States has been attacked. We’re asking you to evacuate the courthouse immediately,’” Bucci recalled while sitting in a conference room at the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office at 56 Bank Row in Greenfield. “It was surreal. You just sort of stand up and you don’t know what to do.

“I walked out of the courthouse,” he continued, “and I remember walking right into Government Center — you exit Pemberton Square, you’re in Government Center — and it looked so strange because the people that were in Government Center, typically people walk on sidewalks, but people were walking into streets and everyone was kind of looking up into the sky and people were taking out their cellphones. I walked from Government Center … back 4 miles to Brookline, where I was living.”

Bucci said he and his four roommates watched much of the calamity unfold on TV.

“You had that whole range of emotions. There was fear, there was the anxiety of what was next. I get choked up just thinking about it,” he said, fighting back tears. “Wow.”

Bucci said he next marveled at the pursuit of justice within the American court system, in which he had just been proverbially baptized.

“I rejoiced every time there was a conviction of one of those guys, and I loved when they were brought into the criminal justice system and we showed a public trial, where the evidence was laid out for the public to see, and they were tried,” he said.

Bucci also recalls how the nation banded together following the attacks.

“It didn’t matter what party you were in,” he said. “It was that moment you felt no matter who the other person was or what their political leanings were, we were all Americans at that moment. It was us against them, which is different than how we feel today.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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