The images remain vivid in the minds of Chuck Wehrli and Mike Fagel. They suspect the dozen years that have lapsed may have faded the memories of many others.
The two public safety professionals joined response crews who traveled to New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and other targets along the East Coast. Both say they’ve seen the unity that came in the wake of the disaster wane considerably over the ensuing years.
“Us in the fire service definitely will never forget,” said Wehrli, a fourth-generation responder with the Naperville Fire Department who hung up his helmet in 2006 after more than three decades of service. “But do you see as many American flags as we did then? No. It seems like after that day, everyone had a flag out, but they don’t anymore.”
A homeland security consultant, textbook author and college professor, Fagel spends nearly every waking moment focused on the terrorist mentality, and where it might next express itself.
“Quite simply, on Sept. 11, 2011, the tone of the country changed dramatically, in that you saw more flags flying, you saw more solidarity, and everybody was pretty much pulling in the same direction at that moment,” said Fagel, a Sugar Grove resident. “It seems that people have forgotten that we’re still at war, there are still people who hate us and want to kill us, and that terrorism is still out there.”
There have been small glimmers of grace in the past 12 years. Wehrli related how Mike Regan, a friend who was sent to the Pentagon as part of a search and rescue team from Fairfax, Va., was sifting through the grim wreckage when he discovered the body of Cmdr. Dan Shanower, a Naperville native. Wehrli said he initially was incredulous that someone from his hometown was among the 125 victims in the Pentagon attack. Then he realized he had an opportunity to help Shanower’s grieving parents cope with the horrific loss, so he contacted them.
“I said, ‘This is the man who found your son. If you need closure, you can meet him,’” Wehrli said.
He and Fagel both keep busy each year when the anniversary of the terror acts rolls around. One of the things Wehrli always does is check in with fellow Naperville firefighter Dave Walters, who also was sent to be part of a crew working at the spot where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood over lower Manhattan. Walters’ task involved helping to work through dismembered corpses as part of a disaster mortuary team.
“Every time around this point in the year, we call each other and say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’” Wehrli said.
He has told his 9/11 story dozens of times, and had four classes at Neuqua Valley High School on his speaking schedule Tuesday.
“I always ask them where they were when it happened,” he said.
As the years pass, fewer of those in the audience can say with certainty just what they were doing when they heard the news. Wehrli finds it helpful when kids have engaged in conversations with their families about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He doesn’t begrudge them their youth.
“It’s in the history books,” he said. “It’s like a veteran coming to talk about Pearl Harbor who was there.”
Fagel is currently teaching classes in homeland security and emergency management at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Northern Illinois University, Eastern Kentucky University and Louisiana State University. He tries to press the point that things now part of the public routine, such as comprehensive searches at airports, have their basis in the advancement of public safety.
Yet even with the myriad preventive measures put in place since 2001, Fagel asserts that “self-radicalized terrorists” such as the Tsarnaev brothers, who allegedly used homemade explosives to unleash deadly carnage at last spring’s Boston Marathon, demonstrate that complacency could be fatal.
“It’s almost like waiting for another shoe to drop, but it already has dropped,” he said. “People ask me what keeps me awake at night and, well, everything does.”
The way Fagel sees it, an attentive posture is anything but “crying wolf,” it’s actually a matter of critical necessity.
“What we need is eternal vigilance, but not eternal vigilantes ... You just can’t slow down and you can’t let your guard down,” he said.
That means thinking about the unthinkable. Although he acknowledges that not everyone devotes as much attention as he does to such alarming scenarios as an attack targeting Edward Hospital in Naperville or the disabling of a public utility network, it is everyone’s duty to “trust but verify,” and to be ready to be a potential victim.
“It all comes down to one word, that’s preparedness,” Fagel said. “Look what people do when they predict a snowstorm … they go to the stores and empty out the shelves.”
The two responders concur that things changed in a permanent way on that sunny morning out East, and that Americans must never forget what happened that day.
“We pretty much never thought that we’d see what we did,” Wehrli said, “the destruction and all of that.”