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Local residents look back on 9/11

WORTHINGTON - "... And today, let us also remember those from our congregation and our country serving in the military." Those words, or some variation thereof, were spoken yesterday from pulpits in many places of worship throughout the region as...

WORTHINGTON - "... And today, let us also remember those from our congregation and our country serving in the military."

Those words, or some variation thereof, were spoken yesterday from pulpits in many places of worship throughout the region as ministers of various denominations prayed during Sunday services.

That's one of the small, but notable, changes resulting from the tragedy of 9/11, which occurred five years ago today.

"I've really noticed a greater awareness and appreciation of those in military service," said Mike Zaske, pastor of Worthington's American Lutheran Church since November 2002. "There's been a real outpouring of goodwill, and military members have become a regular part of our weekly prayer list. That wasn't the case before 9/11."

Much is different in the United States since that fateful day, and yet many aspects of the average citizen's daily life are much the same. Jim Reinert, Murray County's emergency management director since 1991, frequently encounters that paradox in his work.

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"While 9/11 prompted wholesale change, including a heightened threat level of terrorist attacks, it's hard to stay geared up at the same high level regarding threats over an extended period of time because everyone has their own lives going on," Reinert said.

"Here in the southwest sector of the state, our potential for imported terrorist activity is far less than in other areas because of our location and industrial base," Reinert said. "We are far more likely to be hit with a tornado event than with either terrorism or pandemic flu, so a multi-hazard approach is most effective for us from a planning perspective."

Even so, southwestern Minnesotans and northwestern Iowans are not immune to the long-term effects of 9/11.

"We all fly, we all go to a large city -- whether the Twin Cities or Sioux Falls -- at some point, and if a regional nuclear plant were hit, we'd become reception communities," Reinert said. "The benefit to us in this area is it has forced us to increase and improve communication up and down the chain among health workers, government and law enforcement.

"Now, the other organizations are much more aware now of how emergency management works, and during a disaster, we would be able to get on the same page more quickly," Reinert said.

School is in session

Public schools always strive to ensure the safety of schoolchildren, but it is unforeseen incidents, such as the 2005 shooting at Red Lake, besides the 9/11 event, that drive security measures and keep administrators on their toes.

"The biggest thing these incidents have done for us is made us realize we are all vulnerable," said Nancy Antoine, principal of Worthington's Prairie Elementary. "Visitors to the building have always had to sign in, but 9/11 really validated that policy.

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"We do practice lock-down drills now, to be prepared in the event there is an emergency, and our playground supervisors have communication devices, so they can be in touch with the office even when they're outside," Antoine continued. "It might be uncomfortable at times for us to question visitors about their intentions, but it's all for the safety of the children, and most parents understand that.

Antoine, who is responsible for the nearly 950 K-5 students enrolled at Prairie this year, said safety simply cannot be taken for granted anymore.

"Educating the students is our top priority, but I also try to keep everyone else's children as safe as I would keep my own," Antoine said. "With that said, the start of the year has gone very smoothly, and it's been wonderful to have the kids back in school. Their fresh, smiling faces and good stories are what make the school complete."

A very special birthday

As John Mead of Worthington celebrates his 17th birthday today, he may spend a few minutes thinking about the events that separated his 12th birthday from all others.

"It seems like a long time ago to me, when I was sitting in sixth grade," Mead said.

Besides having a Sept. 11 birthday, Mead has the distinction of having been a tourist in New York just two weeks prior to that date.

"I still have the ticket for the 'Top of the World' ride to the top of Tower Two, World Trade Center, at 9:36 a.m. exactly two weeks before 9/11," Mead said. "It only took us one and a half minutes to go up 110 floors -- it was a really fast elevator."

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In August 2005, Mead took another trip to New York with his father, and although he didn't visit ground zero, he said the skyline was noticeably different. Their stop in Washington, D.C., gave Mead a firsthand view of what the 9/11 attacks meant for national homeland security.

"A little, single-engine plane flew into restricted air space while we were walking by the Capitol, and they treated it like a terrorist threat and everyone had to evacuate," Mead recalled. "Guys with big guns and about 50 police cars materialized out of nowhere. They were really quick to react.

"And every building in D.C. is surrounded by big cement barriers. It was kind of weird."

Mead, who at 17 is more interested in his favorite sports of hockey, football and baseball than ruminating on historical world events, nevertheless admitted being struck by some information he read recently in his history book.

"It said that Africa has had 156 terrorist attacks resulting in about 5,000 deaths, and the U.S. has had only six terrorist attacks but lost over 4,000 lives," Mead said.

Although he hopes the war in Iraq ends before the government decides to implement a draft, the youthful Mead doesn't feel his future opportunities are limited because of 9/11.

"I think I'd like to do something related to computers, and I wouldn't mind living in New Jersey," Mead said. "New Jersey is awesome."

Hitting close to home

A Worthington resident since 1983, Nelson Bonilla spent the first 18 years of his life in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"The World Trade Center, the United Nations, the Empire State Building were in my backyard," Bonilla said. "I could look out our fourth floor window over Manhattan Avenue and see them all.

"I cannot picture New York without the towers -- I still can't fathom that they're gone, and that the people who worked there are gone."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Bonilla thought his sister, Elizabeth Calrusso, was working in the World Trade Center when the terrorists attacked.

"It took a while to reach her, but we finally did, and it turned out she had been laid off the week before and so (she) was not there," Bonilla said.

His cousin, who worked only a few buildings from Ground Zero, was one of the many people who walked from Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge.

"My thought five years ago was, 'Our world has changed today,'" Bonilla said. "But we will carry on, and I believe the torch of freedom will always burn bright."

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