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  • Writer's pictureDJ Mara

Where it Began to Where it Ended: Logan Airport to Ground Zero

Updated: Jan 3

These interviews were conducted at separate times prior to this edition being published. FDNY Ground Zero Photographer Gary Marlon Suson was interviewed on August 16th, 2021. Former Air Traffic Controller Peter Zalewski was interviewed on September 4th, 2021. These interviews are some of the only press "appearances" that these two men have participated in since September 11, 2001. Additionally, the photo on page five of the printed edition (linked below) has never been released to the public prior to this interview. We thank them for sharing their stories with us, in remembering that day.

To view the entire 9/11 Special Edition of the Saint Paul Gazette, click here.

Where it Began:

On September 11th, 2001, Air Traffic Controller Peter Zalewski woke up thinking it would be a normal day at work. It was a beautiful and sunny morning at the Boston Air Traffic Control Center in Nashua, NH. But, a few hours later, Peter would soon learn that September 11th, 2001 would be one of the most tragic and consequential days of his career.

Before his job at the Boston Center, Peter had no prior interest in aviation. He received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University in Boston. However, in the early 1980s, Air Traffic Controllers went on strike nationwide, many of whom were fired by then-President Ronald Reagan. Peter saw the job opening, took all the required tests, and was hired off the first register after the strike—officially starting on March 3, 1982.

By the time September 11th came around, Peter was 19 years into his career. He was actually not supposed to work the morning shift that day, but swapped shifts with a colleague.

After American Airlines flight 11 departed from Logan International Airport, it was handed off to Peter’s air traffic sector. The pilot came onto the frequency. However, there was a period of time where the American 11 transponder was turned off, and the pilot did not respond. Peter went through a checklist of items to regain correspondence with the pilot of American 11—still nothing.

A few minutes later, a series of strange transmissions came from the cockpit of American 11.

The first was very garbled, not cohesive, and the contents of the message could not be immediately deciphered. It was later deciphered as: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet. You will be okay. We are returning to the airport.”

The second was easier to understand, and it shook Peter to his core: “Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.” This was the moment that Peter knew American 11 was being hijacked.

Peter flagged down his supervisor and explained the situation. His supervisor went off, but Peter requested that another controller work beside him to help decipher transmissions. Peter took all of the planes in his sector and put them on his colleague’s frequency so he could be solely devoted to hearing transmissions from American 11. What Peter did not realize was that United Airlines flight 175 was also still on his frequency—the plane that would eventually be hijacked and hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

The third and final transmission from American 11 came through. Peter put his frequency on speaker so the whole area could hear: “Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.” When this final transmission came through, the entire control room turned completely silent.

An employee from the Quality Assurance Office stood behind Peter, monitoring the situation. Peter turned around and said, “Somebody needs to pull these [expletive] tapes now.” The tapes were pulled, and the Boston Center was shut down immediately. United 175 heard the transmissions from the American 11 flight. It later went into the New York Center airspace, where it was hijacked.

Peter got relieved of his duties, went out to his car, and called his parents on the phone. He detailed to them the “horrible” hijacking incident at work.

Peter’s mother came on the phone with the TV news on in the living room, and told him that a plane had just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Peter realized the plane that crashed into the North Tower had to be American 11—the hijacked plane he oversaw at work that morning.

Peter’s adjacent Air Traffic Controller came out of the building frantically: “Peter, United 175 just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

Peter replied: “No, American 11 just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

His colleague: “United 175 also crashed into the World Trade Center. Different tower.”

Peter: “Who the [expletive] is United 175?”

Colleague: “Don’t you remember it; you worked the plane?”

Peter: “I did?”

One of the controller’s wives that Peter worked with missed her flight on September 10th. Her flight on September 11th ended up being American Airlines flight 11. She was gone. Her husband was scheduled to come into work that day. When he arrived, a union representative caught him at the door, took him aside, and told him the news. He never came back to work after that day.

A union representative also took Peter aside into the Union Office to go through the events of the day. Suddenly, someone yelled: “Oh my God! A plane just hit the Pentagon. We think they are heading to the Sears Tower in Chicago, too.”

Peter finally said: “Don’t anyone get near me and don’t tell me anymore.”

Peter knows what Mohamed Atta’s voice sounds like to this day, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and the man who sent all three American 11 transmissions through.

These transmissions were used to talk with the passengers aboard American 11, but Atta used the Air Traffic Control microphone instead of the internal intercom. If Atta had not done this, no one outside of the American 11 aircraft would have ever known the words said. Someone from the Boston Center’s Critical Response Team met with Peter and took him for a walk to decompress. The Boston Center was soon evacuated because of thoughts a plane was heading to crash into the building. Peter does not remember driving home that day.

After 25 years working as an Air Traffic Controller, Peter retired. He has since done multiple speaking engagements about his story. As a tribute to the 20th Anniversary of September 11th, Peter was interviewed by ABC News, which appeared on 20/20 on September 10th, 2021.

Where it Ended:

Only two civilian photographers in the world were allowed to take photos inside Ground Zero. Gary Marlon Suson was the only one in the world allowed full 24/7 access to every area of ground zero, above and below in the subway tunnels.

Gary became interested in photography as a boy on his Illinois family farm. When his mother, Sherry Suson, found out about his craft, she told Gary that he had a special artistic gift. As a high school senior at Barrington High School in Illinois, Gary won the Kodak Medallion, the highest award in the United States for a photography student at the National Scholastics Art and Writing Awards.

On September 11th, 2001, Gary was at his Manhattan photography studio setting up for a photo shoot. After the scheduled model never showed up, Gary found himself standing on the roof of the building, watching and photographing the towers collapse. Gary then ran to the World Trade Center with his camera and began documenting the aftermath of 9/11.

Prior to 9/11, Gary had no affiliation with the FDNY. He had read in the local newspaper that New York City firefighters were having chest heaviness and lung issues from being at Ground Zero. Gary later called Rudy Sanfilippo at the NYC Fire Union, and offered to act as a liaison between the firefighters and a holistic doctor in Long Island, New York. Firefighter Sanfilippo later inquired about Gary’s photographic talents, and ended up inviting Gary to document for the FDNY, providing he followed strict guidelines.

Gary describes Ground Zero as “horrifying”, with widespread death and destruction. He compares the feeling to when he was a boy walking into Wrigley Field for the first time—it was overwhelming and a lot to process. He adds, however, “that Wrigley Field was baseball and [Ground Zero] was the scene of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.” He recalls everything smoking, steel girders everywhere, and firefighters and coroners constantly walking by, carrying a stokes basket with a victim in it. Gary says that his experiences at Ground Zero are “etched into my memory.”

Although a horrific event in our country’s history, Gary describes an uplifting part of his experience as “being adopted into the Ground Zero brotherhood and being part of the FDNY team.” He also adds that the most uplifting part was simply having the opportunity to contribute in some way toward the relief efforts, in this case with his camera.

Gary describes his most trying experience while the FDNY Ground Zero Photographer as seeing firefighters' widows randomly showing up to Ground Zero, asking if their husbands had been found yet.

This was one of the hardest parts of the recovery process. Retired FDNY Captain Bill Butler, who Gary describes as “a very kind man” would often console them. Gary saw this happen a few times and had to fight tears. Capt. Butler recently passed away from 9/11-related cancer.

In recounting what he learned as the FDNY Ground Zero Photographer, Gary writes: “Do not sweat the small stuff. I am alive and can breathe, so I am lucky. People whine and complain about little things every day. Working at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 made me grow up real fast and taught me not to stress about small things. It also made me think about relationships, and how it is important to patch up disagreements with friends and loved ones. For life is too short, and we do not know which day will be our last.”

Although September 11, 2021, is the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Gary believes that this anniversary is no different than any other anniversary. He adds, “It is no more important this year to remember the victims and those who died than in any other year. It is also important to remember those who have since died of chemical exposure and cancers trying to dig for victims for nine months after 9/11."

To all the families of the nearly three thousand people lost on 9/11, Gary offers the following words: “Your loved one is a hero and will never be forgotten. Their name is etched into the fabric and memories of America. Millions of people come to Ground Zero from all over the world to see their names etched into the memorial pool’s promenade. So, while no one can bring your loved one back, they certainly will never be forgotten.”

Gary has donated his collection of images to his hometown high school, Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois. His collection will be officially unveiled in 2021, and will be called the “9/11 Museum at Barrington”. Gary adds that “I want the next generation of kids to have the chance to learn about this important yet painful period in American history.”

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