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Remembering 9/11: Bluffton native could see Pentagon burning

Susan Heltemes1 / 2
Photo courtesy of FEMA First responders coordinate following the attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.2 / 2

For Susan Heltemes, who graduated from New York Mills High School in 1970, life in Maryland has changed significantly since Sept. 11, 2001.

Heltemes, who grew up in Bluffton on a dairy farm, moved to Maryland in 1980. She was at home in Silver Spring, Md., a little more than 10 miles from the Pentagon, on the morning of 9/11, and, like most Americans, she remembers the day vividly.

"That morning, something made me turn on the Today Show. I turned it on just as the first plane was hitting the trade center," she said. "Like most Americans, I was frozen in place. Nobody believed what was going on."

Heltemes lived on the 14th floor of a high rise, facing the west. When the plane hit the Pentagon that morning, she had a clear view of it.

"I was able to see the smoke and flames," Heltemes said. "From the 14th floor you have a Birdseye view of it."

Even though she had no connection to the Pentagon, Heltemes said that friends and family from Minnesota and elsewhere called her that day to she if was all right.

"Family and friends from all over called to make certain I was okay," she said. "You reach out to people in a time of harm and danger, and that's what people around the country just felt they had to do."

Although she was probably just as frozen in place watching the events unfold as people at home in Bluffton or NY Mills, being closer to the attacks gave Heltemes a different perspective.

"The closer you are to the real thing makes it a little more real," she said. "I saw it happen."

Although she personally did not know anyone who died in the attacks, Heltmes said she knew plenty of people who were directly affected.

"I talked to people who lost friends and family," she said. "I didn't get any work done that day. It was pretty close to home. It was too horrid to be true."

The next few days

In the days following the attack, Heltemes said many people in the Washington, D.C. area wanted to drive by the Pentagon to look at the aftermath, but because of heightened security, nobody was able to get close.

Increased security aa a result of the attacks that Heltemes saw throughout the area, and also an effect that has continued to define living in Virginia or Maryland.

Signs on highways ask people to be vigilant for suspicious activity, and more security checks are ways of life that were much less common before 9/11, she said.

"The world became a scarier place," she said. "Because of (9/11), we have to take our shoes off at airports. When you ride on the subway in Washington, there's a sense of paranoia. It's a far more uptight place since then, and the security is far more intense."

"You're more cognizant, living out here, because every time you turn around you think there might be something going on," she added.

Heltemes noted that the attacks also changed people on a more personal level, at least in the short term.

"For a long time, people were just kinder and gentler and quieter and meeker and humbler," she said.

For a while, people's humanity was brought out by the sadness experience following the attacks, she said.

People felt anger, though, and rage.

"We felt, how dare they do that to us?" Heltemes asked.

Eventually, though, people started to move on.

"As time goes by, you get over that," she said. "People are still aggressive drivers and honking their horns and all those things."

Going back home

Heltemes still has family in Wadena and Staples, and often travels back to visit them.

"I treasure my time when I come home," she said. "I get to NY Mills, and I sit down at the bowling alley with my classmate (Dolly Tumberg) and it feels like I never left. That's the beauty of coming home."

As the 10th anniversary of the day approaches that Heltemes remembers so well, she's not sure what she'll do to commemorate the event. She may go see a ceremony for artwork in Baltimore dedicated to the first responders at the Pentagon, and perhaps go to a church service.

Though the place she lives and works in now is forever changed from the city she knew 10 years ago, Heltemes wouldn't think of moving.

"It's still one of the most fascinating places to live if you're interested in government or the way the world functions," she said. "It's the center of everything."