It was a day like any other, until it became a day unlike any in our nation’s history.

War had come to America before, but never like this — never in hijacked airplanes and suicide attacks that specifically targeted the civilian population.

Twenty years ago Saturday, 19 radical Islamist terrorists changed all that. In coordinated strikes, they seized four commercial airliners and flew first one, then another, into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. A third struck the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.

Around the country, people stood in front of television sets watching the Twin Towers burn, their stunned disbelief turning to horror as two of the tallest buildings in the world collapsed.

Nearly 3,000 people died. Among the fatalities were 343 New York City firefighters and another 68 police and emergency personnel.

“For the first responders, it was a normal day that turned into a disaster,” said Noel Hardin, chief of Asotin County Fire District 1. “They just went to work like they would any day, and look at how many lives were changed.”

The Asotin district, which is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, celebrated its 50th anniversary in July 2001.

The morning of the attacks, Hardin — who had already been with the district 17 years by that time — drove to Lewiston for his regular Tuesday meeting with fire chiefs from around the valley at the Waffles n’ More cafe.

“The place is usually packed, but that morning there was hardly anyone there,” Hardin recalled. “They had a small black-and-white television set up on the counter. It was eerie, just watching it on TV. It was like everything came to a stop.”

A good place to be

Lewiston native Jimmy Farris was in San Francisco at the time, trying to make it as a wide receiver in the National Football League.

A multisport standout for the Lewiston Bengals, Farris played college ball with the University of Montana Grizzlies. After graduating the previous spring, he’d been signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Francisco 49ers.

He’d been released by the team on Sept. 2, just before the first game of the season, but was added to the practice squad two days later.

“My life at that time was pretty great,” Farris recalled. “I remember being very thankful and hopeful. All I ever wanted in football was an opportunity. My goal was to make the final roster. That didn’t happen, but I was still part of the team, playing every day. I was part of an organization that had an incredible culture, and I’d developed some close relationships with my teammates.”

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Farris was living with Terrell Owens, the 49ers’ All-Pro wide receiver.

He got up early that morning to drive a friend to the airport. On the way, they heard a radio report about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers.

“I remember the announcers were making light of it, wondering how some idiot pilot managed to hit a building,” Farris said. “This was before Twitter and smartphones, so nobody knew (the extent of the attacks).”

He dropped his friend at the airport and drove home. By the time he arrived, the second plane had hit.

“Everyone realized this wasn’t just a lost crop duster,” Farris said.

His friend called an hour later and said all the commercial flights had been canceled. He picked her up and came back to Owens’ place.

“Tuesday was our day off, so we spent the whole day on the couch in his living room, watching TV,” Farris said. “I remember looking over at Terrell. Everyone was in shock.”

Owens had a private chef who stopped by a couple of times each week, making meals for the days ahead. She’d been there on Monday, so they didn’t even need to go out for food.

“We just hung out at the house,” Farris said. “It was a good place to be.”

‘Nobody knew where to go’

C.L. “Butch” Otter spent much of that Tuesday in a safe place as well, although it lacked the same amenities.

Otter, who would go on to serve three terms as Idaho governor, was back in Washington, D.C., at the time, serving as a freshman representative for the state’s 1st Congressional District.

“I was speaking to a group that morning about a block and a half from the White House,” Otter said. “My press guy came up and whispered to me that an airplane had hit the (north) tower of the World Trade Center. Naturally, we thought some small plane had lost its way. By the time we finished and got back to the car, the second tower had been hit. But I never for a moment imagined we were under attack.”

He returned to the U.S. Capitol and joined several other congressmen in a previously scheduled news conference. It took place outside the building, in a spot that overlooked the Potomac River.

“We were standing there with our backs to the Pentagon when we heard an explosion,” Otter said. “The Pentagon had been hit. That set off a panic, with people running everywhere. I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, it was chaotic. Nobody knew where to go.”

He met with his staff in a nearby building, watching on TV as the two towers collapsed. Then Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg came by and said everyone was supposed to go to a safe house.

Otter wasn’t convinced about that, so he went outside and talked to a U.S. marshal, who was directing traffic.

“I asked if he knew anything about a safe house,” he said. “Right about then (California Rep.) Darrell Issa came by in his pickup truck and said jump in, he knew where to go. So four or five of us got in the back and we sped down the street. He took us to a building, I think it was the headquarters for the Capitol Police. There were concrete bunkers in the basement.”

Several other senators and representatives were in the room. The Senate sergeant-at-arms came by and gave them a briefing on the situation. He noted that all commercial jets in U.S. airspace had been ordered to land, whether they had reached their destination or not.

“That affected about 4,600 airplanes,” Otter said. “Of those, three couldn’t be accounted for. We couldn’t leave the bunker until they were located, because they thought they might be heading for D.C.”

Two of the planes had already landed. The third was United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania as passengers and crew fought to regain control of the plane.

“They figure it was probably headed for the Capitol,” Otter said. “We were supposed to go into session that morning at 10, so we all would have been there. I don’t know how much damage it would have done (had the aircraft impacted the building), and I don’t want to know. I just thank God for those patriots on the plane.”

United we stand

As was the case in New York City, Tuesday began as a normal day in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington.

Asotin County residents learned that the county commissioners had agreed to put a $6.75 million bond levy proposal on the November ballot to build an aquatics center.

In Pullman, what was then the Pullman Memorial Hospital board began its public outreach efforts on another ballot measure, a $8.2 million construction bond for a new hospital.

Washington State University students were still rejoicing after the Cougars’ 41-20 victory over Boise State University the previous Saturday. During the preseason, the team had been picked to finish last in the Pac-10 Conference that year. Instead, the Cougs went on to have a record-tying 10-2 run, capping the season by defeating Purdue 33-27 in the Sun Bowl.

In Lewiston, supporters were scrambling to gather enough signatures to put a strong mayor initiative on the November ballot. The deadline for submitting signatures was Sept. 17.

And after the 67th Lewiston Roundup completed another successful year on Sunday, Roundup Queen Cathy Jo Pottenger — now Cathy Jo Witters — was looking forward to Tuesday night’s appreciation dinner.

“We did an afternoon performance on Sunday, and everyone was exhausted,” Witters recalled. “But I was really looking forward to the appreciation dinner. Then Tuesday morning, the world changed and the dinner was canceled.”

Witters was a senior in high school at the time. Her teachers wheeled TVs into the classrooms, and students spent the day watching events unfold.

“I wasn’t sure what life was going to be like from that point forward,” she said.

Witters had been named Roundup queen the previous October. She and her court attended various regional events over the winter, marketing the Roundup. After the Asotin County Fair in April, they had events scheduled pretty much every weekend.

“I’m sure we ended up attending 50 or 60 events,” Witters said.

Her reign was supposed to end a week after the Lewiston Roundup, at the Pendleton Round-Up. After the attacks, there was talk about canceling the rodeo, but organizers ultimately chose to go forward.

Witters subsequently wrote about the decision, saying she’d “never been more proud to be a member of the Lewiston Roundup queen and court, an ambassador of the great sport of rodeo and an American than I was that Friday. Our directors, our court and our stagecoach loaded up and headed to the Pendleton Round-Up.”

Before 9/11, she’d only been thinking about Pendleton as the end of her time as queen. After 9/11, it became a symbol of something much grander.

“I remember being in the stands, listening to the national anthem. We were all crying. It was powerful,” Witters said. “I recognized that what I was experiencing was so much bigger than anything I could ever have imagined. There were still a lot of unknowns, so much we didn’t know. But we were united. We felt it.”

The return to normalcy

In the aftermath of the attacks, prayer services took place all across the region.

Wednesday evening, thousands of people attended candlelight vigils in Moscow and Pullman. Moscow Mayor Marshall Comstock and Pullman Mayor Mitch Chandler both urged the crowds to come together as Americans.

“We stand as a community and a country made of many diverse groups and religions,” said Comstock, according to a Sept. 13 Lewiston Tribune story. “Now we need to stand together in the face of these attacks.”

“We have all been moved in deep sorrow and immense anger,” Chandler said. “These events won’t be easy to put behind us, but we can use this demonstration of our solidarity to embrace our best qualities.”

The decision to ground commercial flights nationwide led to a unique situation in Grangeville, which according to a Sept. 14 Tribune story unofficially became the busiest nonmilitary airport in America.

A mobile air traffic control tower had been set up at the Grangeville airport on Monday, to help manage retardant bomber flights on the 1,300-acre Earthquake Fire. They were allowed to continue, despite the airspace restrictions.

With 16 flights on Tuesday and another 56 on Wednesday, the story said, Grangeville was certainly the busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest, and likely in the entire country.

“Each takeoff required two phone calls to the FAA in Boise,” noted the story. “Each pilot had to submit a detailed flight plan, and was tracked by the FAA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.”

Back in D.C., Congress returned to work on Sept. 12, authorizing a national day of unity and mourning.

“After that, it seemed like once a week we’d practice exiting Congress,” Otter said. “We all had different places we were supposed to go, so we’d march out of the Capitol and head off in different directions.”

He was assigned to a group of about 3,000 members, staff and employees who were assigned a secure location by the Capitol Power Plant.

“We’d walk down the street towards the plant, and we did that every time,” Otter said. “You could have parked a Volkswagen bus there with a bomb and taken out the whole lot of us. It was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen.”

For Farris, who would go on to play six seasons in the NFL, life returned to normal fairly quickly. Games were canceled the weekend after 9/11, but resumed the following weekend.

“When we came back (on Sept. 23), there was a big pregame presentation and moment of silence,” he recalled. “After that, the attacks were still fresh in our minds, but it was back to business. We had games to win.”

And for many Americans, that return to normalcy brought a sense of relief, as well as pride.

“I remember that being part of the conversation in the NFL, about whether we would play the next weekend,” Farris said. “We didn’t want terrorists to think they’d stopped our way of life. We weren’t going to let Osama (bin Laden) feel like he’d won.”

But there was time for mourning and reflection as well.

Hardin’s crew took up a collection and sent him to New York City to represent the Asotin Fire District during a memorial service for all the fallen firefighters and police officers.

“They had a procession through downtown New York, with firefighters and police officers from all around the world,” Hardin said. “I remember that morning it was pouring rain, and we were walking down the streets past all these people. New Yorkers lined the streets, sobbing. It was definitely a moving experience.”

For Hardin and other first-responders who were alive at the time, Sept. 11 became their Pearl Harbor, a day that will forever live in infamy, never to be forgotten.

“What happened that day was an attack on America, and the police and firefighters were the first line of defense,” Hardin said. “Does it have the same impact today as it did then? It does for me, (but) I have firefighters who weren’t even born when it took place. I hope it doesn’t become just another page in a history book.”

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.