Remembering 9/11: Austin veterans, first responders reflect on terrorist attacks 20 years later


(KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the sun turned the south side of downtown Austin skyscrapers a burnt orange Saturday morning, the sound of bagpipes called people walking along Lady Bird Lake to share a moment with Austin firefighters beneath our nation’s flag, which was hung on the basket of a fire truck parked on Cesar Chaves and Colorado, catching the rising sun between red stripes.

It was at this moment 20 years ago, at the start of a beautiful, sunny, blue-sky day that a plane barreled into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Less than 20 minutes later, the south tower would be hit too.

In all, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11, a day that would be permanently scratched into history and the memory of Americans from Maine to Texas to California. It’s a day that, even two decades later, carries tremendous weight. You could feel it standing among Austin’s first responders Saturday morning as they remembered their brothers and sisters who ran towards danger, instead of away from it.

Roughly 20 minutes from the Austin Firefighter Association’s memorial service downtown, more than 100 people were standing at the bottom of the observation tower at Circuit of the Americas. They were preparing to climb the tower four times, replicating the number of steps firefighters would have taken in the twin towers as they carried a human body weight’s worth of rescue gear.

One of those people, standing in the shadows of the tower, was Gonzalo Herrera.

Twenty years ago, Herrera was in 5th grade music class watching smoke pour out of the twin towers on television and wondering how such a bad accident could have happened twice. He remembers how abrupt his usually chatty teacher was. It wasn’t much longer before that innocent ‘how could this happen’ mindset shifted.

Herrera, left, talks to other 9/11 memorial tower climb participants (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

“All I remember was me being angry and making U.S. flags everywhere, just drawing them, and watching the news,” he said.

Like so many other young men and women at the time, Herrera’s anger and patriotism fueled a call to duty. He joined the Marines a few years later to serve on the front lines of the war on terror.

“I went to Afghanistan with a mindset that I might not make it back,” Herrera said.

Now out of the military, Herrera wants to make sure the American promise that we won’t forget what happened to us 20 years ago, sticks. His message Saturday, as someone who has seen the impact of this tragedy from inside enemy lines, is twofold: never forget, and be kind.

“Be good to one another, you never know when the next attack is going to be. You never know when you’re going to not see your family and friends…just be good to one another.”

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