WATERVILLE — Tom Savinelli’s memories of working in the rubble of the World Trade Center 20 years ago are as keen now as they were then.

The memories do not fade as he gets older; they become more poignant.

“Twenty years is 20 years, but it seems like it was yesterday, actually,” Savinelli said Tuesday. “You always think about it. It won’t go away. It never will.”

He is among many people in central Maine whose memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are still vivid — and raw — as the 20th anniversary approaches.

Savinelli, 68, of Waterville, was a firefighter for the West Haven, Connecticut, Fire Department on Sept. 11, 2001, and he headed to New York City two days later to help emergency crews.

“There’s no thinking about what to do,” he said. “You grab your gear and go. On arrival, the shock of what you are witnessing will affect you the rest of your life. You find out where you are needed, whether on the pile, pulling hose, searching other damaged buildings. You do whatever you were asked and if they needed you to do a different task, you don’t question. Just go do it, because that’s what was needed at that moment.”

Savinelli was 48 at the time and had been in the fire service 29 years, all at West Haven Fire Department where he had been a volunteer for five years and a paid firefighter for 24. He retired from the fire service after 9/11 and the next year, 2002, moved to Maine with his wife, Candace.

Savinelli worked at the World Trade Center site for three days, he said during an interview at Jorgensen’s Cafe on Main Street.

“How I felt was lots of anger, sadness, concern and hate — but you put that aside when you are there,” he said. “It’s afterward, some of or all the feeling are still there, to this day. You learn to cope on your own or with professional help.”

Savinelli stays in touch with fellow firefighters he worked with during those difficult days. Some are no longer alive.

“I have lost friends to cancer, some have survived cancer, others have had long term health problems to this day,” he said. “Thank God for the World Trade Center health program. A good friend of my wife said to her sometime after (9/11), ‘Your husband has changed since that day.’ Maybe I have. The anniversaries are the hardest.”

A ‘PIVOTAL, DEVASTATING EVENT’

Those who lived and-or worked in the Waterville area Sept. 11, 2001, also remember acutely what they were doing when they learned of the terrorist attacks.

“We were in the old Gilman Street School,” Waterville Schools Superintendent Eric Haley said Tuesday. “That’s where the superintendent’s office was at the time. Somebody yelled at me, ‘Come, look. A plane just hit the Trades,’ and I said, ‘What?’ They kept reporting that over and over and didn’t know exactly what was happening.”

Eric Haley, superintendent of schools in Waterville, speaks during a board meeting on July 11, 2018. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened during Haley’s first year as superintendent. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

It was Haley’s first year as superintendent, after having been Waterville Senior High School principal starting in 1990 and assistant principal five years before that.

It was a difficult day in education, and a tough week.

“I remember being kind of mesmerized, like I was when I found out about the JFK assassination,” Haley said of the moment he learned the Trade Center had been hit by the first plane.

“I felt a similar feeling, like something bad had happened, but I couldn’t tell just what. A second plane hit and then you knew that something bad was going on — that it wasn’t an accident. I think at that point I called school principals or had my secretary call them. It was very difficult. I’m getting emotional even thinking about it. It was like, raw nerve. There were so many people with connections.”

Some school staff had friends or relatives working at the Twin Towers or in New York City in general, and not knowing where they were or if they were affected was painful, Haley recalled. Knowing firefighters and other emergency workers were at the scene and were injured or killed was heart-wrenching.

“It was just horrific, shocking,” Haley said. “There are those moments in your lifetime that are just kind of burned, etched if you will, when things happen like that.”

Teachers and staff, while dealing with their own fears and grief, sought to help students process what was happening as they witnessed the tragic moments in history unfold.

Waterville High School students Tabitha Soucy, left, embraces Emily Nabor and Cami Lynn Hujara as teacher Martha Cobb consoles the students after watching television footage of the plane crashes into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Soucy and 750 other students were called to the school auditorium, where then-principal Scott Phair announced that the nation had been apparently attacked by terrorists. Morning Sentinel file

Martha Cobb was teaching biology in her second-floor classroom at Waterville Senior High School when she learned a plane had hit the Twin Towers.

“Of course, 20 years ago, it was harder to get information,” Cobb said Wednesday. “A teacher came upstairs and said, ‘We’re under attack.’ I had a TV in my room and I scurried to get it hooked up to watch, to see what was going on, because we didn’t have news feeds and all that. I basically remember we tried to get what we could on the news and then we were called down to the auditorium and told what we knew at that point. The decision was made to stay in school. I remember I consciously made the decision to turn the TV off and try to have somewhat of a normal class.”

But the day was anything but normal.

“I just remember a few students were visibly shaken because they had family in New York City, but not a lot of them,” Cobb recalled. “Not a lot of students had much of a reference point as to what it meant because they had never been to New York City.”

Cobb described the day as “surreal.” She had two children, ages 1 and 4 at the time, and thought about what to tell her 4-year-old.

“I just remember driving home and it felt like a somber day, driving home,” she said.

Kristen Gilley was a 15-year-old freshman at Waterville Senior High School on 9/11 when the principal, Scott Phair, called everyone to the auditorium.

Kristen Gilley

“When getting there, he shared the news that the Twin Towers had been hit by two airplanes,” Gilley said Wednesday. “Looking around, as a 15-year-old, I was unsure what this meant, but I also had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I had family who lived in New York City. A month prior, I had spent a week there visiting my family. It was crazy to think that the ‘fun vacation spot’ had quickly become a war zone.”

Gilley, now 34 and the director of development at a local senior living community, said that after hearing the news, she and the other students were dismissed back to their classes where they watched the news on televisions.

“It was quiet as students watched,” she said. “Although we were likely too young to truly understand what was happening, we were all aware that this was the beginning of something that would make history. I do recall one senior in my study hall class stating, ‘Get ready; we’re all going to be drafted.'”

Gilley said it feels “crazy” that 20 years have gone by.

“The length of time that has passed truly set in a few years ago when I saw the 9/11 event in an elementary history book,” she said. “This pivotal, devastating event was my first real ‘historical’ event that I remember.”

LOCAL FIREFIGHTER REMEMBERS

Waterville fire Lt. Scott Holst also will never forget, particularly because he was in New York City just two days before the terrorist attack.

Scott Holst, a lieutenant with the Waterville Fire Department, holds a picture Friday of New York firefighters hoisting the American flag above the rubble of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Four of us from the Fire Department had gone to see the Red Sox-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium,” Holst, now 61, recalled Tuesday. “We stayed down there with firefighters from Engine 73 and they took us around Manhattan. We were right there, at the World Trade Center, two days before the (attack).”

The New York firefighters tried to convince Holst and other Waterville firefighters John Gromek, who now is battalion chief for the department, and Jim Roy and Jim Graves, to stay on longer in New York, but they had to get back to Waterville, Holst said. Otherwise, they would have been there when the attacks occurred. Graves now is director of the Maine Fire Service Institute and Roy is assistant deputy director.

Holst said he had the day off Sept. 11, 2001, and was mowing a lawn when his wife, Ruth, called to tell him the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane. When she reported a second plane had struck, Holst hurried home and became glued to the TV, he said.

The firefighters with whom Holst and the others had stayed in New York responded to the terrorist attacks. Fortunately, none were killed.

“We went back down to New York in March 2002 and met up again with them and went to ground zero,” he said.

Holst, who started as a firefighter in Winslow in 1982 and got a job at Waterville Fire Department in 1994, is Maine State Federation of Firefighters vice president for Kennebec County.

After 9/11, he and other Waterville firefighters were compelled to do something to help their counterparts in New York.

“We raised money,” he said. “We had car washes, we created a sticker in remembrance of 9/11. We sold those stickers for $5 apiece. I also put it on eBay and they took off on eBay. People were putting the stickers on vehicles. Between that and a few of the car washes, I think we ended up with $25,000 we sent down there. When that kind of thing happens, everybody comes together.”

COVERING THE NEWS

Mike Violette, who now hosts the Mike Violette Show on Legacy 1160 WSKW, was in the middle of hosting a morning show with Eric Leimbach on Star 101 in Augusta when he first learned of the 9/11 attack.

“We weren’t a news station,” he said, “but we transitioned into one immediately.”

Mike Violette

The station was housed in a Whitten Road building with WABK and WTOS, and on the morning of 9/11 they dropped all their regular programming and simulcast coverage as the day’s events unfolded.

“We had just moved into this building, and we weren’t actually all wired up yet for the internet,” he said. “We had one dial-up computer for the internet.”

During their morning broadcast, he said the operations manager came out to the studio and said he heard something about a small plane hitting a building in New York and asked if they could try to find more on the internet.

There were no TVs in the station at the time, so the general manager ended up bringing one in from his car so everyone could keep up with what was happening.

“He didn’t have an antenna, so we ended up having to hook up a coat hanger to it to be able to get channel five,” Violette said. “We had the TV in an open door in front of the building so it could get a better signal. It was crazy. At that point we went into — like everybody else — full panic mode.”

In the moment, he said his feelings were a mix between the rush of adrenaline that comes with covering a breaking story along with the stress and concerns of processing the weight of the attack.

“Your country has been attacked,” Violette said. “Your fellow Americans have been killed. And so my kids were really little at the time, but I was calling their mother and asking if they’re OK, even though you pretty much know they’re OK.”

In the moment, he knew it was going to be a moment where everyone would remember where they were when they heard the news.

Two decades later, Violette said the most significant change has been with technology.

“I think of how when I do a show now, all of the sources of information that I can bring up, literally with a click, and how incredibly helpful that might have been 20 years ago,” he said. “But then you look at what we’ve just been through with the evacuation of Afghanistan, you look back and think ‘Nothing’s changed. We’re still fighting the fight.'”

ON THE SCENE

Filmmaker and Winthrop native Darcy Dennett captured dramatic footage of the World Trade Center towers burning and collapsing as horrified New Yorkers looked on in the attacks.

Darcy Dennett

When she pondered whether to produce a new film taking a detailed look at both the revolutionary construction and history-altering destruction by terrorists of the World Trade Center for a new documentary, the 50-year-old New York City resident was at first hesitant to rehash those traumatic memories.

But Dennett was attracted enough by the point of view of the film — which became “Rise and Fall: The World Trade Center” that premieres on the History Channel at 8 p.m. Sept. 10 — examining the World Trade Center from its inception and significant architectural advancements through the 1993 bombing and its ultimate destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, and its place in world history, to produce the documentary.

Looking back at the attacks on their 20th anniversary brought back painful and still fresh memories, she said, like it was yesterday.

“I try not to think about it too much, because it doesn’t take much to spark those terrible feelings,” said Dennett, a 1988 graduate of Winthrop High School. “I suppose it’s a kind of PTSD that we collectively experienced as New Yorkers, Americans and people who watched from the sidelines all around the world.”

On the morning of the 9/11 attacks Dennett was on Staten Island, and had a camera with her because she was on her way to a shoot in Manhattan, and she broke out her camera when the attacks took place, filming lower Manhattan as smoke from the towers filled the sky. She briefly interviewed other people gathered there watching on the rocky shore, their pained faces watching and struggling for words, and her film, “Morning, September 11” was featured on HBO. She said it is still hard for her to watch the footage which she said “transports her right back to that morning.”

Dennett, who previously created the documentary “The Champions,” on the fate of the dogs formerly owned by Michael Vick, said capturing the Sept. 11 moments on film likely helped her deal with what she was seeing that day.

“Holding up a camera to your eye acts as a filter between you and the rest of the world,” she said. “It’s a kind of armor, a way of protecting yourself. It’s also a helpful way to try and make sense of and process what you’re experiencing. I was grateful to have something to distract me from what was unfolding around me that morning.”

Dennett said it turned out to be inspirational to interview some of the survivors who miraculously escaped the towers that morning.

“It’s mind-blowing to talk with some of the few people who actually walked away after the planes hit their floors,” she said. “I have to say I feel honored that they were willing to share their stories with us; talking with them definitely informed my point of view on life. Life can change in an instant, sometimes dramatically, in ways you could have never predicted. Live every day to its fullest. It could be your last. Take nothing for granted.”

Kennebec Journal staff writers Chris Bouchard and Keith Edwards contributed reporting. 

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.