A firefighter moves through piles of debris at the site of the World Trade Center in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Graham Morrison/Associated Press

Twenty years have passed since the day 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked and crashed four planes in what would become the deadliest attack on the United States. Terrorists flew two of the planes into the World Trade Center’s twin towers in lower Manhattan. A third plane struck the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plummeted into a field in rural Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake the plane from the hijackers.

Ultimately, 2,996 people were killed and a nation was thrust into a state of war that would persist for two decades, with some soldiers fighting in a war that started before they were born.

Midcoast Maine, like the rest of the nation, was left in shock the morning of 9/11.

The region has close ties to the military. The Brunswick Naval Air Station was still an active military base, and its planes patrolled the maritime waters of the North Atlantic, searching for submarines in what was a carryover from the Cold War. The base closed in 2011.

Bath Iron Works — a shipyard founded in 1884 — still produces warships for the Navy today, as it did in 2001.

Mainers working at those two institutions recall vividly how things changed forever that clear, autumn morning. Thousands of Bath Iron Works rushed out of the shipyard while the Navy base in Brunswick went into high alert and fortified itself.

Here is what those working at the base and shipyard experienced.

              Bath Iron Works 

Just before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Steven Theberge, then a 45-year-old material clerk at a paint issue station at Bath Iron Works, was on the phone with a friend, planning a golf game.

As they ironed out a tee time, Theberge said his friend stopped mid-sentence, shocked by what he saw on television — a passenger airline flying into the north tower of the World Trade Center. His friend described the scene on his television as Theberge listened, stunned.

“A maintenance guy pulled up in a truck in front of my station,” said Theberge. “He turned the news on the radio up in the truck and before I knew it there were probably 50 people standing around this truck. We were standing there when the other tower was hit and nobody knew what was going on.”

Steven Theberge, a former BIW worker, poses for a photo by the shipyard. Courtesy of Steven Theberge.

As Theberge watched, shipyard workers scrambled, with no clear direction of what to do. He said his supervisor drove to his station to tell him about the second plane hitting the south tower and that “it looks like terrorism.”

“I’ll never forget this — he said, ‘Air traffic has been shut down nationwide, so if you hear a plane, you better duck,’” said Theberge. “Within five seconds, two jets, probably from the Brunswick Naval Air Station, took off right over us and the whole place just stopped. Everyone was looking at the sky. You could’ve heard a pin drop.”

As the planes passed, Theberge said his supervisor received a call informing him the shipyard was closing early and workers needed to leave.

“I had paint mixed that needed to be used but my boss told me to just go, he’d dump it,” said Theberge. “It was a mad dash out of there, there was a sense of urgency to get out. People who normally walked — they ran. People were shaken.”

Theberge, who was living in Yarmouth, picked up his son from school and brought him home. He said he remembers sitting in front of the television with his son “into the afternoon, night and well into the next morning,” mesmerized and horrified by the day’s events.

Left: Bath Iron Works Main Yard in 2001. Right: The Main Yard in 2021. Photos courtesy of Bath Iron Works.

For Steven House, then a 51-year-old tugboat captain at BIW, his morning started around 5 a.m., hours before the first passenger plane that would crash into the World Trade Center took off from Boston’s Logan Airport.

House said he went into work early that day because the shipyard was conducting a test on its floating dry dock. Once the dock was disconnected from the shore, it was his job to shuttle people to and from the dock to shore if needed.

Stephen House was working as a tugboat captain for BIW during the Sept. 11 attacks. Courtesy of Stephen House.

“It was a little before 9 a.m. and my deckhand said he needed to go into the shipyard to go to the bathroom,” said House. “When we were walking onto shore, we walked past some guys and they said, ‘Hey, a plane just crashed into the twin towers.’”

House didn’t think much of the news, but the workers urged him to go to an office where the events were unfolding on television. He arrived at the office when the second plane hit the other tower in a cloud of flames and smoke.

“I went back to my tugboat and my portable radio was going off,” said House. “The people on the dry dock were hollering, ‘Get out here, we need you to take these people back to shore now.’”

House shuttled people back to the shipyard as workers flooded out of the facility, but House stayed to help bring the dry dock back to shore. He left work around 7 p.m. after listening to the news for hours on his portable radio.

Shortly after House had reported to work that morning, Steve Jacunski, then 50 and deputy supervisor shipbuilder at NAVSEA/SUPSHIP Bath, was arriving at his office across the street from the shipyard. SUPSHIP is responsible for overseeing the design and construction of Navy ships at Bath Iron Works.

Around 9 a.m., Jacunski said someone came into his office and asked him to come to the conference room. When he arrived, the news was trained on the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center minutes after the first plane slammed into the tower.

While Jacunski, one of about 20 people in the room, was staring at the television in disbelief, the second plane hit the South Tower.

“The room got very quiet,” said Jacunski. “My first reaction was, ‘We could be at war.’ There was no doubt in my mind while watching that it was obviously a planned attack. You knew immediately that it was going to change everything, you just didn’t know what the particulars were.”

Jacunski and his team got to work seeing what instructions the Defense Department had for local offices in the wake of the attacks. Because little was known about who was attacking the country and where the next attack could take place, Jacunski said the Defense Department advised everyone to send workers home. This included BIW.

“We sent the workers home for the same reason we grounded all planes,” said Jacunski. “We had no idea what the size or direction of the threat was, so the reaction was to shut everything down and send everyone home while we get a better idea of what this is all about.”

While Jacunski helped spread the message around the yard, sometimes escorting people away from their posts, he said the emotional response from most was “a sense of disbelief” and “resolve that we needed to find who did this and bring them to justice.”

Across the street, Michael Barone, then a 33-year-old BIW process engineer, was working in the north electric shop and was one of the few people in the shipyard with internet access.

Barone said he remembers a coworker telling him a plane hit the World Trade Center, but he didn’t think much of it because planes had accidentally clipped skyscrapers in Manhattan before. For example, in 1945 a U.S. military plane accidentally hit the Empire State Building while flying in thick fog.

Barone was preparing to accompany his wife to a doctor’s appointment to prepare her for gallbladder surgery.

“At about 9:15, the second plane hit the other tower and so I went to look on CNN and I couldn’t get online, but I needed to leave,” he said. “My wife picked me up, I got to the car and was listening to the news and they said a second plane hit the other tower. All of a sudden the guy screams, ‘A plane just hit the Pentagon!’ I remember turning to my wife and thinking ‘What is going on? This isn’t random.’”

When Barone returned to the shipyard, he was greeted by a wave of workers bursting from the shipyard gates and onto Washington Street in Bath. The crowd was so thick Barone couldn’t pull into the parking lot.

“One of the guys I knew screamed, ‘Mike, they’re letting everyone out and shutting it down. Get out of here while you can,’” said Barone. “We went home and watched the news. The last thing I remember is pushing my kids in the stroller and thinking ‘The world has changed.’”

Mark O’Malley, who was the commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Portland on Sept. 11, 2001, was part of the group responsible for creating the security zone in response to 9/11. The zone extended 400 feet into the Kennebec River around Bath Iron Works.

“Bath Iron Works is a major asset for the U.S. Navy because they’re under contract to build these expensive, complicated ships to support the Navy, so therefore, we cannot leave this facility unprotected,” said O’Malley. “That was the genesis of why we put that safety and security zone around Bath Iron Works.”

That morning, O’Malley was at the Samoset Resort in Rockport preparing to conduct a group Coast Guard training when whisperings of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center began rippling through the crowd. Before long, O’Malley said one of his partners pulled him aside, advising him to come watch something on a television in another room of the resort.

“We got in the car and by the time we left that facility, we heard on the radio that the second tower was struck,” said O’Malley. “A few minutes later, we heard the Pentagon was on fire and we were thinking ‘What possibly could be happening?’”

By the end of his drive from Rockport to Portland, both towers had fallen and O’Malley knew he had work that day. After making a few calls to colleagues, he determined enforcing security zones around important commercial ports and assets in Maine like Bath Iron Works was his best option to protect marine assets.

“My mind went from disbelief to shock to ‘my goodness we have work to do,’” he said. “People who are first responders are trained to put your emotions away and get to work. We could not risk any type of violent act against Bath Iron Works. It was a significant challenge to keep commerce moving and keep everyone safe while not knowing if additional attacks were being planned.”

That security zone created by O’Malley and his team in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks remains in effect 20 years later.

                Brunswick Naval Air Station 

It was a regular Tuesday for those working at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, starting with the usual department head meetings at 8:46 a.m.

Then-Executive Officer of Patrol Squadron 26 Sean Buck, 40 at the time, served as the second-highest in command of a roughly 380-person assembly, known as Patrol Squadron 26, that was tasked with patrolling the ocean with aircraft. Today, Buck is a vice admiral and superintendent of the United States Naval Academy.

An aerial view of the Brunswick Naval Air Station around 1991. Courtesy of the Pejepscot History Center.

At the time, there were four total Patrol Squadrons at the base, Buck said. John Zangardi served as the commanding officer of Patrol Squadron 26, the highest-ranking member.

“It’s usually a closed-door meeting,” said Buck. “All of a sudden, there was a knock on the door and a young Navy lieutenant, that day who was serving as our squadron duty officer, he came in and had a very, very startled look on his face.”

Buck said word traveled through a whisper to the Zangardi, and then to the entire room: The first plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“Everybody scattered back to their respective offices, and we began to turn on the news and watch and we all watched like the rest of us did on that fateful morning as to what was happening,” Buck said. Then the second plane hit.

“We prepared the entire squadron to go into a very battle-ready operational mode,” Buck said. “None of us had come to work with that mindset.”

Buck said he and other officers began calling up the chain of command, relaying information as to what aircraft and personnel were available. While awaiting direction, many pilots were sent home to rest in preparation for 10- to 12-hour shifts.

“We heavily, heavily fortified the front gate of Brunswick Naval Air Station with sandbags, with cement barriers, with armed guards,” Buck said.

By the evening, squadrons were tasked with flying around the clock, patrolling from the northernmost points of Maine to Washington D.C. Buck said that all of the roughly 380 members of Squadron 26 had a role to play.

“We flew 24/7 for six months,” Buck said. “This country was at a very heightened alert for a long time.”

Civilian Director of Public Affairs John James, 62 at the time, recalled learning America was under attack: “We had a big screen, a rear projection screen in the boardroom and so we turned it on to see the second building on fire.”

James described a sense of urgency that took over the base, one that acknowledged the aircraft at the station were invaluable national assets. Everyone there had a clear, serious purpose, he said, one that felt like a wartime footing, although no one truly knew what was going on.

The base organized the delivery of 160 cement barriers to fortify its perimeter, James said, sending a construction battalion in full-combat uniform with loaded weapons – gear only required in times of emergency – to pick up the blockade materials in Woolwich.

“It was serious business,” James said. “We created barriers at our front and back gates. They required cars to slow down and go through a serpentine entrance, IDs were checked. We went to essential personnel on the second day and for a couple of days thereafter.”

Amid the 18-hour workdays, characterized by an unprecedented number of press inquiries in his office, James said people and businesses from town would bring pizzas and cookies for those working at the base. “The community outreach was truly touching,” James added.

According to Air Operations Officer Marty McMahon, the base initially received a request from Boston air traffic control about possibly diverting commercial airplanes to land in Brunswick. Soon after, however, McMahon said another call came in from Boston notifying him Brunswick would not be receiving flights, since all transatlantic aircraft was to be kept out of U.S. airspace.

McMahon, 40 at the time, also learned of the attacks while in a meeting. In his role, McMahon was essentially the airport manager, running the air traffic control room. He still works at the base today — now the civilian commercial hub Brunswick Landing.

“We went to the highest threat condition on the base, locked the gates and everyone had to have their vehicle searched,” McMahon said. “It wasn’t until later on until I got to think about what was really happening. I was in my office when the first tower actually collapsed, you feel anger and sadness with loss of life, but at that point, you’re really focused on your task at hand.”


Emergency first responders dig through the aftermath of 9/11. Courtesy of MATF 01 and Michael Clarke.

By the evening McMahon was tasked with calling the families of Mainers known to be in the Pentagon, D.C. area.

“After the first three or four of them I started to think this is going to be really easy,” McMahon said. “Then we hit one and the parents were already crying on the phone because they hadn’t heard from him.”

The events of the day didn’t hit home for McMahon, the Navy base’s Air Operations Officer, until he walked into the air traffic control room at around 1 a.m. on Sept. 12 to visit his team.

“They were all sitting around playing cards,” McMahon said. “These guys would normally be working directing traffic, airplanes coming and going, but you look at the radar screens and they’re all blank.”

McMahon said there was one airplane on the radar that night, a military aircraft near the coast monitoring for other potential attacks.

“It left a mark on me, it really did,” Theberge, the material clerk at BIW, said. “At first, people were afraid because we didn’t know what was next, or who was next. Then, as things unfolded and we learned it was terrorism and so many innocent lives were lost for such stupid reasons, there was a lot of anger. I still to this day hold anger towards it.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Jacunski, the deputy supervisor shipbuilder at NAVSEA/SUPSHIP, recalled how security measures increased in his offices on Washington Street. Although he declined to mention internal security changes, he said: “The fence around SUPSHIP and the security checkpoint with a guard that’s there now didn’t exist before 9/11.”

“Prior to that day, that was all wide open,” said Jacunki. “You could’ve walked right in.”

Barone, the BIW engineer working in an electric shop, noted the stark differences in security at the shipyard that resulted from that day.

The next morning, police officers guarded the shipyard gates instead of the company’s usual security guards, checking every badge of every employee that entered the facility. The Coast Guard also established a security border around the shipyard in the Kennebec River, and BIW received a security boat that ensured no unauthorized vessels crossed it.

“Up until that point, people used to come close to the destroyers because they wanted to look at them,” said Barone. “Guys would take the day off and go by the shipyard and yell up to people working on the ships. The world was different and the change was dramatic.”

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