Cohnipedia: 9/11's tenth yahrtzeit

Of course I remember exactly where I was when I began to hear about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. I had just arrived at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, where the Jewish Light offices were located at the time. Sue Cohen, one of our staffers told me that she heard an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. My immediate thought — and hope — was that it was an accident, like the time a small plane crashed into the Empire State Building in 1946.

By the time I joined the rest of the stunned staff watching TV in our small conference room, the tragedy began to unfold before our very eyes. First was confirmation that a plane had indeed crashed into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center; then a second plane hit the other tower with the horrifying fireball that resulted. Within an hour, a third plane crashed into a wall of the Pentagon. The Pentagon. No enemy in the history of the United States-not the Nazis, not the Japanese, not the Communists had been brazen enough to strike at the very military nerve center of the entire free world. At that point, I was officially "scared," but urged colleague Brent Kornblum to join me in putting up a front of outward calm until we knew the full scope of what was happening.

The results in terms of the statistics remain incredible even as we mark the 10th anniversary of what has come to be known as 9/11: Just under 3,000 innocent men, women and children were killed in the Al Qaeda-led attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93, which the brave passengers brought down over Shanksville, Pa. as it was headed towards either the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. The 9/11 death toll exceeds the number of Americans killed at the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt properly labeled "a date that will live in infamy."

While most St. Louis Jews likely remember exactly where they were on 9/11, three in particular were deeply impacted because of where they were. Scott H. Cohn was in New York when the disaster occurred while Dr. Jack Croughan was in Jerusalem. He and his wife feared the worst because their married daughter Sarah and her sister Rebecca's fiance, Mike, worked at the World Financial Center, adjacent to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Lt. Col Richard A. Kotch, who had residences in both Chesterfield and Washington, D.C., was at his post at the Operations Center at the Pentagon, just two floors below the point of impact of the hijacked plane the morning of Sept. 11, 2011.

All three of these members of our local Jewish community shared their stories in their own words in articles published in the Jewish Light at the time, and in the paper's edition of Sept. 11, 2002, marking "The First Yahrzeit" of that singular tragedy in our nation's history.

Scott Cohn (full disclosure: he is my son) was in New York City as part of a team from Famous-Barr Co. and the May Co. that was in Manhattan on business. He "was off for my 9 a.m. appointment with Evan-Picone a few blocks away. ...As I walked through Times Square, I looked up at the monitors overlooking the Square to see smoke billowing from one of the Twin Towers. Before I read the caption, I thought it was a preview for some terrible disaster movie. As we know now, it was not.

Cohn "headed to his appointment in one of the highest buildings in midtown, 1411 Broadway, and stood at the window, watching the smoke and flames." His wife Julie called "and then I saw the explosion in the second tower. From my vantage point, I could not see the plane, but (his wife) saw it on the Today Show. The explosion was terrible and scary. Much worse than what it looked like on TV." Cohn shared the entire narrative of his ordeal on that terrible day in a detailed email to his son Adam who was only a year old at the time, so that he would have a full record of his horrific experience. He continued, after describing seeing the second plane crash into the Twin Towers: "I hung up and the nine or so of us in the Evan-Piccone Co. showroom were in total shock. Most were crying and I felt like I was going to throw up. We then watched in disbelief as the first tower crumbled. More screaming and shock. Security came over the loud speaker and told us to leave the building. Once we were on the street, I began to wonder what would happen next. Would Times Square be the next target? What was going on?"

Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, Jack and Patty Croughan, who had just heard the news in Jerusalem were gripped with fear that their daughter Sarah and her sister's fiance Mike had been at the World Financial Center, the smaller building with the pyramid-shaped roof that is directly adjacent to the World Trade Center. The Croughans were in the State of Israel to show solidarity with the Israelis who had been enduring the relentless terror attacks of the Second Intifada, after Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had rejected President Bill Clinton's peace plan two months earlier. "We knew that Sarah and Mike always came to work early each morning which increased our dread," recalled Jack Croughan. "About four long hours later, our feelings of despair and agitation were relieved as we learned that all four of our children living in Manhattan were safe. thus it was with profound gratitude that we proudly sang Israel's national anthem "Hativkva" ("The Hope") and "God Bless America" at a hastily, but well-prepared dinner at the King David Hotel....We had gone to Israel as part of a Jewish Federation Solidarity Mission to show support to the Israelis, as they endured constant terrorist attacks. Now the tables were turned, and they lovingly reached out to us."

Perhaps no other member of the local Jewish community came closer to the horrible events of 9/11 that U.S. Army Lt. Col. Richard Kotch, who was affiliated with Congregation Shaare Emeth, and who had an already demanding job in the Pentagon's vital Army Operations Center when the terrorist-hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, impacting just two floors above where he was working. "We never left the Pentagon," Kotch wrote for the Jewish Light. "We never left work. We were on duty on Sept. 11, 2001. We were put on 24/7 duty immediately after the impact of the American Airlines flight. I was as the Army Operations Center, which immediately spun up into what we call a CAT, a Crisis Action Team. It became a focal point for all Pentagon activities, since it is in a relatively secure area, two stories below the impact area, frankly in the basement of the Pentagon, and we never actually evacuated. We were among the very few, if not the only groups not to evacuate. We were lucky to have been unscathed essentially, although there was smoke all around us after the impact.

On Sept. 11, 2001 we became the focal point where the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff would come in and out. We assured continuity of operations after the impact. On the morning of Sept. 11, I was sitting in the very Pentagon building that was burning and being evacuated while watching the events on TV. It was very surreal. We heard what sounded like the thump of an air conditioner going on, and asked what was that? We have TV monitors in our area to watch CNN to keep up with world events, and had already been watching the films of the attacks on the World Trade Center when the American Airlines plane hit the World Trade Center.

Kotch continued, "Apparently the plane hit the ground in front of the heliport and skidded into the Pentagon building. If it had made a direct hit, the damage would have been much more severe. We continued to man our stations until about 2 a.m. I then turned to Larry Grant, my Operations Sergeant and suggested that we go upstairs to see if we could assist in the rescue effort. On the way up the two floors to the impact area, we had to grope our way through very, very thick black smoke. We finally made it to the outside." What struck Kotch immediately was "the total devastation of the impact zone. When we looked around, we could not identify any semblance of an airplane. It was gone. No wings, no tail, no fuselage. I have a photo of Larry Grant holding the biggest fragment we could find, and it was no bigger than his fist." Kotch later found "a piece of shiny metal with the American Airlines initials on it. That plus a charred first aid kit we found later and left in place, were the only identifiable remnants of the passenger jet. We left the pieces there because the FBI had declared the site to be a crime scene."

Yes three members of the St. Louis Jewish community-Scott Cohn, whose business trip turned into a living nightmare, Jack Croughan, who worried for four hours that his daughter might have been one of the victims, and Lt. Col. Kotch, who bravely manned his post at the Pentagon, just two floors below the point of impact of the American Airline flight in which 186 people would die. Cohn, Croughan and Kotch consider themselves to be among the lucky ones, despite the trauma they shared with all Americans that terrible day: they lived to tell the tale.

And they-and we will never forget!