San Francisco Chronicle


Bay Area residents reflect on the life-altering day 20 years ago, and for some, the scars that remain

- By Kevin Fagan, Deepa Fernandes and Shwanika Narayan

For many of the youngest among us, Sept. 11 is an entry in a history book, a disaster taught in class alongside the attack on Pearl Harbor or the sinking of the Titanic. But for those of us who watched it unfold, or who were directly affected, it’s a date burned into the mind with the exact place you were when the planes struck the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and an empty field in Pennsylvan­ia.

Twenty years seems like a long time ago. And it can feel like yesterday. But what happened back then, no matter your age, was transforma­tional. Chronicle reporters Kevin Fagan, Deepa Fernandes and Shwanika Narayan spoke to several people about how they were changed by the deadliest terror attack on American soil. Here are their stories in their own words.

1 Sabiha Basrai

Sabiha Basrai, 39, is an Indian American and Muslim woman who was at her parents’ house in Mountain View on the day of the attacks. Basrai, who was about to begin her sophomore year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at the time, channeled her anger, frustratio­n and grief into activism.

I was at my parents’ house in Mountain View that day, in the midst of preparing to start my sophomore year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. My dad came into my room when I woke up and said something like, “This may be the worst terrorist attack we’ve seen in America,” and I didn’t know what to make of it or how to process that. Then I turned on the TV and saw what everyone had already seen, with those images seared into my mind.

The days following the attack was when I began to get nervous. While watching the news unfold, I realized the framing was about Islam, not fundamenta­lists, and how Islam is at war with the West. It meant I had to stop grieving about the loss of life on 9/11 and stop feeling shocked about the attack on the country I lived in, and shift into thinking about protecting myself and my family. I started thinking about when people would show up and put us in camps like they did to the Japanese.

My earliest memory of being able to understand what being Muslim meant and to be aware of this kind of narrative was when I was 8. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and I was in third grade in Mountain View. My neighborho­od and school was diverse, but I was the only Muslim kid. I remember my parents telling me to not tell my friends I was Muslim. I think every immigrant family does what it can to survive in this country, and my parents wanted me to be safe.

I found my political voice in the anti-war movement after 9/11. I didn’t have my Muslim identity define me before that. I didn’t lead with it, I didn’t introduce myself as Muslim, I didn’t really have any Muslim friends outside of just the mosque experience I had with my family. So I compartmen­talized pretty strictly about who I was, with regards to school and friends and career. Being Muslim was always part of me, but it wasn’t something that I really shared with anybody outside of my family.

But when 9/11 happened, all of a sudden, I had a choice to make: Am I going to keep doing leadership work as a student activist, or am I going to lead with my Muslim identity? I continued my student activism in college, something I became immersed with in high school. But the visibility was dangerous, my apartment was vandalized and I was targeted by the conservati­ve students on campus. What made me get through all of it was the support of my friends who were also activists and would check in on me, walk me home and make sure I was safe.

I ended up focusing my design degree in studying the history of anti-war poster art and visual strategies for social justice organizati­ons, a field I am still active in today. I founded Design Active Collective in Oakland, a profession­al graphic design and web developmen­t service that helps to build and strengthen progressiv­e movements fighting for economic and social justice.

— Shwanika Narayan

2 Harold Schapelhou­man

The longtime Menlo Park firefighte­r and disaster specialist led his elite Urban Search and Rescue Team to New York in September 2001 to spend 14 days searching for bodies in the rubble. After they came back, Schapelhou­man and 70% of his team became sick from the poisonous air at the Pile, as the attack’s epicenter was dubbed. He has used a wheelchair since 2013, when he was injured in a fall and retired at age 60 in July as Menlo Park fire chief.

The legacy of 9/11 ... I’m struggling with how I see that today. I would have a different answer if not for the events of the past several (weeks), watching Afghanista­n fall apart. Where did the serious people go, the ones who could make adult decisions? For those of us who were on that Pile — the horrific things we saw and had to do — it was sad and depressing, but someone’s got to go and clean up the mess. And that’s what we did. But now?

When you go to these events, you take some of it home with you. Psychologi­cally, physically. And that happened on this one. To this day.

After New York for most of my team, if you got sick you got sicker, and you got sicker easier.

I have had sinus infections I never had before I went to New York City for the Trade Center — I just got over one in June and July. And when I get them it’s brutal.

And respirator­y problems — I had breathing issues for about a year, and they settled down over time, but I have had to be more serious about my physical workouts, be careful for the rest of my life.

We’ve become better prepared because of being there, but it came the hard way. Since then, the federal government has provided better decon (decontamin­ation) equipment, and we bought better respirator­y protection. It’s improvemen­ts based on tragedy. We used that decon equipment in (Hurricane) Katrina and, early on in the COVID pandemic, we used full-face masks with hazmat respirator­s. We have them today because of what we learned back then.

Still ... I always feel like it was worth it to go. Somebody has to go clean it up. Someone has to do that silent ‘R’ at the end of our team’s name, Urban Search and Rescue — Recovery — for the families.

People ask me about what 20 years later means … and I don’t think younger people understand everything that happened back then, the sacrifices that got made. But I think we won’t forget because we were there.

— Kevin Fagan

1 “While watching the news unfold, I realized the framing was about Islam, not fundamenta­lists, and how Islam is at war with the West.” Sabiha Basrai

2 “You take some of it home with you. Psychologi­cally, physically. And that happened on this one.” Harold Schapelhou­man

3 “I’m going to live my life the way I think my dad would have wanted me to live, with as much joy as I can.” Antonio Aversano

3 Antonio Aversano

His father, Louis F. Aversano Jr., was a risk services director working at the World Trade Center when it collapsed. Antonio Aversano, 52, of Fairfax was an artist and turned his grief into a lifetime of studying healing and trauma and serving as a life coach to help people discover their “soul purpose.”

That experience for me was an experience of — and I almost named my book this — being broken open. It was a wake-up call.

It’s hard to put into words that kind of experience. To have something shatter not only my life, but the way it impacted society, the world — it became a post-9/11 world. There was something so definitive about that day. It was life-changing. It wasn’t easy.

I was a disgruntle­d 30year-old in 1999. And at a (personal developmen­t) workshop I realized my dad was just being my dad and being the best he could. I called him ... and had this healing conversati­on. It was after that transforma­tional phone call that our relationsh­ip was taken to new depths and we both came to understand each other in ways we never would have imagined.

I started to see that on a deeper level he wasn’t really happy. He was a very joyous man, but he followed the American dream that if you work hard and retire you can be happy. That belief was typical for his generation and continues today for many people.

He was 58 at the time of his death. Commuting 1½ hours a day from New Jersey. That was a really profound lesson for me. That happiness and joy is not a someday thing. If I can’t create it now — now is all I have. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow — and the way my dad was killed is something I will never forget and I share with a lot of people. He never got the chance to experience that happiness he could have.

He lost his life because he was the fire marshal (a civilian responsibi­lity on the floor where he worked, not a Fire Department position), and he claimed responsibi­lity for that. He knew right away that this was not an accident when the first plane hit. He called my sister, who

worked in Manhattan elsewhere, and said, “Get out of town.”

Looking back you can see every minute counted, but they didn’t know that at the time. I really take his value of work and dedication as a teaching for me. His generation didn’t question it — they didn’t say, “you mean I have a choice here?” What I don’t think he knew was that you need to live some of your dreams, some of your existence, instead of just living your job.

And now with the pandemic — yoga, meditation, self-discovery, that has all become more important than ever.

The act that day, on Sept. 11 — it was meant to spread hate and poison. So, I’m going to live my life the way I think my dad would have wanted me to live, with as much joy as I can. Twenty years later the biggest takeaway for me is love and compassion for myself, for others, for my family, for all of us.

— Kevin Fagan

4 Johwell Saint-Cilien

A filmmaker and video producer at the Oakland Museum of California, the French immigrant, 43, stood beneath the World Trade Center towers while watching the second plane hit.

I was born in France — Paris — of Haitian parents. I came to New York City because growing up in Paris I felt like there was no opportunit­y for me as a Black man to achieve my dreams. New York City, this is the land where you go if you want to make it. The goal was to be rich and famous.

I was a foot messenger at the time (of 9/11), and the office was right across the street from the World Trade Center. That particular morning I took the train as usual and as soon as I got off to go to my office, I hear a huge boom, an explosion. I look up and I see smoke. No one was sure what was going on at the moment. I thought it was a freaky accident.

I heard this person talking about going back to his office. I believe he was working in the second tower. And that’s when the second plane hit, and at that moment, we understood that it was more than an accident.

So at the time, I used to always carry this disposable camera because I wanted to document my life. So when I saw the smoke, I had my little portable camera and I decided to start snapping photos. I kept on snapping: the second plane hitting, the tower falling and even as we were running to seek refuge.

I saw people dying for the first time, people trying to escape the flames, jumping off the windows. People climbing down the tower to eventually slip and see them flying down and hitting the floor. Those images really stayed with me, preventing me from sleeping for a while. And those images, actually, I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of.

Growing up in France, I have Muslim friends. So when I was hearing all these narratives around this happened because of Muslims (it) created even more anger (in me).

I was not a documented person at the time, so I wasn’t eligible for the medical assistance that the government was offering — mental or physical. The combinatio­n of all these different things really grew something different in me.

I started (the nonprofit) NegusWorld. Negus means king in Ethiopian. We produce an event every year and fundraise for children in need around the world. In the first year, we bought 6,000 school lunches for kids in Haiti. In the second year, more organizati­ons participat­ed, and we built a soccer field for kids in Brazil. This year we sponsored scholarshi­ps for girls in Liberia.

9/11 changed my dreams and my purpose.

— Deepa Fernandes

5 The Rev. Ernie Aguilar

One of Aguilar’s jobs after the towers collapsed was to pray over the bodies found at ground zero and to counsel the grieving. A campus minister at UC Berkeley before taking a church post in New York, he was so struck by his experience that he quit the clerg y and devoted his life to helping the underprivi­leged. Aguilar and his husband now live with their daughter near Austin, Texas, where Aguilar, 49, is an assistant principal at an elementary school.

I remember being there and people trying to draw harsh black lines. You know, this is the good side and this is the bad side, these people are bad, these aren’t, sometimes based on how people looked. But saying, “You’re on the right side, you’re on the wrong side” — you can’t just judge like that.

People who survived were angry, and would ask, “Was it OK that I want to hurt someone else?” There were people wrestling with that dark side of themselves. A lot of my time was spent helping people face that.

Some people thought I left the clergy because of 9/11. But I left because I needed to for me. I thought I could devote myself more to working with those most in need, in a wider way, if I did that. I worked in HIV hospice, LGBTQ counseling, got a Ph.D. in medical ethics and humanities, and became an educator instead. In a lot of ways, 9/11 sort of locked in my identity. My life is about making these spaces for people to find comfort. Like this past year, doing Mass online — I left the clergy, but I am still a priest — for people who were afraid to go to church because of COVID.

For the oldest kids in my elementary school, this all happened 10 years before they were born. For the kids, it’s part of something they learn about that happened, like we learn about Pearl Harbor. For them, it’s a curiosity — like, what happened again? In New York, it felt like it happened to everyone in the world, but it didn’t in the same way. Not at all. And certainly not all these years later.

I’ve never given myself the time to think about it this way until now. A theme that popped up over and over was the importance of slowing down. This horrible, horrible, traumatic event happened. And it was important to slow down and think about what my feelings were, think about whatever anger I had toward the people who caused it. As much as I talk about antibias and acceptance, I can still fall into traps, feel anger.

The humility is — I’m never going to be able to give the big “why” answer, why something horrible like that happens. But what I can do is to be present now. I can’t take the pain away, explain why this happened in the first place, when the pain will go away.

— Kevin Fagan

6 Zahra Noorbakhsh

Born in Sacramento and raised in the East Bay, Noorbakhsh, 40, was at her family home when 9/11 happened. The resulting Islamophob­ia compelled her to use her voice as a comedian.

Growing up Iranian American in the 1980s, I was no stranger to racism and discrimina­tion. My mom’s headscarf signaled to people that we were Iranian and therefore “hostage-taking” enemies of the state. Months before 9/11, a racist doctor nearly killed my brother, ignoring cancer symptoms, saying, “I know your people. You treat your sons like princes. He’s not sick, he’s spoiled.” After 9/11, the lawyer representi­ng us dropped my parents’ malpractic­e suit, saying, “No judge or jury will see you with that thing around your head and side with you against an ‘American’ doctor.”

There was a collective shift in attitudes toward people like me after the attack, how culturally appropriat­e racism against Muslims became. I felt like every time I walked into a room, there was a conversati­on being had before I got there, and I didn’t understand why people seemed to have a relationsh­ip with me before I showed up.

The aftermath led me to channel my anger into comedy. I’ve always been interested in comedy, I think because I wanted to be the one to tell my story, and make it funny and connect with people. I was tired of hearing stories that centered on tragedy. I wanted to celebrate who I was. I wanted to take control of my narrative as a brown Muslim woman. So much of what I was seeing in the media was despairing­ly problemati­c.

But I’m not immune to the issue most immigrants and children of immigrants face — being unwittingl­y appointed the spokespers­on of an entire community. I just wanted to tell jokes, talk about my life and about things I found funny, but when people see me onstage, they want a Ted Talk on Islam.

I got past that from working with other brown and Black comics, learning from them, and from working with activist Taz Ahmed for five years on our podcast #GoodMuslim­BadMuslim. We were even invited to record an episode at the White House under the Obama administra­tion.

I am now vocally intentiona­l about my identity: a feminist Iranian American and Muslim comedian who also identifies as queer, so much so that I start almost every set with this intro. Like most brown folks, I’ve had to explain who I am and why I’m here amidst the layered stories of trauma and resilience.

But we are so much more than our pain. The next 20 years, I’ll be here sharing our joyful stories. — Shwanika Narayan

4 “I saw people dying for the first time, people trying to escape the flames, jumping off the windows.” Johwell Saint-Cilien


“In a lot of ways, 9/11 sort of locked in my identity. My life is about making these spaces for people to find comfort.” The Rev. Ernie Aguilar 6 “The aftermath led me to channel my anger into comedy . ... I think because I wanted to be the one to tell my story, and make it funny.”

Zahra Noorbakhsh

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Photos by Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle, Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle and Marshall Tidrick / Special to The Chronicle Sept. 11 was transforma­tional for six Bay Area residents, clockwise from top left: Johwell St-Cilien, Sabiha Basrai, Ernie Aguilar, Harold Schapelhou­man, Antonio Aversano and Zahra Noorbakhsh.
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Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle 1
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Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle 4
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Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle 2
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Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle 6

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