For Jim Jobusch, the Tuesday morning 20 years ago on Sept. 11 began uneventfully as he prepared to head into work as Gilbert’s assistant fire chief.
But then the phone rang.
“I got a phone call from my mother-in-law asking, ‘have you seen what was happening in New York City?’” recalled Jobusch, now the town’s fire chief. “I turned on the TV and saw that a plane had flown into one of the towers. I initially thought it was an accident and as I was watching I saw another plane fly into the tower and then I started realize what was happening. There was lot of confusion obviously and it kind of halted our day.”
Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes Sept. 11, 2001, intentionally crashing two of the planes into the iconic twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City – American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. and United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. A half hour later, an American Airlines plane flew into the Pentagon, followed by a United Airlines plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers attempted to retake control.
“There were lots of emotions that day, starting with, is it real to see what we saw on TV,” said Jobusch, who tracked the event as he tried to get through the work day.
“It was very surreal and then as we started to see more pictures of people fleeing and the buildings collapse and people falling and jumping out of windows, it became very sad and emotional and from there just curiosity what was going on.”
Sadness and bewilderment soon mixed with anger for Jobusch after it was confirmed that the crashes comprised a terrorist attack.
What especially hit home for Jobusch were the 343 New York firefighters who lost their lives that day, rushing into the two burning towers, both 110 stories, before their collapse.
“It’s a brotherhood across the country,” Jobusch said. “We all do the same things. Yeah, that was quite shocking as well. When we heard it was over 300 firefighters that had died, that magnitude is just amazing. When you hear it nothing even comes close to that in our lifetime.”
9/11 is on the books as the deadliest catastrophe for firefighters in U.S. history.
All told, over 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center; 125 died at the Pentagon and 256 died on the four planes, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.
What happened that day in Lower Manhattan, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. stayed with Jobusch and especially with then-Chief Collin DeWitt, who retired in 2013.
DeWitt learned that The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns and operates the World Trade Center, was going to make the remnants of the twin towers available once the investigation was completed and submitted an application as soon as he could.
“He stayed aware of that and once they opened that application, he submitted one on behalf of the Town for one of the remnants,” Jobusch said. “We didn’t know what it would be or anything about it. It took about two years to unfold and finally we were notified in late 2010 that we would be receiving a piece of steel from the towers.”
Jobusch said his predecessor saw the importance of bringing back an artifact from the World Trade Center to Gilbert.
“Even almost 10 years later the memories were very clear,” he said. “People are still drawn to recognizing the day every year and (he) thought wouldn’t it be nice to have something to build a memorial for people to go and remember what happened and for later generations to learn. He had a vision to bring that here so we could continue to recognize and honor those who had died that day.”
The town had the option of having the remnant delivered but the cost was greater than if they picked up the piece themselves, according to Jobusch.
So that’s what they did.
In March 2011, the two took turns driving a pick-up truck hitched with a trailer nearly 2,500 miles, reaching Queens, New York, in three days.
“We had no idea what we were getting,” Jobusch said. “Collin had given them an idea of what he was thinking and we would mainly build around what we could bring back.”
The Port Authority had stored and preserved pieces of building steel, first-responders’ vehicles and other objects recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center site inside a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport
“We went to the hangar, check in and waited our turn in line,” Jobusch said. “There were numerous other firefighters and police coming that day to pick up their remnants as well.”
The World Trade Center’s death tally that September morning included 23 New York City Police officers and 37 Port Authority Police officers.
What stood out for Jobusch as he waited was how the departments located near New York handled the artifacts they received.
“Lot of the cities back there got remnants and treated it almost like it was a fallen firefighter,” he said. “They had the Honor Guard there and saluted when (a piece) was brought out there.
“We were going to pick up steel and it became so much more emotional and we realized what it meant for the people who lived in that area. It was so much deeper with them and they treated it with great honor.”
So, when a forklift brought over an 8-foot steel girder that once supported the North Tower, Jobusch understood the impact more.
“We were watching as they brought the steel (girder) out and loaded it onto the trailer and noticed the character and size and it brought out those emotions again,” he said. “You’re looking at it and (asking) where was it in the building and what happened to bring this to the particular shape it was in – it was bent.
“When we picked it up, I knew right away it was a great centerpiece. We couldn’t have hoped for anything better.”
By the time the Port Authority’s distribution program ended in 2016, it had doled out over 2,600 items pulled from the heap of the twin towers to 50 states and 10 nations for the creation of permanent memorials for the public, according to a department news release.
Other municipalities in the Valley that acquired a piece from the WTC included Peoria and Chandler.
It took Jobusch and DeWitt another three days to haul the beam back to Gilbert. As they stopped at gas stations to refuel, people would approach them, touch the girder and some would cry, Jobusch recalled.
Back home, the department held several fundraisers to pay for fabricating the memorial and raised $74,000.
“It was a huge community effort,” Jobusch said. “We got donations from all over the community – not only money but in-kind.
“It was amazing, we were able to exceed what we were hoping to raise for the construction of the memorial and actually got it started quicker that we would have.”
Gilbert unveiled the memorial in front of its Town Hall building on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The steel beam is mounted on a base surrounded by four granite slabs, bearing the names of the nearly 3,000 victims.
“I think Gilbert is a very special place and this memorial is an example of that,” Jobusch said; “when the community really came together and made something special for the future generation to come and see and learn about. I’m very honored to be part of that.”
Although two decades have passed, Jobusch was always reminded of the event when he passed by the memorial on his way to a meeting at Town Hall before it closed in June for renovations.
“When I stopped and looked at it and think about the story and think about what we achieved it gets a little emotional,” he said. “What makes me a little proud is when I see others there looking at it. Before COVID hit, I would see school field trips at the memorial when the teachers are talking about it.
“We’re now to the point where anyone in their 20s doesn’t remember it or those who have not lived through it, to explain to them the events and how unifying it was for this country, something we miss today – that makes me very proud that we were able to do something like that and that it will be here for a very long time.”