Albert Lea firefighters, law enforcement reflect on where they were on 9/11
Published 7:32 am Saturday, September 11, 2021
Remembering the attacks on 9/11 brings back a variety of emotions for people — especially for first responders.
Whether they were already in their present positions or just getting started in the field, all agree it was a day that they will never forget.
The Tribune interviewed several officers and deputies with the Albert Lea Police Department and Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office, along with firefighters with Albert Lea Fire Rescue, about their memories from the day 20 years ago.
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For Albert Lea Officer Adam Conn, 9/11 was his first day on the job at the Albert Lea Police Department.
He said he had just reported for duty and was assigned to his trainer, and within a couple hours of being on shift, news broke out that the World Trade Center towers had been hit.
Officers flocked back to the squad room, where he said they spent a majority of the day watching the events unfold on television.
He remembers feeling upset and angry that something like that could happen in the United States, a country that is usually known for having strong intelligence.
Being a new officer, he said it was eye-opening for him.
“It was the big picture right there,” Conn said. “It’s day one, and it’s like, ‘Holy cow, what am I getting into?’ Twenty years later I look back on it, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I love my job. I like what I do and helping people.”
He said he hopes the United States has enough intelligence that something like 9/11 will never happen again.
Freeborn County Emergency Management Director Rich Hall said he was driving into Rochester and was about a mile out of town when he heard that the first plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
He didn’t hear what size of plane had hit so he didn’t know what to think, but when the second plane hit, he knew right away, “Oh man, we’re in trouble.”
Hall had retired from his military service in April only a few months prior.
He said he remembers calling several of his friends still in the military and talking with them and meeting a friend at Brothers Bar & Grill in Rochester for breakfast and they sat and watched as things played out on the television.
Later in the day, he met several of his fellow firefighters at the fire hall and remembers seeing the line of people at the nearby gas station who were waiting to get gas.
His thoughts were with the military and the Pentagon but he also thought a lot about his fellow firefighters in New York.
“I had a big range of emotion from sadness to anger just thinking about what had happened and that this happened on American soil,” Hall said. “It seems to me like it just happened yesterday. It’s still fresh in my mind.”
Hall said he ended his military career in recruiting in the National Guard and a lot of the young soldiers he recruited ended up deploying oversees in the aftermath of 9/11. He also has close friends who died in Iraq.
“I also felt guilt for having gotten out and not being able to go serve with my friends,” Hall said.
He has a good friend serving in Kuwait with the Minnesota Army National Guard who in recent weeks served in a special mission to bring people out of the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.
His friend plans to retire in less than a year.
Freeborn County Chief Deputy Todd Earl said he was on patrol for the Sheriff’s Office on 9/11 and had just gotten done working an overnight shift.
He finished with his shift at 7 a.m. and like normal for him had a hard time falling asleep right away. He turned on the TV, and pretty soon emergency messages started coming up about the events that were transpiring in New York.
“I remember just not sleeping all day long, I was so angry — just so angry. I had to go to work that night and still wasn’t tired,” Earl said, noting that his disbelief and anger kept him up all day glued to the TV.
Earl said he remembers feeling sick to his stomach that anyone could actually do what was done and his heart went out to the police and firefighters who sacrificed their lives that day helping those around them.
“It didn’t feel like we were in danger in Freeborn County, Minnesota, but we’re all partners, we’re all brothers in law enforcement,” he said. In addition to being in law enforcement, Earl served as a firefighter for 2 1/2 years while in college.
“It was hard to see the same people, dedicated to doing good throughout the community, get lost so quickly. That sheer number is just so devastating. You see one or two and it’s bad enough, but you get hundreds, and it’s just unbelievable.”
Albert Lea Officer Chris Diesen said he was attending school at Normandale Community College and remembers even what parking spot he parked in that day at the school.
Just as he got there, the radio station was actually joking about a plane hitting the first tower.
He went into his first class, and by the time he came out, everyone was staring at the TVs.
He said he was in shock as the nation was under attack.
Working as a mechanic at the time, he said he went to work but they didn’t do anything there except for sit around the radios and TVs.
Knowing he was going into law enforcement, Diesen said he wished he could do something to help.
“I think every law enforcement officer would tell you the same thing,” he said.
Now, knowing that it has been 20 years since that event, he said he hoped the country has learned some lessons — though he is not sure it has.
“It’s weird seeing there how it galvanized everyone into one, and all the division you see today, where’d that go?” he said.
Julie Lynne Kohl
Albert Lea Police Detective Julie Lynne Kohl said the morning of 9/11 she was working on her motorcycle and was preparing for a trip to the Black Hills when she received a call saying she needed to turn on the TV and that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
It wasn’t very long after she turned on the TV that she saw the second plane strike the second tower.
“I knew it was a terrorist attack when I saw that second plane,” Kohl said.
An Air Force veteran, she said she wanted to go fight and obtain justice for what had happened.
She said being with the Albert Lea Police Department since 1992, her heart also went out to the police officers and firefighters who died in service to the country.
“They were brave men and women,” she said. “They were heroes.”
The weekend after the attacks, she remembers being at Mount Rushmore and being part of a memorial service there for everyone who died in the attacks. At the end of the ceremony, she remembers at least one bald eagle flying over the monument.
“It was just chills down the spine,” she said. “Not only that, you were with people you had never met before, and it was like everybody was related to everybody. You talked to everybody, you sat next to people you didn’t know, you interacted with people you didn’t know. It was an amazing time when people put everything aside and said this is our country and we’re going to support it. Never seen anything like it and probably never will again.”
She said it is surreal to think it has already been 20 years since 9/11 and is saddened that there are many people who have forgotten what happened that day or who do not know much about it because they were born after the event.
Albert Lea Deputy Director of Police Darren Hanson said he was working on overnights with the police department on 9/11 and had gone home for the day to sleep when he received a phone call from his wife.
“She just said you should flip on the news, I think the country’s under attack,” he said. “I flipped it on just in time to see the second tower get hit.”
He said it was an experience that left him wondering what was going on, and then he started hearing about the other planes.
“You truly felt like you were under attack,” he said. “I remember thinking everything is different now.”
At some point in the day he said he purposely turned off the TV because he had to go back into work later in the day. That night he remembers the lines at the gas stations with everyone trying to fill up their tanks.
Hansen said though he knows the risk of being a law enforcement officer, seeing the huge numbers of officers and firefighters — and others — who were died that day was “staggering.”
“All the families that were affected, changed just basically in an instant,” he said.
As a father of young children at the time, he said it made him think about them and how in the blink of eye he could have fatherless or motherless children.
Thinking now about the 20th anniversary of the attacks, he said it hits him to know that there is a generation now who doesn’t remember the attacks or who hadn’t been born yet when they took place.
“9/11 changed everything,” he said, noting the changes that have happened in security since then. He also noted advances that have been made since in how first responders can process and disseminate information.
Jeff Laskowske, deputy director of Albert Lea Fire Rescue, said on 9/11 he was in his second year of school to become a firefighter in East Grand Forks and was working at Walmart at the time when he saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center tower while in the electronics department there.
He remembers the college closing shortly thereafter that day.
He was hired officially as a full-time firefighter just a few months later in January 2002 and said there has been a substantial increase in federal support for fire departments in the time since.
Albert Lea Fire Capt. Dennis Glassel said he was working at the old fire station on Clark Street on 9/11.
He said he had not been there long, and remembers someone coming downstairs to the fire quarters and saying that the first World Trade Center tower had been hit.
“We were watching TV when the second tower got hit,” Glassel said. “It was overwhelming, but at the same time, we’re so far removed from New York, it didn’t seem real.”
He said it was a reminder that in the blink of an eye, something very serious can happen in their line of work.
He hoped people would take time to reflect on where they were 20 years ago on this day and what they remember about that time.
“Hopefully it will rejuvenate our country,” he said.
Albert Lea Public Safety Director J.D. Carlson said he was working nights with the Albert Lea Police Department on 9/11 and remembers waking up and seeing the news of what had happened after he received a phone call.
After that, he sat in bed and was glued to the TV as he watched the news unfold.
That day also has a lot of significance because it was the evening he proposed to his then-girlfriend, Mindy.
At that time, Carlson said he was also still with a Marine Corps unit out of Waterloo, Iowa, and it was up in the air on when he would be activated.
“That was kind of disheartening for the longest time because it was an artillery unit and we were expecting to go right away and it kept getting delayed and pushed back with other units,” he said.
His unit was eventually called in 2005-’06 to Iraq. He previously served in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the ’90s.
Carlson said with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this year, he can’t help but think of the Marines who died in recent weeks in Afghanistan. Four or five of them were in their 20s.
“They only have known life here during times of war — the global war on terrorism,” he said.
His mind also shifts to those who were left in Afghanistan who were born in that same time period who’ve only ever known life in combat zones but who were able to enjoy freedoms that they never had prior to that.
“Now to be in a country and have that taken away, I can’t imagine living that same way,” he said.
Carlson said he struggled a bit with not being called to Afghanistan during his military service. He said he also had a difficult time leaving after his service, particularly in Iraq, knowing all the effort he and others put in while they were there and not knowing what would happen after they left.
He said he has toured the Twin Towers with close friends from the Bronx and went back in 2004 with family to view the devastation.
“To see the devastation — it’s impactful,” Carlson said.