Driving to the Lowell Sun newsroom on a sunny morning 13 years ago today I turned on the radio and caught the breaking news that there was an explosion in the Twin Towers.
Like all Americans I was mesmerized. Something (certainly not terrorism) had occurred. Walking into the newsroom around 9:30 a.m. the story was developing fast. City editor Chris Scott came to my desk, handed me a slip of paper and said “an American Airlines pilot lives in Dracut. Here call this number and ask for John Ogonowski.”
Though still a cub reporter, Dracut was my beat. This was my story.
I called. I asked. A young woman said “no, he is not here” in a shaky voice and hung up. “Something’s up,” I told my editor.
In two minutes I was back in my car driving up Marsh Hill Road listening to the news that American Airlines flight 11 had crashed into the World Trade Center. The first plane.
Pulling up to White Gate Farm, a South Fork-like spread that the Ogonowskis owned and tilled, a worker was at the gate. She was about to lock it as I approached. Identifing myself as a local reporter, she somehow let me in.
I was told to wait outside. I waited and watched. One by one, family members with heavy hearts approached. A farmer down the road, who, like many in this tight-knit community was related, arrived with a basket overflowing with apples and harvest vegetables. The look on his face said it all. I called my editor. “I think we’ve got something here.”
John Ogonowski, 52, left his country home that morning at 6 a.m. for Boston’s Logan Airport. He tooted his horn as he passed a neighbor in the early morning dawn. Dressed in his captain blues, he, like the rest of us, was heading off for work. A mundane, reflexive act.
Little did he, or his family, or his hometown, or the rest of the country, know he would never return. And that the U.S. would never be the same.
I went back to the newsroom, filed my story and returned to the Ogononowski farm with editor-at-large and Boston radio personality Paul Sullivan. The fast-taking Sullivan, who always worked two cellphones, was not so manic this time.
He compared the attacks, which now included another tower, a field in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon, to the Vietnam War and how scared the nation was when that war deepened. “Is this another Vietnam?” he asked, weaving his big sedan through the traffic of the city and zooming toward the outer hills where apple trees gleamed in the Indian summer light.
By the time we reached the gates, all Boston media had descended. John’s brother Jim Ogonowski approached the podium and broke the news. His brother was the first victim of the most horrific act of terrorism America had experienced and the one that changed everything.
The agrarian activist working to keep suburbia at bay, was piloting American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to fly directly into the towers.
His young daughters and instantly widowed wife stood as pale as snow behind him. Yes I had a story. Not one I wanted to write.
But I would continue to write it as the weeks and months and years unfolded. This one man had such an impact on farmers, many from Cambodia to whom he had bequeathed land and taught to farm in New England. Weeks later I would interview them and get further dimensions on this remarkable man, one of the thousands remembered today.