Iowa man recalls watching second tower fall on Sept. 11, 2001

Ben Stanford, of Quasqueton, said 'mind-blowing' event 'changed my life'

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QUASQUETON — Like many travelers, Ben Stanford makes pressed pennies wherever his journeys take him.

New York City was no exception.

This particular penny features a cloverleaf, a horseshoe and the New York Yankees’ iconic “NY” logo — the perfect memento for a longtime Yankees’ fan. Cursive letters are pressed into the copper that read, “My Lucky Penny.”

“That’s my lucky charm,” Stanford said.

The back of the penny is smooth and featureless, but if the date and location of when and where the penny was made were included, the significance of the penny would be even more profound — Sept. 10, 2001. World Trade Center.

Like many Americans, Stanford, 42, of Quasqueton — a child protection worker for the Department of Human services — can still vividly remember most of the details of that fateful day. Unlike most Iowans, however, Stanford was in New York City when the Twin Towers fell.

“It’s just something you don’t forget,” he said. “All of this stuff is just as vivid as the day it happened.”

Stanford was 26 when he took off in early September for a two-week vacation to New York City. The trip was supposed to last from Sept. 4-18 and Stanford was staying with a friend who lived in Queens.

On Sept. 7-9, Stanford cheered on the Yankees at Yankee Stadium as they swept the Red Sox.

The Yankees were slated to play the Red Sox again on Sept. 10, but it was rained out. That day, Stanford took a tour of the World Trade Center. The tour took him to an observation deck on one of the towers.

“I really don’t like heights,” Stanford recalls. “I spent a good 15 minutes trying to work my way down (to the observation deck). ... I remember sitting there and watching everyone.”

The next day — Sept. 11 — Stanford had a trip planned to Coney Island. He said he did a little drinking the night before and it slowed him down that morning.

“I got up late and thank God I got up late,” he said.

Before hopping on a train in Queens, Stanford stopped at a corner store. The TV in the store showed the North Tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. At the time, it still wasn’t clear terrorists had flown a plane into the tower, Stanford said.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m going to be right down there. I’m going to see how they put out a fire that high up,’ ” he said.

The gravity of the events still hadn’t hit commuters as they crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, but there was a different vibe on the train as the passengers watched smoke rise from the tower, Stanford recalls.

“(On the train), nobody talks to anybody, nobody is friendly,” he said. “But that morning, everybody was talking about this.”

Stanford said the train went underground and he lost sight of the towers. Eventually, the train slowed and then finally stopped. Stanford sat on the train until a transportation official told him to get off. Stanford told the man he was trying to get to Coney Island.

“He said, ‘Oh man, you’re done for the day. You’re not going anywhere,’ ” Stanford said. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Just go up, you’ll find out.’ ”

Stanford doesn’t remember exactly which subway stop he got out of, though it was near the Flatiron Building and — he believes — Madison Square Park. He walked out on to Fifth Avenue to find it completely full of people.

“There’s only one tower,” he said. “I get my camera out. ... As I’m standing there, the second tower goes down. It’s just the damndest thing you ever saw. That’s all I can say. It’s mind-blowing.”

Since this was the days before smartphones, Stanford said he still had no idea what had happened or what to do. He ducked into a nearby McDonald’s where he saw people covered in dust go by. Then, he started walking to Times Square where his friend worked.

“Times Square is packed,” he said. “Now, I finally know what’s going on. I finally know it’s a terrorist attack. Now, I’m scared.”

Stanford managed to find the building where his friend worked, but he was not allowed in. As luck would have it, she walked out while he was still at the building. Together, they walked to a friend’s place on the Upper East Side.

“We watched the news for the rest of the night,” he said. “We ended up having to walk from the Upper East Side to Queens. Nothing was running. ... I probably walked 10 miles that day.”

In the following days, Stanford said he mostly hung out in Queens, followed the news and “just talked about life.” American flags popped up on every porch. Stanford said he ventured out to Yankee Stadium and Grant’s Tomb.

“It was eerie,” he said. “It was still so eerie because nobody was there. ... It was a ghost town.”

Rather than fly back, Stanford caught a ride back to Iowa with some Iowans his friend in Queens knew who were going back home.

Stanford said he’s been back to New York City four times since 9/11, though it took him a decade before he returned.

“If I’m by myself, I try to just stop and reflect,” he said. “I’ll go to Fifth Avenue. I go to the train station. I go to the park. I just reflect on that day and what it did.

“It changed my life.

“I didn’t intend to stay in Iowa. My life goal was to move to New York City. ... That was my sign — you don’t belong here.

“I just decided to stay in Iowa,” he added. “A lot changed that day.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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