“This year (the 15th anniversary of 9/11) has been difficult,” Coleman-Castells said.
“Many more people passed away in New York than in Washington, but my experience was in Washington.”
Coleman-Castells said she was born and raised in Washington. In September 2001, she was teaching at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“My ex-husband was Major Paul Castells in the U.S. Army and he was stationed at the Pentagon. My son, John-Paul Castells, was staying with his grandparents, my in-laws, in Staten Island, New York. I had just returned from Duck, North Carolina on Sept. 10,” she said.
Coleman-Castells explained that her father-in-law, Alfonso Castells, had just retired from working at the World Trade Center for 30 years. Her mother-in-law was Anne Castells.
“It was John-Paul, who was three at the time, and my father-in-law’s tradition to get on the Staten Island Ferry early in the morning and go over to the World Trade Center to eat breakfast at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center,” she said.
She said her neighbors, the Falkenbergs, were good friends, and they belonged to a babysitting co-op.
“Leslie was a dean at Georgetown University and she was on sabbatical and she and her family were traveling to Australia. They were on Flight 77, leaving for Los Angeles before catching another flight to Australia,” Coleman-Castells.
“We had seen a lot of one another because they were seeing a lot of plays that summer and I babysat for Zoe and Dana through the cooperative,” Coleman-Castells said. “Dana was born three days before my son. It was a very close-knit town.”
On the morning of Sept. 10, Coleman-Castells said she slept in a little bit and was watching the “Today” show.
“At about 8:45 a.m. I was seeing the first plane hit the World Trade Center and I was frantic, because I knew it was tradition for my father-in-law to take my then 3-year-old son to breakfast every morning at Windows of the World,” she said.
Coleman-Castells said she called her ex-husband and told him he needed to get to New York to check on their son.
“He said they were talking about shutting down I-95 and said he did not know how he was going to get to New York,” she said. “I told him either he goes, or I would go, but someone was going to New York right now.”
She said it was a difficult conversation.
“He got his stuff and he was walking out to the parking lot of the Pentagon and we were fussing at one another because he didn’t think he should be leaving his duty station, even though his position was not related to disaster assistance,” she said. “As he was crossing the parking lot, the second plane passed overhead and hit his office.”
Coleman-Castells said if she had not yelled at her ex-husband and insisted he travel to New York to get their son, he most likely would have been killed.
“I was watching all of this take place on television and I could not reach my in-laws by telephone because the lines were too busy in New York obviously so many were destroyed in the attack,” Coleman-Castells said. “Plus, my ex-husband was watching the plane hit the Pentagon where he sat every day. He was screaming on the phone and he was crying. He didn’t know what to do and he was trying to go back in and help everyone. He was told by the MPs that he could not go in. They told him to go to New York and get his son.”
She said the normal trip from the Pentagon to New York is four hours, but the trip during 9/11 took her ex-husband more than 12 hours.
“The only thing I could think to do at that point was to send a telegram to my in-laws,” she said.
“That was the only way of communication that I could think of that would get there. And it did. They were able to send a telegram back with the guy who delivered the telegram. The message back from them said they were OK. It said my son and my father-in-law did not go to the World Trade Center that morning, because they both had colds. Thank God for sniffles.”
Coleman-Castells said about an hour and a half after the plane hit the Pentagon, she began getting calls from neighbors who said they believed Leslie, Charlie, Zoe and Dana Falkenberg were passengers on Flight 77.
“It was just too much to bear it was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I literally crawled into bed in a ball,” Coleman-Castells said. “It was early in the day at that time and I had no idea if my father-in-law was dead with my son, my ex-husband had barely escaped certain death because of our argument and yelling at him to go to New York. His commanding officer was killed – his secretary was killed. Many people in his office were maimed – and then to hear the plane that killed his coworkers and maimed many others also had my neighbors on it – four people, a whole family – it was just too painful to believe.”
Coleman-Castells said when confirmation was received that their neighbors were on the plane, the neighborhood gathered in front of their house to comfort one another, light candles and pray.
“We remembered them for the amazing people they were,” she said. “They were vivacious, funny, very alive people who loved their children so much. Dana was one of the youngest victims to die on Sept. 11.”
Coleman-Castells said Sept. 11, 2001, may have been the worst day of her life.
“I guess I was surprised at myself that after 15 years, it is still so painful,” she said. “Every year I have been pretty devastated. That event caused me to really rethink my life in very profound ways. That is one of the reasons I left Washington. I felt I needed to move and came here in 2006. Sept. 11 is one of several reasons we decided to move away. I felt like I needed something different and I needed to raise my son differently.”
She said she thinks the country was broken on Sept. 11, 2001.
“As much as I would love to be able to say we put ourselves back together, I don’t believe we have,” Coleman-Castells said. “I see Sept. 11 as a time of great national grief and all of us who were adults at that time shared in that grief. But there is a special bond for those of us who actually knew and lost people that day in those three locations. There is a comradery that I am glad only a few thousand people in the United States share because it is a terrible burden.”
“The initial togetherness devolved into a hurt and a fear that has yet to be resolved,” Coleman-Castells said.
“It ended up in long, painful and difficult wars. It ended up in policies that separated Americans and not brought them together. It made everything from working for the federal government to flying on a plane that much more difficult.
“Sept. 11 was the day the world started to unravel and so I think it was a horrible day not just for those of us who lost so many wonderful people in our lives, but it was a start of a whole lot of stuff that I don’t think is wonderful and is in some ways, it was the end of my innocence as a young woman and it was over,” she said.
“The United States I knew as a child and as a young woman at that point ceased and a new United States was born. There is a lot about this one I do not like or understand. I am very sad that the national togetherness and understanding that we had for that one brief, shining moment on Sept. 11 that lasted three to six months is no more.”