Worry, fear gripped local residents on day of attacks

Courtesy photo: Chase Gentry Clovis City Commissioner Juan Garza, left, and Clovis Chamber of Commerce Director Ernie Kos were among a group of area residents who visited Ground Zero two months after the attacks.

Sharna Johnson

Clovis shared in the fear and tension that gripped the nation on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks created a sense of vulnerability that struck close to home for the community, in more ways than one.

The tone was one of worry and fear as people around the U.S. watched in horror and shock 10 years ago as the Twin Towers in New York City collapsed.

Then-City Manager Ray Mondragon, who a couple months later would tour the devastation, still remembers the fateful morning of the attacks.

He was about a month into his position having retired as police chief, when he caught news of the attacks on TV and decided to head to city hall.

The rest of the day was a fever of activity as calls were had with the commander of Cannon Air Force Base and meetings were held with city department heads and local leaders.

Planes were grounded, with the exception of Cannon’s F-16 fighters, and the municipal airport was tasked with providing a landing spot for aircraft that needed to get out of the air, he recalled.

“Everybody I knew was concerned. We just wanted to make sure that we were all communicating,” he said.

“I felt personal tension for the people in New York, but there was more of a heightened state of alert. Especially when I heard the Pentagon had been hit, then I knew the country was under attack.”

The tension hung in the community for some time after the attacks, Mondragon said, remembering it was about three or four months before things started to feel normal again.

Even when people began to bounce back, he said, security gained new importance and prevalence in their minds.

The day of the attacks, Clovis Community College started receiving bomb threats, prompting several evacuations of the campus.

“Everyone had such a sense of feeling less safe than we were before. The first few times it happened, I think people were genuinely scared,” said CCC President Becky Rowley.

“When we started getting the bomb threats, it was when that whole feeling of that lack of security was really very prevalent.”

Around lunch time the next day, another bomb threat was followed by a small explosion in an upstairs bathroom of the college that injured a 29-year-old security guard.

David Roybal said he had gone in to search for the bomb when it went off, but within days, Roybal admitted to rigging an improvised explosive device made of small fireworks, according to court records.

He entered an Alford Plea, which doesn’t admit guilt but acknowledges the evidence exists to lead to a conviction, and was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for the incident.

The incident made national news because the terrorist attacks were so fresh, she said, explaining the reason for Roybal’s actions was never really clear.

Whether it was feeling the fear of terrorism, or the pain of the loss the attack caused, people in the area related to New York on multiple levels.

Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman said he remembers sitting at the fire station as a lieutenant, watching the news coverage with his fellow firefighters.

As they watched, Westerman said Clovis firefighters didn’t know how long responders had, but the thick black smoke pouring out of the towers was a clear indication that the clock was ticking.

“It’s a day that is one of those days that you remember, that stays with you for the rest of your life… Everybody had an uneasy feeling… at the time you just didn’t know what all was going to happen,” he said.

Seeing Ground Zero, as it came to be known, was what really brought home the emotion of the attacks for Mondragon.

He said it was overwhelming when he visited the site of the New York attacks two months later with a local group of community leaders accompanying now-retired Sen. Pete Domenici, RN.M.

They were greeted with make-shift posters and signs memorializing the dead, some asking for information on the missing — all framed the devastation of crumbled concrete and steel.

“It just literally took my breath away and I have to admit I was in tears,” he said.

The attacks changed not just the psyche of Americans, but also the way they evaluate threat and prepare for it, he said.

Training and partnerships between emergency response entities grew in the aftermath and technology continues to aid in trying to prevent terrorism, he said.

Mondragon said he believes through its proximity to Cannon, which houses experts trained to deal with terror threats, Clovis inherently had an advantage over other communities.

An advantage that continues to enrich the community and make it safer, he said.

But there’s no question that day changed things.

“I think it changed the community and personally, I think it changed the whole country,” he said.

“I think we’re better equipped even though we’re a small community, to handle any threat that comes our way. I think it makes us more aware and more vulnerable, but I think it’s nothing we can’t handle.”