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St. Louisans impacted by Sept. 11 attacks say the nation must never forget

Linda Lockhart | St. Louis Public Radio
Kirkwood native David Nelson's name is on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

On Sunday, as Americans remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, 93-year-old Warren Nelson of St. Louis will avoid looking at the photographs.

Fifteen years ago, Nelson watched on television as the fires raged and black smoke billowed from the top floors of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, knowing that his oldest son, David, was working on the 92nd floor of the North Tower. The offices of his commodities brokerage firm were right below the burning gash where the hijacked Boeing 767 slammed into the building.

“We, like so many others, lived on that TV all day long. And the news and the radio. Every bit of news we could get — hoping,’’ he says. “I was trying to guess how long it would take David to walk down 92 floors."

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Betty and Warren Nelson

Their hope collapsed when the towers fell.

“We knew that our lives had changed forever,” Nelson says.

His clear, blue eyes glisten with sadness as he remembers.

“I was in the Air Force in World War Two,’’ he continues. “I saw my friends shot down that I had breakfast with. We got over that in a hurry because we had to. Or we couldn’t go back and fly the next day. But this with David is something you never forget."

“I hope the world doesn’t forget”

Fifteen years since the terrorist attacks, a generation is coming of age that is too young to remember how Americans gathered together in front of television sets with family, friends and strangers, watching the horror unfold.

Nelson understands that, and it concerns him.

“I know as time passes, things change,” he says. “But I hope the world doesn’t forget that something terrible happened 15 years ago.”

Kevin Boyer of Maryland Heights also wants people to remember. He was working as a consultant for the New York Port Authority on the 70th floor of the North Tower when the plane hit.

After the building stopped shaking, Boyer and his co-workers joined thousands of people in the stairwells making the long but orderly descent to safety. He remembers the discarded high-heeled shoes that littered the steps. The faces of the firefighters passing on the left, straining as they trudged upward in full gear.

Boyer really didn’t know what had happened until he got to the street.

Credit Wikipedia
Kevin Boyer who evacuated safely from the World Trade Center says the scene was unreal.

“I remember we just stopped and looked up — and both buildings were on fire. My boss said, ‘We’re all in trouble if these buildings fall,’ and I said, 'These buildings are made to withstand anything. They’re not going to fall.’ ‘’

Boyer was about a block away, when the South Tower collapsed, and he was caught in the thick cloud of ash and debris. He thought he was going to die.

“The roar of the dropping of the building was just like being next to a jet engine,’’ Boyer says. “People are just running everywhere and all of a sudden you can’t see. I was behind a concrete planter, and people were jumping on top of me. Then a fighter jet roared over the area and people were screaming because they thought we were under attack. You couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t see. I didn’t think there was any way we would make it out of that.”

Boyer, now 59, doesn’t like talking about that day, but he feels a duty to those who perished.

“I want to make sure that everybody remembers what happened. It’s something they should remember,’’ he says.

He also understands that time marches on.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Kevin Boyer

“We were at a restaurant, my wife and I, one night. And somebody brought up something about 9/11 and my wife said, ‘Yeah, he was there.’ And the girl who was our waitress, she was probably about 17 or 18. And she said, ‘That must have been bad.’ And I can understand that. I wasn’t born during the world wars so you don’t understand what they went through.”

Boyer still has the clothes he wore to work on Sept. 11. He wasn’t injured, but his shirt is stained with blood. The cuffs of his slacks were filled with powdery ash.

“They’re still in a corner of my closet upstairs,’’ he says. “Every now and then, I’ll look at them and my wife will say, ‘Do you think we should throw them away?’ And I’m like, ‘No, we should keep them. We’ve had them this long, I think we should hold on to them.’ ‘’

Boyer has three young grandchildren, and he says he will tell them about his experiences when they are old enough to understand. Although he travels to New York for his job every winter, he has not visited the National September 11 Memorial.

“I’m always blaming it on the weather because it’s cold. But I go out to eat. So, maybe that’s just an excuse,’’ he says. “Maybe I just don’t want to — I’m just not ready to go yet.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The Nelsons keep photos of David Nelson and his family on the windowsill, where they see them every day.

“The real tragedy was the children”

Nelson and his wife Betty are longtime residents of Kirkwood who reared four children. They now live in a senior living center in Des Peres. Nelson, a former broker, has been writing about his family’s history, including a book about David.

“I wanted all of our grandchildren to know about David’s life, so I spent a lot of time putting all the pieces together,’’ he says.

Nelson keeps photos of David by his computer and on a windowsill in the family room. He thinks about him every day.

David Nelson's page in a memorial book published by his brokerage firm, Carr Futures.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
David Nelson's page in a memorial book published by his brokerage firm, Carr Futures.

“I guess as time passes, it doesn’t hurt as much, but I still think of it,’’ he says.

Nelson wants people to know who his son was. David William Nelson was 50 when he died. A graduate of Kirkwood High School, he studied music and played the French horn before joining a brokerage firm. Nelson says David was a good son, and a good father to his daughter Ingrid, who was 8, and his son Frederick, who was 4, when he died.

“I always thought the real tragedy was the children,’’ Nelson says. “Their mother has done a great job of raising them, and they’re turning out to be fine individuals. But alone.“

Nelson and his family visited the national 9/11 memorial in New York several years ago and found David’s name listed with the 69 employees of Carr Futures who died that day. 

“For a long time, I said, ‘I’ll never go because I don’t want to remember it that way.’ I wanted to remember the way it was when David took me to lunch,’’ Nelson says, his voice choking. “But as time passed, I thought we should see it. At least once.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.