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  • Staff file photo by Don Himsel


    Facebook Don Himsel at The Telegraph


    Brother Paul Demers at Rivier College, Nashua, September 7, 2011.
  • Staff file photo by Don Himsel


    Facebook Don Himsel at The Telegraph


    Brother Paul Demers at Rivier College, Nashua, September 7, 2011.
Friday, September 9, 2011

Local leaders look back at fateful experiences

The world was falling apart. Planes were coming out of the sky and being used as weapons.

Seeking a way to give religious context to the horror unfolding beyond their campus, Brother Paul Demers, the chaplain at Rivier College in Nashua, said college officials organized an impromptu prayer service. As a group of students gathered in the Dion Center, Demers read prayers from the Book of Lamentations, which chronicles the destruction of Jerusalem.

A decade later, Demers said the prayers from the book are still an apt way to cope with the magnitude of the devastation brought upon the United States that day.

“It’s still the kind of prayer we need to lament this terrible horror,” Demers said. “Sometimes, all you can really do is say, ‘Why, God, why?’ Don’t seek explanation or causes.”

Ten years after the attacks that changed America forever, The Telegraph caught up with three community leaders who were interviewed in the newspaper that day.

In a black-and-white photograph by Dean Shalhoup, Demers was shown leading the prayer service, surrounded by students who appeared to still be in shock.

“We lift our hands to say, ‘Why, O Lord, how horrible is this,’ ” Demers said during the service. “Let us say a prayer for the dead and those awaiting word about family members.”

Although the feelings of terror and fear of that day will never be gone, like everything in life, time has helped to heal the wounds, Demers said.

“I think we can be grateful in a way that somehow, it has not happened again,” Demers said. “We can give thanks to the people who have been vigilant and found ways to prevent this type of terror from happening again.”

Demers recalled how the United States had the sympathy of the world that day, and how that has been lost in some ways, particularly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started to anger others in the world. He noted that the number of lives lost in the wars in response to the attack has surpassed the number lost on Sept. 11.

“We need to pray for peace and justice,” he said.

There is no peace without justice, and there is no justice without forgiveness, Demers said.

“We have to be able to forgive,” he said.

Rivier College will hold a 10-year anniversary memorial service at 12:30 p.m. Monday in the reception room at the Dion Center.

Ilo Neukam

It was a difficult assignment.

Just hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ilo Neukam, 17 at the time and a senior at Souhegan High School, was asked to put together a speech to be delivered in front of the student body at an assembly that afternoon. Neukam was moderator of the Community Council for the school, a role she likened to class president.

Still, she didn’t know what to say to the students to give them any comfort.

Neukam devoted part of her speech to encouraging her classmates to give blood. It was a way they could help at a time when everyone was feeling helpless, she said.

Later that day, she and classmates organized a carpool and spent the rest of the day at a blood drive in Nashua with friends.

Neukam also helped organize a memorial event on Nov. 11 that year to mark two months since the attacks. She dedicated much of her senior year to finding ways to respond to the tragedy.

“It could have put a damper on our senior year, but I kind of feel like the response gave people a sense of purpose,” she said. “It ended up turning into a positive experience the way everybody reacted to it. It certainly changed the mood and tone of the year.”

Ten years later, Neukam is 27 and lives in San Diego. The attacks of Sept. 11 shaped not only her senior year of high school, but also her four years of college in North Carolina. Looking back, going to college in a different part of the country helped challenge her own political beliefs, which were starting to take shape.

The attacks challenged Neukam to figure out who she was and what she believed.

“It really put a lot of gravity into what it meant to be an American, what it meant to be a citizen, what your role was in a greater cause,” Neukam said of the attacks.

“I definitely feel like the world is a much smaller place than I previously thought. We’re all very much connected. I would still like to think people are essentially good.

Marge Chiafery

This wasn’t in any of the books Marge Chiafery read about how to run a school district.

“You could take every administrative course in the world and you would not be prepared for that,” she said.

It was Chiafery’s first year on the job as superintendent of the Merrimack School District when terror struck the United States in September 2001. A new school year had just started, and Chiafery was in a meeting with administrators at the central office when the high school principal called and told her to turn on a TV.

“At that point, I was just grappling with the idea. How could someone take a plane and run it into a tower?” Chiafery recalled. “It just didn’t seem to make any sense.”

As the attacks unfolded on TV, a debate was held among the administrators: Do they let students watch? They decided to allow teachers in the middle schools and high schools to watch in classes, but not in the elementary schools.

“It was truly an event of our time hopefully never to be been again,” Chiafery said. “But for the elementary students, we felt it would be too much to bear.”

The goal was to keep the day as normal as possible, given the circumstances. Chiafery feels they were able to do that and has no regrets about the way the district handled the situation. Parents who wanted to pull their children from school were able to.

While trying to manage the district through the day, Chiafery also realized how close a call it was for her family. Her husband was originally supposed to attend a meeting in one of the towers on Sept. 11, but his boss decided just days before that it would be better to attend a conference in San Francisco.

Since that time, Chiafery said Merrimack schools have become more global than before. She remembers how reliant everyone was on TV for information then, while now, social media and the Internet have become the primary source for news updates. It has connected the world and made it seem smaller, she said.

“We’re just so much more conscious of the world,” she said.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.