Las Vegas still feels 9/11 aftershocks

It emptied our skies and our hotel rooms.

It cost thousands of casino workers their jobs.

Some of us lost people we knew. A few of us died.

Sept. 11, 2001, has been called the day that changed everything, and it certainly changed Las Vegas. It changes us still.

For some, 9/11 is the still-raw wound left by a death directly felt. For others, it is unknowable alterations spun from the immediate fallout — a lay-off on the Strip that led to a new career that led you to meet someone special you never would have met otherwise.

How are we different?

On the whole, we’re more patriotic and less tolerant.

We notice jetliners more.

We struggle to define torture.

We still send our troops off to the wars we’re still fighting, but our enthusiasm is waning.

The impulse that made us donate blood and money and line the sidewalk with flags in our hands has faded in 10 years. Lately, in its place, is a penchant for blame and pessimism and crippling polarization. But we’re still generous.

We want to be safe without taking off our shoes.

Most of us have our own problems to deal with — at work, out of work, paying our mortgage, not paying it. But thanks to 9/11, we know how much worse it can be, how much worse it has been for other people, both living and suddenly dead.

Even in a city built on implosions, we are haunted by the sight of buildings falling down.

It changes us still.


Ron and Nancy May’s sorrow is now a permanent part of the historical record.

Their daughter, Renee, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77 and one of two people known to have placed phone calls from the aircraft before it crashed into the Pentagon.

The 39-year-old Renee called her parents in Las Vegas at 6:12 a.m. local time to tell them her flight out of Dulles International Airport had been hijacked. She told her mother to contact the airline and report what was happening. Then Renee said, "I love you, Mom," and the line went dead.

Accounts of that final call have been published in the 9/11 Commission Report and introduced at the trial of al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Though the Mays have chosen not to tell their story publicly until now, they never went into hiding.

Every year, they attend the 9/11 ceremonies at the Pentagon and travel to Baltimore for the annual Renee May Lecture series, now in its 10th year at the Walters Art Museum, where their daughter volunteered as a docent.

Ron said he and his wife were prepped by the Justice Department to testify during the Moussaoui trial, but they were never called to the stand.

They’ve also been invited to participate in the military tribunals of several detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Ron said, but they "haven’t taken them up on it yet."

Shortly after Renee’s death, Nancy left her job as an admissions office clerk at the Community College of Southern Nevada and she and Ron retired to the quiet Northern Nevada town of Yerington.

For weeks after the attacks, people they had never met sent them cards and letters from all over the country.

A school for troubled and abused girls in Manchester, N.H., sent a quilt the students made from red, white and blue fabric. The girls planned to raffle it off to raise money for the school but decided to send it to the Mays instead after hearing about Renee’s love for knitting.

Ron and Nancy responded with a thank you note and a check, the first of several donations to the New Hampshire Youth Development Center.

A few years ago, they visited the school and ate dinner with some of the girls. "It was incredible," Ron said.

The Mays still get notes from girls at the school, where a small garden and a random act of sympathy — both planted in Renee’s name — continue to grow into something more.

"Her love of life and of the arts was an inspiration to them," Ron said of the girls. "It’s amazing what kind of legacy she left."

Renee was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up in Southern California, where she trained to be a flight attendant. She spent the early part of her career flying to Europe and South America before transferring to a domestic route. She thought it would be safer, Ron said.

She got engaged about a month before her death to a man she planned to marry later that year.

Ron said Renee sounded businesslike and in control during her last phone call to her parents. She told her mother that six hijackers had taken control of the plane and forced everyone to the rear of the cabin. Then she rattled off several phone numbers.

The entire conversation lasted barely a minute.

Ron called the airline because Nancy was too distraught to talk. The retired Lockheed engineer said there was confusion on the other end of the line, as airline officials thought he was calling about American Airlines Flight 11, which had already hit the World Trade Center.

"I said, ‘No, that’s not it; we saw that one on TV.’ "

Flight 77 was supposed to land in Los Angeles that day. Renee planned to hop a flight to Las Vegas the next morning.

"She said she had something to tell us," Ron said.

They ended up hearing the big news from her fiancé instead: Renee was seven weeks pregnant.


As the real New York still smoldered, a spontaneous memorial sprang to life in front of the fake version of the city at Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

Within a day of the attacks, people began to leave T-shirts and handwritten notes on the fence at the southeast corner of New York-New York, not far from the faux fireboat and Statue of Liberty.

In the months that followed, the memorial swelled to include more than 5,000 items, most of them T-shirts from police and fire departments across the country.

"It might sound silly, but I don’t think I ever contemplated the scope and number of public safety people who come to Las Vegas," said Alan Feldman, spokesman for New York-New York’s parent company, MGM Resorts International.

Many of the shirts, including one from North Yorkshire, England, were signed by every member of the departments that left them. In some cases, personal notes and photographs of 9/11 victims were pinned to the cloth.

Before long, the display began to feel like a piece of history in its own right, Feldman said. "We had to quickly make a decision about how to manage it. It had its own beauty and it certainly had its own integrity. We certainly weren’t going to change that or take it down."

For help, resort officials turned to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, which collected and cataloged every scrap that was left on the fence.

The items are now stored at the university library and displayed on a rotating basis at a permanent memorial in front of New York-New York.

Item No. 5,178 in the collection is a shirt from a volunteer firehouse in Bellmore, Long Island. Written on the cloth is a tribute to New York firefighters Adam Rand, 30, and Kevin Prior, 28, both of whom volunteered with the Bellmore department on their days off.

Both men were killed when the twin towers collapsed, Rand in the south tower and Prior in the north.


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Las Vegas resident Mary Jean O’Rafferty stood alone in her living room and watched her little brother die.

Ten years later, the memory instantly fills her eyes with tears.

Walter Matuza, 39, worked for Carr Futures, a financial firm on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower.

On another day, he might have lived. He went to work early that day to put together a video of his son’s softball team.

Walter called his wife after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the floors directly above his office. He told her he and his co-workers were waiting for firefighters to come lead them down. He told her not to worry about him.

When the north tower collapsed on her television screen, O’Rafferty fell to her knees and sobbed.

"I kept watching people coming out, hoping I would see him," she said. "It’s very hard to believe that it’s been 10 years. It really seems like it was just the other day."

Even now, it’s easy for her to conjure the frustration and helplessness she felt back then. While her sister-in-law and her older brother spent every day in the city handing out fliers and searching for Walter, O’Rafferty and her husband were stuck in Las Vegas because the airlines weren’t flying.

She finally caught a flight to New York the next week, and was there a few days later when the family got word that Walter’s body had been found.

O’Rafferty said Walter was always smiling, always relaxed, the kind of guy who coached all his kids’ teams and rallied the community to clean up the beach in his Staten Island neighborhood.

For years he rode the ferry to work at the World Trade Center, and he found time to fish almost every night after he got home.

O’Rafferty still feels like a chunk has been taken out of her, but she said the decade since 9/11 has been even harder on her mother and Walter’s oldest son.

Still, their family was one of the lucky ones, she said. So many other people were left with nothing to bury but an empty casket.

"I can’t imagine not finding somebody, and trying to make closure without having anything," O’Rafferty said.

She is spending the 10th anniversary of the attacks with her family in New York. This will be the fifth time she’s been back on Sept. 11, but she still isn’t ready to visit ground zero.

"I’ve never been back there, and I’ve never had a desire to," she said.

O’Rafferty prefers the beachside memorial put up in Walter’s honor by the Long Island town where they all grew up. "It’s just more him there," she said.

After Walter’s funeral, O’Rafferty returned to Las Vegas with a small card from the service. It has a picture of him on it, flashing his trademark grin.

She had it laminated so she could carry it with her and see him every day. The card has been sitting on her dashboard for almost 10 years now, but it hasn’t blackened or faded in the desert sun.

O’Rafferty sees that as a sign: "He doesn’t want to go away."


Almost immediately, "nine eleven" became the new shorthand for the unspeakable — four syllables fused together forever by a silent slash. For a lot of valley residents, though, the day carries meaning beyond the horror on the East Coast.

According to the Southern Nevada Health District, keeper of vital records, 80 people were born and 29 people died in Clark County on Sept. 11, 2001.

Inexplicably, county records show 286 people applied for marriage licenses that day, five more than on Sept. 11, 2000.

People also lined up for other things on 9/11 and during the chaotic week that followed.

Car rental agencies and the downtown bus station were mobbed by visitors stranded by the closure of McCarran International Airport. Local car dealerships even reported an uptick in business, as some desperate travelers decided the only way out was to buy a car, drive it home and sell it.

Visitors and valley residents also started lining up to donate blood. They arrived in such numbers that a cargo plane from the Nevada National Guard was dispatched to Puerto Rico to pick up more blood bags from a manufacturer.


On the worst day in the history of air travel, Clark County Deputy Director of Aviation Rosemary Vassiliadis found herself in charge of the nation’s seventh busiest airport.

Vassiliadis’ boss, Aviation Director Randy Walker, was stuck at a conference in Montreal with other top officials from some of North America’s largest airports. That left her to dust off previously unused contingency plans and manage unheard of problems amid a chaotic stream of alarming developments.

"The first two hours, we weren’t really sure what was accurate and what wasn’t," Vassiliadis recalled from her office at McCarran. "They were saying terrorism, but that meant something different back then. Terrorism was something that happened overseas. Hijacking was something that happened in the Caribbean."

Almost immediately, Vassiliadis and her staff had to juggle about a half-dozen unscheduled arrivals, as aircraft were diverted to McCarran in an effort to clear the nation’s skies.

That day marked the first Las Vegas landing for Singapore Airlines, albeit in a plane actually bound for Los Angeles.

Then, at about 10 a.m., the nation’s airspace was closed for the first time in history, instantly grounding about 70 local flights.

As part of that security directive, passengers still waiting at the gates were greeted by a rare and unnerving sight: dozens of jetliners being pushed back from the building and parked a safe distance away.

Though nothing was flying, officials decided to keep the airport open to help process the travelers already there and the ones who started pouring in from the Strip almost as soon as the attacks were reported.

"People just wanted to go home at that point," Vassiliadis said. "In times of crisis, people just want to go home."

Lines of nervous, impatient passengers wound through the ticketing area and stretched out the door, and they were still growing late that afternoon when the nation’s airports were ordered to shut down altogether.

Over the next few hours, more than 10,000 people had to be cleared from the building and sent back to their hotels.

McCarran stayed closed and nearly empty — only Vassiliadis and a skeleton crew of about a dozen people were allowed inside — until the morning of Sept. 13, when it reopened to even longer ticketing lines. The first flight departed around noon, bound for Hawaii.

As that Aloha Airlines plane lifted off the runway, it brought an end to perhaps the most unsettling and enduring local impact of 9/11: a Las Vegas sky without airplanes.


The instant travel interruption gave way to a sharp decline in tourism.

Almost overnight, resorts that had been booked solid found themselves half-empty. The Strip responded with pink slips.

In the two weeks following the attacks, as many as 15,000 employees were laid off from Las Vegas casinos.

"It had to happen. There was no other choice," said Feldman, the spokesman for MGM Resorts International. "The 9/11 impact was just about instantaneous. There were just zero arrivals."

Several Strip properties also shelved their expansion plans for months or even years.

The downturn may have finished off the Aladdin, if in name only. The retooled property had only been open for a little more than a year, but its owners filed for bankruptcy 19 days after the attacks.

In October, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority launched an aggressive new campaign aimed at luring people back.

The ad, featuring an unreleased Frank Sinatra tune, aired on the West Coast and in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and Chicago. The message: "It’s time to escape."

Tourists didn’t embrace the idea right away. The worst of the lull would last into early 2002.

The days after 9/11 were an especially anxious time for George Maloof, who was roughly two months away from opening a new $270 million resort called the Palms.

By then, it was too late to change course, Maloof said. "When you’re 60 days out, you can’t scale back anything. You just have to go for it."

The timing paid off for some out-of-work casino employees.

"They all came right over to our human resources line. It was incredible," Maloof said.

The Palms quickly filled out its 2,000-person staff with 600 to 700 of the recently laid off and opened as planned on Nov. 15, with Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the U.S.A." playing over the loud speakers as the first customers walked through the doors.

"To be able to provide jobs at a time when Las Vegas really needed it — that was probably the proudest moment for me," Maloof said.

Green Valley Ranch opened a month later, bringing another 1,900 jobs to the valley.

By spring, other properties started to hire again, though the fiscal year would end with about 6,000 fewer casino jobs on the Strip.

As tourism gradually began to rebound, MGM staff members fanned out across the lobbies at the company’s various properties to talk to arriving guests. There was nothing scientific about it, Feldman said. They were simply collecting anecdotes about why people were coming to town.

One common answer initially caught Feldman by surprise.

"We had a lot of family reunions in those first few months," he said. "Spontaneous family gatherings."


Boulder City High School graduate Matthew Commons’ life ended on a mountaintop in Afghanistan on March 4, 2002, but his father considers him a victim of 9/11.

The 21-year-old Army Ranger was one of seven U.S. servicemen killed during a rescue mission that turned into a murderous, 14-hour firefight in the earliest days of our war on terrorism.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on March 11, six months to the day after the attacks on New York and Washington.

"You could still see the damage to the Pentagon from Matt’s grave. It was surreal," Greg Commons said.

He compares the 9/11 attacks to a stone dropped into a pond: "The ripple effects of that have touched a lot of lives, my children included."

In 2006, the high school history teacher and former Marine put together a 90-minute lecture about service. In it, he talks openly about Matthew’s death and even shows Predator drone footage of his son getting shot in the head as his Ranger team exits their downed helicopter.

"Matt went into the military because he loved his country and he wanted to serve and give something back," Greg said.

He delivers the presentation every year in early March to the seniors at his school in Fairfax County, Va.

Then on March 4, he takes the day off so he and his wife, Linda, can go to Mass and breakfast on their way to visit Matthew’s grave.

Matthew joined the Army in the summer of 2000. He was the first serviceman with ties to Nevada to be killed in combat after 9/11. The state’s list of military casualties has since grown to 75 names.

Through church, grief support groups and Linda’s work as a federal judge at compensation hearings for 9/11 victims, Greg and Linda are now friends with several people who lost loved ones in the attacks.

The grief doesn’t get better, "it just gets different," Greg said. "The nice thing about 10 years: For the first two or three years we talked about the sadness of his death; now we talk about the joy of the almost 21 years that we had together with Matt."

Over the years, Greg and Linda Commons also have grown closer to Matthew’s mother, Patricia. "That’s the one blessing Matt’s death has given us," he said. "I know it sounds weird, but my wife and my ex-wife are best friends."

Greg, 59, hasn’t returned to Boulder City since 2003, when the community dedicated a memorial to his son in a park at the end of Matthew Commons Way.

He hopes to make the trip back some day, after he retires.

"I’d like to do my presentation at Boulder City High School, maybe make it an annual tradition," he said. "It’s important for people to understand."


The Sept. 11, 2001, edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal gave no hint of what was about to happen.

Like most every other morning newspaper in the nation, the R-J was already printed and lying in local driveways hours before the first tower was hit.

The result now seems impossibly quaint, a catalog of things we used to care about.

The front page was dominated by a sluggish economy and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Buried on Page 10A was a wire service account of a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan and its ties to that country’s hard-line leadership, a little-known group called the Taliban.

In another story a few pages away, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared "war on bureaucracy" and detailed his soon-to-be-irrelevant plans to streamline the military.

A headline on the front of the Nevada section called out: "Yucca Mountain doubts abound."

Other things we were still interested in on Sept. 10: slugger Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the single-season home-run record; a sex scandal involving California Congressman Gary Condit; Michael Jordan’s possible return to basketball.

And there in the Living section, tucked beneath the crossword puzzles, was the horoscope for Sept. 11, 2001, which urged President George W. Bush and his fellow Cancers to "deal on an international scale."

The entry for Pisces read, "You will be in the driver’s seat of your own destiny."

That one belonged to Osama bin Laden.


When American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon at more than 500 miles an hour, the future adjutant general of the Nevada National Guard was working in an office about 1,000 feet away.

William Burks, then a colonel in the Air National Guard, said he and the other officers in the room knew exactly what had happened the moment they heard the explosion and felt the building shake.

Not 10 minutes before, they had been watching television footage of the burning World Trade Center towers and — as top military strategists are prone to do — discussing other, more damaging places to target in the United States.

Since then, Burks has been promoted to brigadier general and helped oversee the expansion and complete transformation of the Nevada National Guard.

The Army component of the Nevada Guard has more than doubled in size since 2001, and its mission has changed from that of "weekend warriors" to a front-line operational force.

Before 9/11, the last time the Nevada Guard mobilized was World War II.

"You had whole generations of people who joined the guard and never got the opportunity or the challenge of serving in combat," said Burks, a Reno native who joined the Nevada Air National Guard in 1978.

Today, roughly 70 percent of Nevada Guard personnel have logged time in a combat zone, and anyone who joins the guard can expect to be deployed at least once, possibly in hostile territory.

Even so, recruitment is as strong as ever, Burks said. "I don’t know if it’s a function of the economy. I don’t know if it’s a function of patriotism or a combination of both."

One Nevada Guard unit alone, known as the Wildhorse Squadron, has been deployed everywhere from McCarran International Airport to combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 10 years.

Lt. Col. Scott Cunningham, who commands the squadron, said the guard’s new role as a "force of first choice" has put a lot of strain on soldiers and their families.

Thankfully, they have received a lot of help from the community, including a few extraordinary cases where local employers continued to pay guard members their full salary even while they were deployed.

"The support has bordered on overwhelming," Cunningham said. "It has been remarkable in its scope and generosity."

The regular armed forces also have expanded their presence in Southern Nevada in the last decade, with new aircraft and personnel at Nellis Air Force Base and the creation of an entirely new base at what used to be a dusty practice airfield for the Thunderbirds in Indian Springs.

Christened in 2005, Creech Air Force Base is now the nation’s hub for training and operation of the Predator and other remotely piloted aircraft used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sept. 11 changed everything for one member of Nevada’s Army National Guard.

Ian Michael Deutch was one of 120 soldiers from the Wildhorse Squadron sent to protect McCarran airport shortly after the attacks. During his three-month deployment there, he met Vicky, his future wife.

Eight years later, the staff sergeant was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan.

Deutch returned home safely from about nine months of combat in April 2010 and went back to his regular job as a Nye County sheriff’s deputy.

On his second day back to work, the 27-year-old was shot and killed in the line of duty outside a Pahrump casino.


At Hoover Dam, Sept. 11, 2001, began with a flurry of activity and ended with unsettling calm.

By about 9 a.m., the order was given to close down U.S. Highway 93 and clear all vehicles and visitors from the top of the dam for the first time since World War II.

With the help of neighboring departments in Boulder City and Arizona, the Hoover Dam Police Department began turning back traffic and clearing out tourists. All nonessential employees also were sent home, as officers searched the dam from top to bottom to make sure it was secure.

All of this was done in an echo chamber of scuttlebutt and second-hand news because there was no television reception and only spotty radio and cellphone coverage at the dam.

"As you can imagine, it was a crazy day. The rumors were flying like crazy," said Charlie Stevens, now deputy chief of Hoover’s federal police force. "A lot of information we weren’t getting until we got home."

Not that they got to spend much time at home after the attacks. Almost immediately, the entire Hoover police force was placed on 12-hour shifts with no days off. For two months straight, Stevens and company spent half of every day on duty.

On 9/11 and for several days afterward, the dam was an eerie place to work. There were no tourists, no traffic on the highway, no tour helicopters buzzing through the canyon.

U.S. 93 reopened three days after the attacks, but long-haul tractor-trailers were never again allowed to cross the dam.

Even with the big rigs out of the way, motorists would spend untold hours stuck in traffic over the next nine years as new security checkpoints slowed the flow between Las Vegas and Kingman, Ariz. That weekend gridlock in Black Canyon ended last October with the dedication of the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge, which was named on the Arizona side for that state’s most famous Afghan war casualty, former pro football player Pat Tillman.

Stevens said the police force at Hoover Dam has expanded by about two-thirds over the last decade. Tours inside the facility are shorter than they were before 9/11, and those who take them are subject to a great deal more scrutiny.

Another key security upgrade also has been made at Hoover Dam: televisions. Stevens said officers now monitor the news around the clock.


The worst day in modern American history was one of the best days ever for Las Vegas residents Patrick and Angelica Linn.

But it wasn’t easy.

Angelica was nine months pregnant with their first child, and the couple was headed to the hospital that morning so their doctor could induce labor.

Patrick was downstairs loading the car when he heard his wife yell from upstairs, "We’re being attacked."

They listened to the worsening news on the radio as they made the long drive from their northwest valley home to St. Rose Dominican Hospital’s Siena campus in Henderson.

The tragedy was inescapable, even in the birthing suite.

"My labor and delivery nurse was from New York, so she was all day trying to get in touch with her friends and family," Angelica said.

The television in the room was on for most of the day, and Patrick said it was hard to watch the images on the screen and not worry about the world they were about to bring a child into.

As midnight approached, the doctor offered to delay the delivery for another 45 minutes so the baby would be born on the 12th, though Angelica thinks she might have been kidding.

It didn’t matter anyway. After 16 hours of contractions and a heart-related scare for Angelica, no one was in the mood to wait any longer.

Marina Paige Linn was born at 11:21 p.m., 7 pounds, 4 ounces, and 10 days early.

For the next few years, people would get a look on their faces when they found out when Marina was born. How unfortunate, the look seemed to say.

These days, nobody even blinks an eye, Angelica said, and it’s hard to know which reaction is worse.

The Linns waited until their daughter was about 7 before they tried to explain to her what happened on the day she was born. By then, of course, Marina already knew something was up.

She really started to get the picture last year, when the family paid a visit to New York and ground zero.

Still, it’s hard to ask a little girl to share her birthday with something so ugly. So without even realizing they were doing it, the Linns have separated the two events. When they talk about Marina’s birthday, it’s Sept. 11. When they talk about the terrorist attacks, it’s 9/11.

Marina is now a cheerful fifth-grader and competitive gymnast, with a sister, a brother and long legs that seem made for the balance beam and uneven bars.

Today is her 10th birthday. She plans to celebrate with a swim, a few movies and a slumber party with 10 other girls.

Asked what it’s like to be a 9/11 baby, Marina thought for a minute then said, "I feel really special that I was born. It’s also sad for the people who died."

Her father seemed to like that answer just fine.

"Most people associate that day with horrible tragedy, but people were also born that day," he said.

"A miracle happened. Life went on."

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Brian Haynes contributed to this report. Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.

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