Features / Portfolio

Ten years ago, everything changed

As the nation reflects on 9/11, few in the community seem to know just how intimately the terrorist attack hit Granite Bay. Two women with close ties to Granite Bay High School had tickets on United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that ultimately crashed in eastern Pennsylvania after passengers heroically prevented the hijackers from flying into either the Capitol Building or the White House. One flew on a different flight and lived. The other switched from a later flight to United Airlines Flight 93 and died. 

Donna Garton, the mother of three GBHS graduates, was dropping off her oldest daughter at Princeton University and had to stay an extra day in New York for a business meeting. She got bad news about a friend and slept fitfully. On September 11, she got to the airport well ahead of time and got on an earlier flight as a result.

Deora Bodley, a 20-year-old student at Santa Clara University at the time, was visiting friends in New York. She moved up her flight time  because she wanted to get home sooner to see her friends, family and her boyfriend, Ryan Lindow, who graduated from GBHS in 1999.

The stories of these two women show just how hard 9/11 hit communities and families across the country, and how precarious our existence can be. What follows is literally a story of both life and death.

Making every moment count

Deora Bodley grew up in San Diego, where she attended La Jolla Country Day School. She played basketball and was captain her senior year. She enjoyed writing – for school assignments and in journals — and she was a poet. On the back of a picture her mom took of her looking at the Grand Canyon, Bodley wrote: “If I would just live for the moment, and make every moment count, maybe the future would work out.  Maybe that moment would be a doorway to the future.”

Bodley’s parents divorced when she was young, but she remained very close with both of them.

Rain enchanted Bodley as a child, and she went outside whenever rain started. When she got older, she loved to drive her car – first a Ford Escort, then a Neon, then, finally, a Jeep she bought herself.

Growing up, Bodley was a volunteering machine. She volunteered at the San Diego Zoo and at the Helen Woodward Center, which provides care and adoption for animals that have been orphaned.  She was also heavily involved with Special Olympics. She helped with Teens Respond to AIDS with Caring and Education (TRACE) and would go from school to school talking to fellow high school students about sexually transmitted diseases.

When it came time for college, Bodley decided to stay in-state and attend Santa Clara University. She double-majored in psychology and French – she planned to get a doctorate and become a child psychologist so she could help children during their toughest times.

She was a beautiful girl with dark hair, a wide smile and kind eyes that reflected caring and compassion.

She was in a serious relationship with GBHS alum Lindow, who also went to Santa Clara University. He politely declined to comment for this story.

Near the end of her summer break in 2001, Bodley went to New York to visit friends, as she often did. She decided to come home early, to see friends and family and get ready for her junior year at Santa Clara. She rebooked her flight for an 8 a.m. departure and headed to Newark Airport.

She had no issues as she cleared security, headed to Gate 17 in Concourse A and settled into her window seat, 20F, on a Boeing 757. Perhaps she relaxed, as most people do when they have finished with all the logistics that precede a plane flight. She might have even closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window. But we’ll never know, because the date was September 11, 2001, and she had just boarded United Airlines Flight 93.

Bodley was the youngest of the 44 passengers aboard the flight –including the four hijackers.

The hijackers invaded the cockpit, using box cutters they had managed to get aboard as weapons. The hijackers then turned the airplane around and headed toward Washington, D.C. Anguished passengers contacted loved ones on their cellphones and quickly learned about the three planes that had already crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, so those on board surely knew they were in grave danger.

At least some of the passengers decided not to go quietly. Four men – all former college athletes – used a food cart to try to ram their way into the cockpit and prevent the terrorists from destroying another national icon. The hijackers then crashed the plane. The last words that Todd Beamer – one of the four men who charged the cockpit – uttered before moving toward the front of the plane were the now immortal phrase, “Let’s roll.”

“My baby was no longer there”

Bodley’s mother, Deborah Borza, said she can remember September 11, 2001, as clearly as if it was yesterday.

Borza got two calls in the morning, relaying the message that her daughter was coming in on an earlier flight, United Flight 93. Borza learned from news broadcasts that Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, but the possibility that her daughter was on the plane didn’t seem real. Borza wouldn’t believe it until she got an official call.

“I went to work, and there was a Catholic church across the street,” Borza said. “I asked God where (Deora) was. He was the only one who knew. He told me, ‘She’s with me.’ ”

At 12:20 p.m., she got the official call from United Airlines, saying Bodley’s name was on the flight manifest.

Borza still couldn’t process the information. She sat in silence for what seemed like forever.

“I dropped my phone and started screaming in the church,” Borza recalled, her throat tightening. “It was horrible. I was yelling out, screaming my daughter’s name, calling out for my baby who was no longer here.”

What might have been

Borza is now left with only her memories and speculation of what might have been.

“A lot of her friends would talk about how she was always there for them,” Borza said. “She knew when to come around to be with them and give them a hug. She always seemed to know what they needed.”

Kathy Almzaol, the principal of St. Clare Catholic Elementary, where Bodley volunteered while at Santa Clara, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001: “(She had) a phenomenal ability to work with people. We have 68 kids who had a personal association with Deora.”

Borza remembered: “Kids clung to her. I had some of those kids come up to me years later and tell me that, because of Deora, they loved reading.”

While no one can accurately predict what Bodley’s life would have been like 10 years later, Borza guesses her daughter would be married by now, possibly with a child.

“I’m sure she would be doing really cool, fun, family things,” Borza said.

She thinks Bodley would have her doctorate in psychology and would be counseling people.

“She made a difference everywhere she went,” Borza said. “People depended on her.”

Imagine what she could have done with 10 more years, and then the decades beyond that.

An inexplicable decision

Donna Garton’s husband, Michael, actually flew on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. It’s just that his Flight 93 was on September 10, not September 11.

The Gartons had flown to New Jersey to help their daughter Jessie move into her new school, Princeton University. Donna had to stay an extra day because of a work obligation with Stanford University.

She had a late dinner on September 10, then got a call with some bad news regarding a friend’s health. She slept poorly.

The next morning, she left the Warwick Hotel in New York City around 6 and hailed a cab. Both she and the driver were surprised by how quickly they got to the airport. She was supposed to leave on Flight 93 for San Francisco at 8, but she was told at the check-in counter that there were seats available on a 7 o’clock flight.

She knew the change wasn’t going to save her any time, because she was still going to have to sit in San Francisco and wait for the same flight to Sacramento. She considered staying in Newark and having a relaxed breakfast before getting on Flight 93.

“For some reason,” Michael said, “she decided to come a little bit closer to home.”

And, of course, her life hinged on that inexplicable decision.

In the air, on the earlier flight, the pilot announced that he had been ordered to land in Lincoln, Neb., because of a “national crisis.” No one on Donna’s flight had any idea what was going on.

“We were sitting on the ground for a long time, and people weren’t telling us anything,” Donna said. “There were rumors that were going around about a bomb in Providence, R.I., but nobody really understood what was happening.”

When Donna got off the plane, she called her husband , waking him up, and told him she was OK. Michael’s reaction was: “Why wouldn’t you be?” Donna explained that her plane had been ordered to land in Nebraska, and Michael quickly turned on the TV to figure out what was going on.

“I remember them saying that they thought another plane was still out there, and it was a United Airlines Flight 93,” Michael said. “It’s at that moment that my heart stopped.”

Donna met a man who had rented a car in Lincoln, who was driving to Denver and who offered to take anyone who wanted to come with him. Donna accepted the offer. Her parents live in Denver, and Denver was at least closer to Granite Bay.

“We had stopped at McDonald’s to get coffee when we saw that Flight 93 had crashed,” Donna said.

She grabbed the hand of an older gentleman and stammered: “I was supposed to be on that flight.”

She said he just looked at her and responded: “My love, I guess it just wasn’t your time.”

Michael said that every time the topic of 9/11 comes up, he thinks about what almost happened – but he can’t go there.

“Sure, that comes to mind, but my mind just….” He trailed off. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “It’s horrendous.”

The Gartons – son-in-law BJ Szymanski, daughters Jessie and Jillian, husband Michael and son JJ – are grateful wife and mother Donna Garton, second from right, was spared on September 11, 2001.

Photo courtesy of Jessie Garton Szymanski ––
The Gartons – son-in-law BJ Szymanski, daughters Jessie and Jillian, husband Michael and son JJ – are grateful wife and mother Donna Garton, second from right, was spared on September 11, 2001.

Relief, gratitude and terror

“I had to go and talk to my adviser about classes I was planning on taking,” Jessie said about the morning of 9/11. “There were a ton of different people in the room, and the person I was supposed to talk to was talking on the phone about an attack on New York City and buildings on fire. It was complete chaos.”

Jessie headed back to her dorm room, hoping her mom’s meeting wasn’t anywhere near the World Trade Center. She didn’t even think about the fact that her mom was supposed to fly home that day.

Then her dad called.

“Hearing my dad tell me my mom was supposed to be on that flight was the craziest feeling,” Jessie said. “I immediately dropped to my knees. I was already crying, but I just lost it.

“I think when you come that close to losing something, you can’t believe you still have it. It was just this feeling of relief, gratitude and terror.”

The thought of what could have happened is never far from Jessie’s mind.

“There’s no reason she shouldn’t have been on that plane,” Jessie said. “In fact, there are a ton of reasons why she should have been. There’s no explanation why she’s still here today, but that’s something to be incredibly grateful for.”

“I was the reason she was (supposed to be on Flight 93),” Jessie said. “I can’t even imagine how that would have affected me.”

“I was freaking out”

J.J. Garton was at GBHS when he found out the news of the terrorist attacks, after early-morning water-polo practice.

“I walked out of the locker room, and the quad was just silent,” J.J. remembers. “It was totally, totally dead.”

In J.J.’s first class, calculus with retired GBHS teacher Greg Holmes, the TV was on, and nobody was talking.

“I was freaking out a little bit, but I was just trying to stay calm because I didn’t know anything for sure,” J.J. said. “I knew (my mom) was flying home that day, but I didn’t know her exact flight.”

Toward the end of the period, newscasters reported that a United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco had crashed.

“That’s when it hit me, and I really freaked out. I didn’t know anything for sure, but I just had this really, really bad feeling,” J.J. said.

Because cell phones weren’t allowed on campus in 2001, J.J. had to run out to his car to contact his dad. People tried to stop him to ask what was wrong, but he just kept on running.

“My dad answered right away,” J.J. said. “‘She’s fine,’ he said. ‘I’m talking to her right now on the other line. She was supposed to be on that plane, but she didn’t get on it.’ I broke down right there and just thought to myself, ‘Holy shit!’ ”

J.J.’s next class was U.S. History with Brandon Dell’Orto, and J.J. remembers not being able to pay any attention.

“I broke down in tears, and I ran outside to get the whole story,” J.J. said. “I was petrified. I couldn’t speak.”

Michael came and picked J.J. up from school, and they went to Jamba Juice together, where he got on the phone with his mom.

“She seemed to be doing a lot better than I was,” J.J. said with a laugh. “I think part of that was that she had already talked to my dad. I’d speculate that they decided to be strong for the kids and not freak us out any more than we already were.”

J.J. went on to get his degree from Stanford, where he credits his mom for always being there for him.

“She’s an amazing person. The world is lucky to have her.”

Thankful for a cab driver

The Gartons’ youngest daughter, Jillian, was in fifth grade in 2001 and admits she doesn’t remember as much as her older siblings as a result. She thinks everything happened before she went to school.

She does remember that, when her mom finally made it home, friends rented a limo to pick her up at the San Francisco Airport. Jillian also remembers being unbelievably excited to get inside to see her mom.

Even now, the topic remains an extremely emotional one for Jillian.

“I’m just so thankful that cab driver drove so fast to the airport,” Jillian said, while crying. “My mom is such a big part of my life, so it’s really hard to think about if she wasn’t (here). She can always turn a situation into a positive and never has anything negative to say. Life would be pretty hard if I wasn’t able to talk to her. She is no ordinary woman. She is extraordinary.”

Making a difference

Donna has always been super-involved in the community. She served on the Eureka Union School District Board for eight years. She has been a huge supporter of the Granite Bay High aquatics programs and served as the Vice President of Activities for National Charity League, where she volunteered a lot for Special Olympics with her youngest daughter, Jillian.

“When something like [9/11] happens to you, you realize there’s nothing more important than family, and you realize how precious they are,” Donna said. “There are families that had a different outcome, and that’s just tragic.”

“You just hug your children a little harder, embrace life a little more. It changes you.”

***

Originally appeared in The Granite Bay Gazette

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