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Encinitas resident watched as the towers fell

On Saturday, Sept. 8, 2001, Debbie Sisti flew from San Diego into New Jersey International Airport to celebrate the 21st birthday of her daughter, Bethany, on Sept. 11.
“We had gatherings for three days, with the birthday party on Sunday,” she remembers. “On her actual birthday, Tuesday morning, I was to take off before dawn to fly home, early enough so that my son-in-law, Russ, wouldn’t be late for work.”
After Russ dropped her off at the curb, she walked around the terminal until the flight was ready for boarding. Once on the plane, she took her seat and began reading. The pilot welcomed the passengers, and pointed out the World Trade Center which could be seen from the left side of the aircraft.
“I had just seen the towers from a Cessna two days earlier when Russ’ uncle, a pilot, took me up for spin,” she said. “We actually circled them up close, so I thought, ‘big deal.’”
Sisti took notice, however, when the pilot came on the intercom again to say there was smoke coming from the towers. Quickly, she flashed back to February 1993 when a truck bomb was detonated below the north tower, forcing the building to be evacuated.
Moments later the pilot went on the intercom yet another time to announce that a fire at the WTC had forced the Newark airport to close.
“I couldn’t understand what it had to do with us,” she said. “Soon after that, he announced a plane had crashed into it, and that we were returning to the gate.”
After passengers were cleared to use their cell phones, another traveler alerted others that a second plane crashed into the towers.
“I turned to the man next to me and said, ‘That can’t be true! What are the chances of two planes crashing into the same building within minutes of each other. . .unless it was terrorism!”
Once inside the gate passengers scrambled to reschedule their flights.
“I realized that as I walked around the terminal before my flight, I passed the gate of United Airlines Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, Penn.,” she said. “I passed those people. . . I realized it was likely that I passed the terrorists, too.”
Sisti tried repeatedly to reach Russ, but the phone lines were busy. When she did, he rushed back to get her.
As they left the airport, facing the New York skyline, there was a mushroom cloud where the second tower once stood.
“I can’t describe how my body bore the grief of colossal loss of human life that had just happened,” she said. “I had seen those buildings, with human beings in them, with my own eyes only moments before. And just two days earlier, I saw it up close from a Cessna.”
When they returned home, Bethany, in her nurse’s uniform, ran towards Russ’ truck.
“She hugged me as if to squeeze the life out of me and burst into tears,” Sisti remembers. “Only then did I realize she thought I could be dead.”
In the days that followed, the community rallied by displaying posters with a list of items requested by the NYFD. The response was overwhelming.
Some people dropped off things, others copied down the list and went shopping. They returned with granola bars, sweatshirts, even booties for search dogs.
During the subsequent week, there were reports of family, friends and acquaintances who worked at the WTC, and whose lives were spared.
Each person failed to arrive at work for unusual, even fluky, reasons.
“A church youth group leader got a job at the WTC but his alarm didn’t go off that morning,” Sisti said. “Another person arrived at the towers only to decide that she didn’t like the way her slacks fit, so she took a cab home to change.”
Sisti said the disaster transformed the city forever.
“New York City is infamous for the cold, impersonal demeanor of its people,” she said. “That was gone. . .they rolled up their sleeves, jumped in with both feet, stuck out their arm to give a hand up because these were our fellow Americans. I was more proud than ever that week to be an American.”