All of us remember where we were when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, into the Pentagon and finally in a field in Pennsylvania.
The horror of that day and the bravery of those who faced tragic consequences, are remembered every year at the Dan Shanhower Memorial in Naperville. In fact, two current Naperville residents were working at ground zero within days of the catastrophe.
Chuck Wehrli was in the sky, in only one of seven planes cleared to fly by the FAA for the ground zero rescue effort on September 11. Wehrli, at the time he served as a Naperville Fire Captain, and oversaw the Fema 1 rescue crew’s trip to ground zero. Deep in the Manathan Morgue, Dentist Anthony LaVacca put his skills to use. Near the end of his medical training, the young LaVacca faced a test unlike any he had ever taken.
“ I would look at half of a bridge or jaw bone, and try to match it up with a person. I would also look for a tooth cap or filling,” explained Dr. LaVacca, who compared remnants of jaw bones to dental records in order to indentify the bodies found in the rubble of downtown New York.
“Overall it was such a disastrous site I can’t put into words. Our boys found no remains,” described Chuck Wehrli.
During the rescue effort, Wehrli was the first to be notified of the death of Naperville’s Commander Dan Shanhower’s while at his post in the Pentagon.
“I got an email that said ‘we found your guy from Naperville,’ and he just found the victim sitting there,” said Wehrli who learned of Shanhower’s death ten days after arriving in New York. “He did a background check on the victim, and said ‘
I got a buddy who lives out there.’ So I got a message from him when I got back and that’s how we found him.”
Nine years later, those memories are still fresh for Dr. LaVacca and Chuck Wehrli. Especially in early September.
“I remember going to the morgue and driving through Manhattan and it was empty. No cars, not even a taxi. It was pretty unbelievable,” said Dr. LaVacca.
“He had dropped me off at Rescue One’s house, which is one of the most elite rescue services. I wanted to buy one of their patches,” Wehrli remembered when asked what stands out in his memory of his time in New York.
“They were out, but he tore the patch off his hat and gave it to me. This was very unique. The guy’s name was Joe Angelini Sr. He and his son both perished that day. For four or five days at ground zero we removed civilian causalities. We found someone from Rescue One. Two months later, I found out it was Joe Angelini. I literally helped rescue him.”
Shanhower used the phrase “Freedom isn’t free” in an essay he wrote for a military magazine in 1997. Now that phrase is used to honor him at Naperville’s city memorial.
“I think this memorial is perfect,” said Chuck Wehrli. “I know guys from all over the United States and they say this is the best memorial they have ever seen.”
“I want everybody just to come here and look at this steel beam and hit it and feel it,” said Dr. LaVacca. “Just think, there were miles and miles of beams that came down. Look at the torch. This could be your mom, dad, a fireman, police officers, all the civil service people in the area that help us.”
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