Butera recalls harrowing 9/11 experience during Saturday’s remembrance ceremony

The Aspen icon was in New York the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks

The Tiger Squadron flies over a crowd gathered for the 20th annual Day of Remembrance for 9/11 on East Hopkins in Aspen on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Dick Butera can still see the faces and it took him two decades to admit that out loud in front of a public audience. The Aspen icon, who once owned the Aspen Club and restored the Hotel Jerome, was there that day when the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings.

Fighting those emotions from all those years ago, Butera talked about that experience during a 20th anniversary remembrance ceremony of the 9/11 attacks on Saturday in front of the Aspen Fire Station.

“I didn’t think it was going to take 20 years to be able to do this. But I can tell my story because it’s not about me. My story is about them,” Butera said, referring to the dozens of mostly volunteer emergency responders in attendance.

“I arrived at the Two Towers, standing underneath them and looking up to a sight that was truly unbelievable. I don’t have enough adjectives or words to explain to you what was happening,” he continued. “Bodies flying out of the building, both buildings screaming flames from both sides, sirens as loud as you can hear from both directions. Policemen risking their lives running toward the building, firemen pulling up and running toward the building, and the total chaos. That sight, of course, sticks with me for the rest of my life.”

Butera also restored the building that once housed the original New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. It was turned into the Regent Wall Street Hotel, and Butera had a meeting on the hotel’s terrace the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The initial curiosity of the unknown drove he and his friend toward the Twin Towers after the first plane had struck, but once arriving on site it became apparent something was terribly wrong.

He returned to the hotel before a “thick black cloud” of debris enveloped the area and he decided to pick up the phone.

“The only thing I could think of was to call my kids and say goodbye,” Butera said, noting that he was unable to get a call out to his family. He then ran to the hotel’s basement where he found all the employees and guests who had “looks of fear on their faces that I’ll never forget.”

In the following days, Butera’s hotel was turned into a staging area for the first responders — Butera’s heroes — where he helped serve up 3,500 meals a day to those whose only objective was to dig through the rubble to find anyone they could.

“The reason I couldn’t talk about this for 20 years was I still see their faces,” Butera repeated. “I feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world because I got to look at them and talk to them and discuss with them their frustrations, their anger, their hope. They wouldn’t give up hope. They dug for 10 days.”

The official number of deaths during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is 2,977, with the fallout of those events still being felt today. Among those was Michael Weinberg, a New York firefighter who had been on vacation that day but once learning of the attack returned to duty.

Weinberg’s sister worked in the World Trade Center building, but survived. Weinberg, only 34, did not.

His story was one told by Bill Linn, Aspen’s assistant police chief, during Saturday’s ceremony. It hit home with Linn as he also was 34 that day and couldn’t help but reflect on all of life’s joys since then, joys Weinberg and nearly 3,000 others never got to experience.

“So many memories, so many joys. In fact, a lifetime full of them. That same lifetime was stolen from Michael Weinberg. So, as we say these words, ‘Never forget,’ never forgetting for me will be remembering him,” Linn said. “Today I just charge each of us with this simple task. … Recall that beauty of the past 20 years and appreciate that life you’ve gotten for those 2,977 Michael Weinbergs who didn’t.”

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine opened and closed the roughly 90-minute ceremony, which included the posting of colors, lowering of the flag to half mast, a wreath and helmet ceremony, as well as a flyover by the Tiger Squadron.

Among the other speakers were Father Darrick Leir of St. Mary Catholic Church and Rabbi Itzhak Vardy, Lt. Col. Dick Merritt, District Director for Aspen Ambulance Gabe Muething and Deputy Fire Chief Jake Andersen.

“The best way to honor those who died is to live your life well. To take their ultimate service and sacrifice and continue it through your own service and sacrifice to each other every day,” Andersen said.

“Give your best self. Love with your whole heart, listen to those who don’t agree with you, remember that you are more similar than different, and then just love them just the same,” he continued. “Countless others gave everything they had to give us this beautiful day. So go shine as much light as you can into the world. Make it even brighter outside today than it is right now and let’s move forward in unity. Now, get out there and love each other, damn it. They deserve it.”