It was a stunning, tragic and heartbreaking day. It was 20 years ago that the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil took place. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed about 3,000 people. One of them was Fargo native Al Marchand.
Marchand, who died at age 44, attended St. Mary’s Grade School in Fargo and graduated from Shanley High School in 1975.
Mark DuBord, of Fargo, went to school with Al at St. Mary’s and Shanley. Al would come over to Mark’s house every Friday for cookies with Mark’s mother. They also played sports together.
“Al was very friendly and athletic,” Mark said. “He was outgoing, funny and jovial. He fit in with every group.”
Becky Fischer Jacobson also graduated with Al at Shanley. She fondly remembers spending time with Al at football games, swimming pools and Shakey’s Pizza.
“Al was very popular,” Becky said. “He was always kind and smiling. All the girls had a crush on him. He was very cute.”
Al later moved to Alamogordo, New Mexico, where he became a police officer for 21 years, rising up to become a lieutenant.
“Al loved being a police officer. He loved helping people,” said Rebecca Marchand, Al’s wife. “If he pulled you over and you were crying, he would give you a ride somewhere or help you. He was highly respected.”
Al was a regular at a restaurant where Rebecca was a waitress. She resisted going out with him at first, but Al persisted.
“I was not supposed to like him,” Rebecca said. “However, he was kind, such a gentleman, and he was funny.”
They started dating in 1992, married in 1997 and became very active in their church.
“Al was compassionate and so genuine. He had such a loud laugh,” Rebecca said. “We loved each other. I have never been loved like that.”
Al was an only child and repeatedly traveled back to Fargo to visit and take care of his mother, Irene Marchand, who was a widow.
Al was ready to retire from the police department but didn’t know what he wanted to do next. Seemingly out of nowhere, Al became a flight attendant for United Airlines in 2000. He was based in Boston, while Rebecca remained in New Mexico.
“There were a lot of lonely days when I didn’t see him,“ Rebecca said. “He was gone a lot. I hated it. I made the decision to love him from a distance.”
Al enjoyed being a flight attendant.
“He loved serving people. He loved the other flight attendants,” Rebecca said. “He loved being the guy on the speaker giving the funny seat belt demonstration.”
Rebecca was with Al in the Boston area during September of 2001. He asked her to fly with him to Los Angeles on Sept. 11. She really wanted to go with him, but she decided against it because she had to get back home to take care of her two young sons.
“He told me a few days before Sept. 11 that, ‘If I die before you do, I want you to remarry and be happy.’”
So, on Sept. 11, 2001, they both headed to Boston’s Logan Airport. Rebecca had a 6:15 am flight to Denver and then a connecting flight to New Mexico. Al was scheduled to work on United Flight 175 to Los Angeles.
“He walked me to my gate, got me some water and grabbed my arm,” Rebecca said. “He said, ‘I guess this is goodbye,’ told me he loved me, kissed me, and then went skipping down the terminal.”
Al’s flight left the gate at 7:58 am and took off at 8:14 am. About 30 minutes later, two terrorists entered the cockpit, killed the pilots and took control of the plane. Three other terrorists took over the cabin.
One of the passengers, Peter Hanson, called his father and said, “It’s getting bad, dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and mace. They said they have a bomb. It’s getting very bad on the plane. The plane is making jerky movements. I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down.”
Another passenger, Brian Sweeney, called his wife, Julie. She didn’t answer, so he left a message.
“I’m on an airplane that has been hijacked,” Sweeney said. “If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know that I absolutely love you. I want you to do good, so have good times. Same to my parents and everybody. And I just totally love you, and I’ll see you when you get there.”
At 9:03 am, the plane, traveling at about 590 miles per hour with 10,000 gallons of jet fuel, crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. That was just 17 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower. All 65 people aboard United Flight 175 died on impact, while about 640 people were killed instantly in the South Tower.
When Rebecca’s plane landed in Denver, the passenger next to her turned on his blackberry and told her two planes had smashed into the Twin Towers. The captain then came on and said they should take all their belongings with them.
“I didn’t know what the Twin Towers were,” Rebecca said. “I didn’t think it was Al’s flight. Still, I kept calling Al’s phone. I couldn’t figure out what was happening.”
Rebecca then took a van from the Denver airport to a nearby hotel.
“I shouted out loud a couple of times, ‘Can someone help me find my husband?’” Rebecca said.
A woman then turned on her laptop and soon started walking toward her.
“I could tell she was coming to give me bad news,” Rebecca said. “She said, ‘I am so sorry. It was his flight.’ I thought, 'What am I supposed to do now?' I was so shocked. You never imagine someone is going to tell you this.”
In the hotel room, friends and family called to console her.
“I just sat in my room and cried,” Rebecca said.
In Fargo, a police officer notified Al’s mother, Irene Marchand, of the horrible news. On Sept. 12, I interviewed Irene for KVRR-TV at her Fargo home. She was distraught and crying.
“He (the police officer) came in the house and told me my son was dead,” Irene said. “To me, he was a very good kid. I loved him very much.”
Irene was angry and overcome with grief. I felt terrible for her and told her how sorry I was about what happened.
“I say those guys will go to hell — those guys that killed him,” Irene said. “It’s hard to believe. To me, those people that killed him were working with the devil. Because you’re not supposed to kill.”
Also on Sept. 12, because all the flights in the U.S. were grounded and there were no rental cars available, Rebecca’s father drove to Denver to drive her back to New Mexico.
“I remember thinking it was not just a plane crash, he was murdered,” Rebecca said. “It was terrorism. It’s so scary that he died that way. I remember thinking he’s never going to walk through this door again.”
Over the next several months, Rebecca received thousands of cards and letters from around the world, as well as stuffed animals and pictures from children. Many of the letter writers expressed sympathy for her loss, said they hoped she was OK, and that they were praying for her.
“Every time I would open one up, I would cry,” Rebecca said. “I was so touched. I was overwhelmed by the love of humans.”
Three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Irene Marchand, 84, died suddenly of a heart attack.
“She died of a broken heart,” Rebecca said. “As an only child, Al was everything to her. When he was gone, she had no reason to live.”
The last time Shanley classmates Becky Fischer Jacobson and Mark DuBord saw Al was at their 20th class reunion in 1995.
“You couldn’t get close to him at that time. Everybody wanted to talk to him,” Becky said. “I was horribly saddened by his death. He had the biggest smile. He loved people. He was a wonderful person in my life. A great friend.”
In 2014, Mark, his wife Colleen and daughter Stephanie joined about 100 others on a Shanley Choir bus trip to New York City. During that trip, they went to the Sept. 11 Memorial. Mark was determined to find Al’s name, and he did.
“It meant a lot to me. I said my goodbye,” Mark said. “I was glad to see the memorial for my friend. I was shocked that I found it. My daughter, wife and I looked at his name in silence. It was very touching that I was standing there.”
Rebecca has been to the memorial about a dozen times.
“It is sacred ground. It’s a place to heal,” Rebecca said. “It’s the most peaceful place on earth. I go to honor Al and be with other families who have lost somebody. There’s a sense of relief to be with others who understand your pain.”
For Rebecca, who still lives in New Mexico, the last 20 years have been very hard. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. She said therapy is what kept her alive.
“It was hard to go to bed. I couldn’t sleep for years, knowing I wasn’t going to see Al again,” Rebecca said. “I think about him every day. Just things that remind me of him. I miss how kind he was. Not just to me, but to the world.”
Every Sept. 11 is a very tough day for Rebecca.
She thinks of the evil, madness and senselessness of the terrorist attacks. She thinks of the thousands of innocent people who needlessly lost their lives. She thinks of the thousands of people whose lives were shattered when they lost loved ones.
And she thinks of Al.
“I’m really proud that he was my husband,” Rebecca said. “I still miss him so much. I wonder what our lives would have been like 20 years later.”