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Arkansas sister of 9/11 victim: 'A current of sadness runs underneath everything'

She says that day’s story about lives, not statistics by Bill Bowden | September 11, 2021 at 4:48 a.m.
“She loved flying and traveling,” Alyson Low says of her sister, Sara Elizabeth Low, who died when the plane she was on slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

Every waking hour of every day for the past 20 years, Alyson Low has felt a sense that things were not right.

Her sister, Sara Low, was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first airplane to crash into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Sometimes it's 9/11," said Alyson. "Most of the time it's Sara and her absence, sometimes a combination, but it's always there in some form and on some level. Hard to explain. They're not active thoughts, just an extra awareness that all is not right, not complete, and never will be."

Alyson lives in Goshen, near Fayetteville. She's a former schoolteacher and librarian.

She maintained the juvenile nonfiction collection at the Fayetteville Public Library. Books for the kids sometimes contained photographs of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

To kids in Arkansas, photos of the north tower showed a smoldering hole in a tall building long ago and far away. To Alyson, it was where her sister died.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » arkansasonline.com/911lows/]

"It's another one of those weird things about the circumstances of Sara's death: whether weeding out-of-date books or purchasing/processing new books on 9/11, there were days when I felt a detachment I know is born of mental and emotional survival," said Alyson. "I was able to flip through the books, see photographs of the hole in the north tower, etc., with little problem. Then there were other days when it was just too much -- images of my family's intensely personal and very ugly loss published in a book.

"You can't stay in the latter frame of mind or you won't make it," she said. "Sometimes your brain shuts it off for you. Sometimes you have to make the conscious effort to shut it off yourself."

Sara Elizabeth Low was born in Batesville on Oct. 27, 1972 -- almost two years after her big sister.

Alyson wasn't happy about it.

"I stood on the street below with my dad and screamed my head off when my mom held her up to the window at Doc Baker's office," she said.

But the sisters grew close.

"She was a sweet, happy little girl, and I was protective of her, much to her chagrin when we got to adolescence and her boyfriends needed lining out," Alyson said.

The Low sisters grew up in Batesville, the only children of Mike and Bobbie Low.

Mike Low worked in management at a limestone quarry and eventually owned the company, Midwest Lime. He was a pilot with his own airplane. He would fly the family on vacations out west.

On Tuesday, Alyson spoke at a 9/11 flag dedication at Bentonville High School.

"Ours was an idyllic childhood -- one to which I often wish I could return," she told the students. "We rode bikes to the neighborhood grocery store to get treats, walked to school, claimed an old cellar roof in a vacant lot as our fort, and jumped through the sprinkler in the backyard. It was the kind of existence every child deserves."

[9/11 VICTIMS: List of Arkansans not appearing above? Click here » arkansasonline.com/911arkansas7/]

"Sara was a very good student in school. She participated in clubs. She ran track. Of course cliques existed, but she did not belong to any of them. She was known for her friendliness to everyone."

Stu Smith, Sara's track coach, remembers her universal kindness.

"What I remember the most about Sara was her caring attitude towards everyone she knew," he said. "She put others first and defined the word champion. Sara had a smile that would brighten up your most dreary of days. When I think of her, it is that smile that always stands out in my mind."

OFF TO COLLEGE

Sara graduated from high school in 1991 and headed for college at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Alyson finished her bachelor's degree at Hendrix College in 1993 and moved to Fayetteville for graduate school.

The Low sisters lived together in Fayetteville, often taking walks in Gulley Park and occasionally going to dinner at Mary Maestri's in Tontitown.

Alyson said her sister didn't talk about the possibility of being a flight attendant until later in college.

"She loved flying and traveling, so I guess you could say the seed for that career was certainly planted from the time she was young," she said.

Sara graduated from the UA in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in finance and real estate. Alyson got two master's degrees while in Fayetteville -- one in journalism and one in teaching.

After college, Sara moved back to Batesville and worked for a while as an office manager at Midwest Lime.

But crushing limestone wasn't her thing.

"Small town living just wasn't for her," said her big sister. "She interviewed with American Airlines and left Batesville for their headquarters in Dallas to train in the spring of '99."

[20 Years After 9/11: Read more stories in this series at arkansasonline.com/after911/]

Sara moved to New York and then to Boston.

The Low family has a picture of Sara taken on a trip to New York City in 1998. The twin towers of the World Trade Center loom in the background.

ON FLIGHT 11

There was trouble soon after Flight 11 left Boston heading for Los Angeles.

"The plane took off at 7:59 and by 8:19, two of Sara's crewmates -- Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong -- had made contact with ground personnel to notify them of the unfolding crisis on board," Alyson told the students in Bentonville. "The hijackers had moved early and quickly, killing passenger Daniel Lewin and injuring the two first-class flight attendants as they rushed the cockpit."

The Boeing 767 was at about half-capacity, carrying 81 passengers, including the five terrorists, according to a 9/11 Commission document. The crew consisted of two pilots and nine flight attendants.

Sweeney, another flight attendant, had made unsuccessful attempts to call ground personnel to report the hijacking.

"Sara, who had our calling card memorized, gave her the number, and it worked," Alyson said.

Sweeney provided information about what was going on and who the hijackers were, based on seat numbers. Ong had made a similar phone call to the American Airlines reservations number.

Sweeney's call reached Michael Woodward, the flight service manager for American Airlines at Boston's Logan International Airport. They talked for about nine minutes.

In a controlled and serious voice, Sweeney said to Woodward, "Listen to me very, very carefully," according to a 9/11 Commission memorandum based on Woodward's testimony.

Sweeney told Woodward the hijackers had slashed a passenger's throat and stabbed two flight attendants. She said one of the hijackers had a bomb.

While Sweeney and Ong were on the phone, three other flight attendants, including Sara, were "running around doing things like getting medical supplies," according to the document.

Sweeney told Woodward, "Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent."

She said the plane was flying erratically -- "all over the place."

"Woodward asked Sweeney to look out the window to see if she could determine where they were," according to the memorandum. "Sweeney said 'We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low,' And seconds later she said 'Oh my God, we are way too low.'"

Then the phone call ended in a rush of noise, like the winds of a tornado.

The Boeing 767 airliner had crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the 110-story north tower at 8:46 a.m.

FAMILIAR NUMBER

Alyson saw the familiar calling card number later in an FBI document.

She knew her sister had the presence of mind to try to help during the hijacking.

"We have a piece of paper from the FBI that shows the attempted calls, and on it is the number we had used since college," she said. "It's one of many, many surreal things about 9/11. It sounds strange, but it has brought comfort to us because it means she wasn't paralyzed with fear. Not that we would have expected anything else because she had a calm demeanor and a steel spine, but to have that concrete validation that she was doing her job and able to think that clearly, means a lot."

Three other airliners were hijacked that morning. Seventeen minutes after Flight 11 hit the north tower, a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hit the south tower. In Arlington, Va., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., and in Pennsylvania, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field at 10:03 a.m.

About 3,000 people died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"When the towers were struck, between 16,400 and 18,000 people were in the World Trade Center complex," according to 911memorial.org. "Of those, the vast majority evacuated safely. As they rushed out, first responders rushed in trying to save those still trapped or injured."

By 10:28 a.m., both towers had collapsed.

"The fires from the impacts were intensified by the planes' burning jet fuel," according to the website. "They weakened the steel support trusses, which attached each of the floors to the buildings' exterior walls. Along with the initial damage to the buildings' structural columns, this ultimately caused both towers to collapse. The five other buildings in the WTC complex were also destroyed because of damage sustained when the Twin Towers fell."

Thousands of volunteers went to ground zero to help with the rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts.

Alyson said it's important for the public to know the bravery of the flight crews.

"They aren't on the planes to serve sodas and pretzels," she said. "They're the real deal. I also think it's important that the personal losses are remembered. The statistics are sensational, but the story should never be reduced to numbers or the impact of that day will be lost."

Alyson said she's been changed by 9/11.

"I'm very cynical," she said. "I don't trust or believe in people I don't know. A lot of suppressed, helpless rage. And there's a current of sadness that runs underneath everything. None of that means I haven't found things that make me happy or give me comfort and peace. But it's a qualified existence. Yes, I enjoyed that vacation, but .... Yes, that sunrise was beautiful, but .... It's hard to have your trajectory so profoundly thrown off course by the actions of someone else. Someone who was pathetic and evil.

"You learn to live around it," she said. "Living with it implies an acceptance of it, and that's not possible. I should also say that for better or worse, it's made me less inclined to use my filter and play by the rules. Screw it. And it's made me narrow my focus to the small things rather than the big picture. I look for moments to string together and hang onto them like a safety line that pulls me out of the abyss. I'm grateful to be able to do that. Otherwise this would not be survivable."

Low said people apologize for bringing up 9/11 as though she's not already thinking about it.

"It's always there in some form," she said.

FLAGS AND RINGS

Alyson was teaching at Walton Junior High School in Bentonville on Sept. 11, 2001. Initially, her family was told Sara wasn't on the plane that crashed into the north tower. But the person at American Airlines was looking at the passenger list, which didn't include the flight attendants' names.

Later, they learned the truth. Mike Low called Alyson at 12:23 p.m. on Sept. 11 to tell her.

By that time, she had panicked and felt relief, only to be devastated by the news.

Since then, the Low family has been vocal in the aftermath of 9/11.

"We have often voiced frustration with the government for its failure to act on intelligence that may have prevented 9/11," Alyson said. "We also continue to be disappointed in that individuals both here and abroad who were at the least neglectful and at the worst directly involved, have not been held to account. Transparency and consequences remain elusive."

Alyson makes herself available whenever possible to talk to students about 9/11.

But with that persistence comes a certain amount of pain, said Ron Harris of Dallas, a flight attendant friend of Sara's.

"Everything they do is a reminder of what happened," he said. "I respect them a lot for that."

Harris said he learned on Sept. 11, 2001, that Sara was aboard Flight 11.

Later, he had some film developed and was surprised to see photos of him and Sara riding bicycles across the Golden Gate Bridge during a layover in San Francisco.

He sent copies of the pictures to the Low family in Arkansas.

There's a dog park in Batesville named for Sara. And the Sara Low Relays are run every year at Batesville High School.

In Fayetteville, at Alyson's request, a maple tree honoring Sara was planted on the front lawn of Old Main on the UA campus.

There's also a small plaque at the foot of the tree. It reads: "In memory of Sara Elizabeth Low, Flight Attendant, American Airlines Flight 11, September 11, 2001."

Alyson said she used to place a single American flag by the memorial every year during the week of Sept. 11, and a high school classmate of Sara's would put flowers there.

For the past few years, as Sept. 11 approaches, someone has been surrounding the memorial with American flags. Alyson said she didn't know who it was until Friday. After a memorial service for Sara that morning, she learned that the university's facilities management department had been ringing the tree with flags every year.

Alyson and her father each have a ring that Sara was wearing on Sept. 11, 2001 -- found among the 1.8 million tons of debris from the World Trade Center.

Alyson's ring had been passed back and forth between the sisters. Sara bought the ring at a jewelry store in Colorado.

When Alyson moved to London in December 1992 to study for a term, she found the ring hidden in her luggage with a note from her sister wishing her safe travels.

"I gave it back to her when I got back," she said. "And she had it until, well, it was returned to me one last time."

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of articles looking back at the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Arkansans whose lives were changed.

Alyson Low of Fayetteville walks recently at Gulley Park in Fayetteville. She thinks a lot about her sister, Sara Elizabeth Low, who was a flight attendant on the fi rst plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Alyson Low of Fayetteville walks recently at Gulley Park in Fayetteville. She thinks a lot about her sister, Sara Elizabeth Low, who was a flight attendant on the fi rst plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

Print Headline: Flight attendant's sister recalls 9/11 heroism, loss

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