Wake-up call: 9/11 prompted some to move away to new lives

Families found solace in North Carolina’s small towns after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001

Heather and Tom LaGarde are seen at their home near Saxapahaw, N.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. The LaGardes left New York following the events of 9/11. “We try to echo some of what we loved” in New York, Heather says, “but living in an easier, simpler, more natural place.” (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

NEW YORK — Heather and Tom LaGarde loved New York and didn’t want to leave, even after she watched the twin towers burn from their rooftop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

But over time, “we were very unmoored by 9/11,” Heather says. “Even though I wasn’t physically harmed, just to see it that close changes your perspective. … Your priorities change.”

The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks prompted the LaGardes and an uncounted number of others to move quietly away from their lives near the hijacked-plane strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Some sought safety. Some placed a new importance on living near family. Others re-evaluated what they wanted from life.

After 9/11, for the LaGardes it felt harder and harder to stay in New York. Their nonprofit work — hers in human rights, his running a roller basketball program for neighborhood kids he’d founded after playing for the Denver Nuggets and other NBA teams — depended on fundraising that lagged in the rocky economy after the attacks. Friends moved away.

At first, the ramshackle North Carolina farm they spotted online in 2002 was only going to be an occasional getaway. But in 2004, the LaGardes moved into the farm near small-town Saxapahaw with their two children, a few months’ consulting work for Heather and no plan beyond that.

Having no plan evolved into starting an architectural salvage company; a popular free music series and farmers’ market; a humanitarian innovation conference; and the Haw River Ballroom, a music venue in an old mill the couple helped renovate.

“We try to echo some of what we loved” in New York, Heather says, “but living in an easier, simpler, more natural place.”

Scott Dacey, who recently came up short in a Republican primary effort to unseat Congressman Walter Jones in North Carolina’s third district, was among those many Americans who sought a different life after 9/11.

Now, about 30 weeks a year, Scott Dacey drives from his home near New Bern to Washington, D.C., for a few days. The 350-mile trips are a price the federal lobbyist pays for peace of mind after Sept. 11.

He and his wife, Jennifer, once expected to stay in the Washington area for years. Then came the strike on the Pentagon and the new feeling of living under heavy security in northern Virginia.

“It really made us have a wake-up call: ‘How do we want to live our lives?’”Scott said. “Do we want to be up here in this rat race of Washington, D.C.?” Or raising kids somewhere less on-guard and closer to family?

The couple’s 2002 move meant extra costs, including a Washington apartment. Jennifer, already a lawyer, had to take a second bar exam in North Carolina.

But the move also opened new opportunities. Scott is a county commissioner and their children, 17 and 15, grew up in a town ranked among the state’s safest.

“It would not be for everybody, but for us, it’s been the right fit,” Jennifer says. “We’re outside the bubble, and this is how America really lives.”

On 9/11, Stephen Feuerman saw the World Trade Center aflame through the window of his Empire State Building office and watched, transfixed, as a second fireball burst from the twin towers.

He ran through the 78th floor urging everyone to get out, thinking their skyscraper could be next. With transit hubs shut down, he couldn’t get home to his family in suburban Westchester for hours.

Shaken by the experience, the apparel broker, his wife and their two small children moved within four months to a gracious South Florida suburb they figured would be safer than New York.

It was safer, until this past Valentine’s Day, when mass violence tore into Parkland, Fla., too.

“There really is no safe place,” says Feuerman, whose children survived but lost friends in the massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

He still feels the family made a good move after 9/11, and he feels all the more attached to Parkland since the shooting plunged him into a whirlwind of events and advocacy on school safety and other issues.

“We’ve had a good life here,” he says. “And again, this could have happened anywhere.”