One of the 20 balloons that floated upward at the conclusion of Mitchell High School’s annual 9/11 anniversary observance Wednesday contained a personal note penned by Briargate resident Gene Yancey.
His daughter, Kathryn Yancey LaBorie, was the lead flight attendant in the first-class section of United Airlines Flight 175. The plane was the second to crash into the World Trade Center shortly after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, after it was hijacked by terrorists.
This year, Yancey wanted to write her a special message.
“I’m sending it to the heavens, where I know she earned her second wings,” Yancey said before this year’s ceremony got underway.
After 18 years, the pain of losing Kathryn, a 1975 graduate of Mitchell High School, is still sharp for the Yancey family, whose members laid a wreath during the event as a tribute.
“She was two steps away from those two terrorists in first class,” Yancey said. “She tried to keep them out of the cockpit.”
The family knows that as fact because another flight attendant in the rear of the plane had called his mother and whispered a second-by-second replay of what was going on.
They’ve treasured that final nugget from the end of Kathryn’s life as dearly as the poignant memories from her childhood.
“We try not to watch the news on this day,” said her younger brother, Kevin Yancey, who was wearing a button with Kathryn’s picture. “It’s just kind of difficult.”
While firefighters were climbing the Manitou Incline wearing full gear, in remembrance of firefighters who climbed many stairs in the World Trade Center Tower and gave their lives trying to save others, cadets in Mitchell High School’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps were marching, saluting and presenting arms in solemnity.
The touching ceremony has been held every year since the attacks happened, killing nearly 3,000 men, women and children at sites in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Firefighters from Colorado Springs Stations 7 and 8, Colorado Springs police officers, the Colorado Springs Police Department's Honor Guard and Colorado Springs School District 11 leaders joined Kathryn's family and Mitchell students for the event.
The ceremony also featured "Taps" on a trumpet, a 21-gun salute and songs by the school choir.
An inaugural Kathryn Yancey LaBorie Scholarship launched as well. The first recipient, Kodie Donaldson, who graduated from Mitchell High in May and is a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, received $1,000.
The Yancey family, student fundraisers and community donations will fund the scholarship going forward.
This year’s class of high school seniors is the first to not have been born when the attacks occurred.
Students said they still identify with the tragedy.
“Whether we were born or not, it still matters,” said 17-year-old Cadet Teriah Adames.
“We had a 1975 graduate on one of the planes, and we take care of our own,” she said. “We commemorate the others who lost their lives as well.”
That a generation has passed since 911 makes Cadet Taveian Patterson want to teach younger students the meaning of the anniversary, to “make sure this is imprinted in their minds.”
The 911 attacks changed the daily lives of everyone in the nation going forward, said Cadet Brenilde Gonzalez, from internal and external security to airport security.
And Kathryn Yancey LaBorie left her mark on thousands of students she never met.
“After all these years, Kathryn has a part in bringing us closer as a school and a JROTC unit,” 17-year-old Gonzalez said. “The most powerful thing she left behind was her impact on the school, the community and the JROTC program.”
Among the hundreds of people standing outside the flagpole in front Mitchell High School, Elaine Navarette shed tears.
“I’m so emotional,” she said, after watching her grandson, a Mitchell JROTC cadet, participate in the program.
The former special-needs teacher from Trinidad was remembering that fateful morning 18 years ago, when she was in her classroom and had turned on the television.
“It goes to the back of your mind, but I don’t think we ever forget it,” Navarette said.
Mitchell JROTC Cadet Kadence Lewis’ father has served in the military for 20 years, and he’s made sure she knows the importance of the 911 events.
“Even though I didn’t personally experience it, we still feel the significance of it, the weight of it.”
Then as now, it feels heavy.