Pasadena Pilot John McDannel Keeps Memory of 9-11 Heroes, and the 180 Trees He Planted for Them, Alive on New York Drive

Published : Wednesday, September 11, 2019 | 4:45 AM

Local Air Force veteran, former airline pilot John McDannel shown at the dedication of Pasadena's 9-11 memorial, on September 11, 2011.

Local Air Force veteran, former airline pilot John McDannel shown at the dedication of Pasadena's 9-11 memorial, on September 11, 2011.

A mile and a half long memorial site in Pasadena that is dedicated to the fallen heroes of the 9-11 national tragedy has been cleaned up and made neat and tidy in time for people to pay respects on Wednesday.

There is deep dedication behind this memorial median along New York Drive, a devotion that goes beyond temporarily overgrown weeds and occasional trash that is left behind.

“As an American, I think it’s important for all of us to never forget the bravery, human sacrifice and events of that fateful day,” said the man behind the memorial, local Air Force veteran John McDannel, at the time the memorial was dedicated eight years ago. “Patriotism is alive and well in Pasadena.”

McDannel and the Pasadena 911 committee officially opened the memorial on Sunday, September 11, 2011. The crowd of 500 was filled with many in military uniform. Two 9-11 survivors attended. Two United States Marine Corps F-18s conducted a fly-over.

“It was always my dream to be a pilot,” said 78-year-old John McDannel, who first made the suggestion to create a Pasadena memorial for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001 shortly after the tragic attack in New York City. “And when pilots and victims were killed I felt they needed to be honored.”

But it goes beyond that. McDannel, a commemorated military hero in his own right and commercial pilot for United Airlines in his own right, invested his time and effort and took it upon himself to plant 180 oak trees along the New York Drive median. And he has received support from the City of Pasadena for his efforts.

“It was not, and is not about me, it’s about patriotism,” McDannel said. “I wanted to memorialize the pilots and the victims.”

Neighbors say the memorial median deserves respect but has been neglected. The City needs to help McDannel more, they say.

Following a few phone calls from locals, the City of Pasadena stepped up to spruce up the memorial land and recently cleaned the median in time for people to pay respects today.

“There were overgrown weeds and trash, and given the circumstances that it was the most deadly attack in our country’s history, this memorial holds a special place,” said Altadena resident Rene Amy, who said he lodged several complaints to the City of Pasadena in an effort to get the memorial cleaned up. “Given the effort Mr. McDannel made to turn that proposal into a memorial, it should be maintained.”

A City of Pasadena spokesperson it has heard the public and will be making extra efforts to keep the grounds maintained.

“The contractors are not performing to the predetermined timeline for that area, so the City is dedicating resources to insure that center median is brought to a respectable appearance,” said Lisa Derderian, public information officer for the City of Pasadena. “This is a day of remembrance that is of utmost concern and we want to insure that hundreds of people who drive by the memorial on a daily basis can reflect.”

McDannel said his experience on Sept. 11, 2001 was that of shock like everyone else. He had landed in Roanoke, Va., to visit his father. But when he stepped off the plane, he saw the television screen and the plane embedded in a fiery hole in the center of the first of the Twin Towers in New York City.

“I said ‘That’s one of our airplanes,’” he recalled. “One of the United employees said, ‘Captain come take a look.’ When I looked and I saw the plane, I recognized it as one that I flew. That was the first thing that hit me was ‘I flew that specific airplane.’ Could you imagine if you had a car you sold someone and it ran into a crowd and killed people, how would you feel? Then I thought of the captain flying the plane and I knew we were under attack. I knew the quality of the pilots, so I knew it was a highjack. Then I thought of my son-in-law who was working in one of the towers.”

McDannel got himself to New York because his son-in-law and his daughter who worked around the World Trade Center. He knew he needed to be near them. He got a car and drove up I-95 past the Pentagon and continued on to New York.

Thankfully, his kids made it out of downtown and were safe, but he was moved by the tears of the firemen who had lost their colleagues and brothers.

“One of them said to me, ‘The only reason I’m alive is because I wasn’t scheduled to be on duty yesterday,’” McDannel recalled.

McDannel said he was so moved and angered by the attack, he tried to volunteer for military service, but he was no longer eligible to go to battle.

So instead, he thought about something he could do to commemorate the heroes. He went to Bill Bogaard, who was Pasadena’s Mayor at the time, and Michael Antonovich, who was the Los Angeles County Supervisor representing Pasadena at the time, and approached them about the mile and a half strip of road on New York Drive which he felt that with some work and cleanup, could make an appropriate memorial.

“I said, ‘That stretch serves Sierra Madre, Altadena and Pasadena, I would like to recommend that could be a memorial to 9-11,’” he recalled

“I said ‘I will commit to pay for 180 oak trees and personally plant them along the street if you agree to take the center islands, which are in terrible condition, and plant trees or some other type of plant that would be acceptable.’ I acquired the trees and planted 180 oak trees. Each truck full, each 50 gallons of water had to be delivered. My wife, Mary, drove the truck and we planted. This went on for several years.”

McDannel said at around the 10-year mark, he was approached to have a commemoration.

“Mayor Bogaard and said, ‘John you accomplished something that nobody thought could be done,’ and Mike Antonovich gave me support,” McDannel recalled. “People would see me out there and ask what I was doing. People started to notice this.”

“Mayor Bogaard said, ‘We think we would like you to put on an event celebrating 9-11, have an event and we’ll support you’ and that was the 10-year commemoration we had in 2011,” McDannel said. “OK, So now I’m watering trees and paying for it and now I have an event to put on. The insurance companies said ‘It will cost you several thousand dollars for the coverage,’ I created posters, the newspapers picked it up and ran a story. ”

Many groups offered to help and McDannel found himself overwhelmed with volunteers.The event was successful .

“Pasadena Rotary asked what kind of help I needed, the Kiwanis helped, the American Legion, the Scouts organizations, the Masons,” he recalled. “Everyone called to ask how they can help. Vietnam veterans in Fresno supplied us with the insurance for the event. I still don’t know how they knew I needed it. We received donations, the seating, the water, the Model “Car clubs, the Corvette club, the motorcycle clubs, they all got involved. And to organize the event, I knew I had to have a flag presentation, speakers, a band a vehicle and a plaque.”

But there was something that was very important for the commemoration that he was still lacking.

“But I knew I wanted a fly-by,” McDannel recalled. “I called Edwards, Ellis, Miramar, Naval air stations, and the Pentagon. I got turned down by each one. I sent out an email asking for help. I need a fly-by. And I took a stab at it. Well, I got an email back saying ‘We’re coming back from Afghanistan, we’ll jump off the Nimitz, what time do you want us there?’ It was the Marines. I can’t keep my emotions in check when I think about those guys.”

At the commemoration, everything went according to schedule, McDannel said.

“Sure enough when I said ‘Ladies and gentlemen we will now salute the flag’ and as we finished the salute … in came the jets,” McDannel said. “We had a 21-gun salute, we had two speakers and taps. One speaker read a poem about escaping the collapse of the building. It was a beautiful event.”

What McDannel truly takes to heart is the turnout at the commemoration of so many airline employees.

“I think because I was a pilot and because of the explosion of patriotism, flight attendants and pilots came from all over the country,” he said. “It was the only opportunity for them to be recognized as participants who got killed in this event. They came from Boston, New York, San Diego, and they wore their uniforms. We had the Marines blow taps, and the Marines produced the 21-gun salute. We had Anthony Portantino and Adam Schif. It was so patriotic and orchestrated, and people were emotional in the audience. After the event they presented me with photographs and compiled a book that touched me.”

“I thank Bill Bogaard and Mike Antonovich and the police chief and the fire chief,” said McDannel. “I could never have done it alone. People tell me ‘When I drive down New York Drive, I think of all you’ve accomplished.’ I didn’t do this alone, and it wasn’t about me. This came about because of all the patriotism we all possess.”

It’s easy to see McDannel, still getting the 50-gallon drums of water out of his truck for the Oaks along New York Drive. And he says the City has lived up to its promise and more.

“They agreed to improve the mile and a half strip on New York Drive and they have,” he said. “They put center island plantings, they have watered the trees. Over the years, we’ve lost some trees from car accidents, we’ve had gophers decimate trees. But I continue to grow trees to replace the ones we lose.

“If you go down New York Drive I can show you the trees we’ve planted and you can see the development,” he McDannel said. “It’s a rewarding feeling that we can honor the fallen heroes of 9-11.”

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