By Sarah Kyo and Pat Lopes Harris, Public Affairs
As America mourns the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, SJSU’s campus community reflects upon its own connections to the historical event.
The pilot of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 was a SJSU graduate, and his name lives on in a scholarship for aviation students. A former U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan becomes a University Police Department officer. And a free memorial concert and vigil this Sunday will use music to pay tribute to those who lost their lives.
An SJSU Alum’s Legacy Lives On
Tommy Ondrasek stands next to a plaque for Captain Jason Dahl, pilot of United Airlines Flight 93. Photo by Elena Polanco.
Ever since he was a young boy, growing up near a major Houston airport, Tommy Ondrasek wanted to be an airline pilot.
Ondrasek graduated from high school in 2001, the year that 9/11 occurred. Instead of giving up on aviation, he became more passionate and desired even more to become a pilot. The 9/11 attacks also influenced his decision to defend his country.
“I knew that I wanted to join the military prior to September 11th, but those events solidified my drive to do so,” he said.
Almost a decade later, Ondrasek, a SJSU aviation operations student, became the recipient of the 2010 Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship. He used the $5,000 award toward flight training.
Dahl, a 1980 SJSU alumnus, was the captain of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Passengers and crew members prevented the terrorists from completing their mission. The Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund, a non-profit corporation founded by Dahl’s widow, Sandy, awards aviation college students with these scholarships.
After enlisting with the Navy, Ondrasek was shipped out to boot camp on March 12, 2002. He served as an Aviation Electrician’s Mate at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“For my job, it was maintaining anything and everything electrical on an aircraft,” he said.
After being honorably discharged in 2006, Ondrasek headed to California with his wife, who started graduate school at UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, he attended Diablo Valley College, where his career counselor introduced him to SJSU’s aviation program.
“I love it,” Ondrasek said. “SJSU is the only public institution that offers a bachelor’s degree in aviation.”
After graduating, Ondrasek hopes to start off as a flight instructor and look for flight-related jobs. He wants to work his way up to become a pilot for a major airline, just like Dahl.
While Ondrasek has earned other scholarships in the past, the Dahl Scholarship means the most to him.
“I feel more of a need to push myself to achieve great things because of it,” Ondrasek said.
UPD Officer Has Army Roots
Justin Celano in the back of a Toyota Tacoma in Afghanistan. He bought the same make and model for his trip across country when he returned to the states after serving six months in the Middle East. Photo courtesy of Justin Celano.
Now a University Police Department corporal, then a U.S. Army Ranger, Justin Celano was one of almost 2,000 soldiers deployed in early 2002 for what became known as Operation Anaconda.
He seemed well prepared, having trained for a few years, since enlisting straight out of Santa Teresa High School, Class of 1999.
But there were many lessons to be learned in Anaconda, including one directly affecting Celano, a sniper.
“As a sniper team, you’re most effective in the woods so we were still training in thickly wooded areas,” he recalled. “Then you find yourself in a place with no woods and no place to hide. These days, everyone’s training for the desert.”
Celano wound up earning a place in history after sharing his experiences with embedded Army Times reporter Sean Naylor, who penned “Not a Good Day to Die.” The New York Times bestseller is a detailed account of the operation told through the eyes of soldiers like Celano.
When Celano returned to the United States, one of the first things he did was buy what he knew was one of the most reliable cars on the road, a Toyota Tacoma.
“That’s what we were using over there, and they seemed to run forever with bullet holes in them,” he said.
Celano and a cousin drove the truck across the country and back to San Jose, where a family friend told him UPD was hiring. Within a few months, he was on the job. He had just turned 22, making him younger than most SJSU students.
“I looked at myself at 21, having been in the military, as years older than someone who was 21 and hadn’t been in the military,” he said.
Now 30, Celano sold the truck a few years back. Married and expecting his first child in November, he is steadily climbing the ranks at UPD.
“Corporal Celano possesses a level of maturity, knowledge and experience that makes him an attractive candidate for any number of law enforcement agencies,” SJSU Chief of Police Peter Decena said. “Yet he remains very loyal to UPD and the campus community.”
Celano also remains modest and reserved. He doesn’t talk much about his military experience.
“It’s not because it’s hard to talk about but maybe it was the way I was raised,” he said. “I’m proud of what I did but I don’t feel the need to let the world know. I know and that’s good enough for me.”
Into Light: A 9/11 Memorial Concert
Into Light: A 9/11 Memorial Concert. Graphic by Ali Hanshaw.
In remembrance of September 11, the School of Music and Dance is hosting a memorial concert that is free and open to the public. “Into Light: A 9/11 Memorial Concert” will take place on September 11 at 8 p.m. in the Music Building Concert Hall.
Dr. William Meredith from the Beethoven Center approached professors Joseph Frank and Layna Chianakas about organizing the event, and they were happy to do it. They will also be performing.
For the event, Frank, a tenor, chose to sing “America My Wondrous Land,” an award-winning song that recognizes the American spirit.
“A perfect piece to honor the memory of our fallen citizens on 9/11,” Frank said.
Frank had lived in New York for many years and performed at the Metropolitan Opera. He remembers the stress of trying to contact his friends there after the attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
“I heard numerous personal stories from my friends who experienced the horror of that day — walking through clouds of debris and hearing sirens and having no communications with the outside world,” Frank said. “It was an infamous day for America, and one we should never forget.”
At the concert, Chianakas, a mezzo-soprano, will perform “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” an African-American spiritual.
“This piece is very close to my heart because my mother died one week before 9/11, and I know many other people lost their mothers on the day of the attack,” she said. “It just seemed the right piece to sing on our concert.”
Many SJSU students were only children when the attacks happened, and Chianakas hopes that the event will allow them to experience the impact it had on the country.
“We are also showing our students a part of history,” she said. “I believe what happened made us all far more aware of how small we actually are in this world, but also how when called upon, we as Americans can support each other, grieve together and eventually triumph over tragedy.”
SJSU’s new President Mohammad Qayoumi will also provide opening remarks before the concert.
“The past 10 years has been the time period for us to reflect and see what we have learned and how we can use this experience in a way that will strengthen us as a nation,” Qayoumi said.
Other participants include the faculty of the School of Music and Dance; Nils Petersen, Santa Clara County’s first poet laureate and a SJSU professor emeritus; and SJSU’s Air Force ROTC Color Guard. The event will conclude with a candlelit vigil.