At 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation was horrified by the sight of a commercial airliner exploding into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Coming just 17 minutes after another Boeing 767 airliner loaded with fuel had struck the north tower high above the streets of Manhattan, the televised tragedy confirmed the unimaginable: an enemy assault on the financial heart of the United States.
Within the next hour, crashes at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania, where passengers aboard Flight 93 foiled the hijackers’ plan to make the Capitol their fourth target, brought the death toll to nearly 3,000. The exact toll would not be known for months.
Matthew Jensen, a 37-year-old Iraq War veteran, calls 9/11 the “Pearl Harbor of my generation.” In reality, it was a new, awful benchmark for every generation of Americans: the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history.
Jensen and three other Santa Rosans — fellow veteran Evan Kubota, Assemblyman Jim Wood and Stephanie Okrepkie, whose father died in the Iraq War — each had their lives changed in unfathomable ways by the attacks.
Their stories, of service and sacrifice, reflect the deep impact the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath continue to have on our world 20 years later.
STEPHANIE OKREPKIE: A father’s sacrifice
Fused into Stephanie Okrepkie’s memory is the Thanksgiving dinner she hosted for about 10 people in 2003, when her father, Michael Ottolini, rose to express his thanks for family and the blessings in his life.
As he sat down, Ottolini, a 45-year-old hay truck driver from Sebastopol, also said thanks for his upcoming deployment to the war in Iraq, a mission from which he never returned.
“He was kind of the glue that held this family together,” said Okrepkie, now a married mother of two.
Michael Ottolini also had strong ties to the California National Guard’s 579th Engineer Battalion, joining the unit his father, Dan Ottolini, had served in right after graduating from El Molino High School in 1977.
One of the unit’s senior members, Ottolini played Santa Claus at battalion Christmas parties, handing out presents to young children. He felt compelled to volunteer for the Iraq deployment to watch out for the younger troops he’d helped train, said his brother, Jay Ottolini, an Air Force veteran.
“We all knew that being a soldier came first for my dad and his family was second,” Stephanie Okrepkie said.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini was among the thousands of Reserve and Guard members — known as citizen-soldiers — called up from civilian life to meet the manpower needs for the Iraq invasion in 2003.
About 90 members of the 579th shipped out in March 2004 and eight months later, Ottolini was killed by a powerful roadside bomb that exploded under the Humvee he drove out from Camp Anaconda on a patrol Nov. 10.
He was the California National Guard’s ninth Iraq fatality and Sonoma County’s third loss in the war fought halfway around the world.
Another brother, Joe Ottolini of Windsor, said Michael was “the most levelheaded person in the family. We all looked up to him.”
Stephanie Okrepkie remembers her blue-eyed, sandy-haired father as a bit of a child. Coming home from high school, she would find him standing in the kitchen, smiling and waving, and asking her “What am I?”
“I’m a Michael-wave,” was his answer.
“The grief will never fully go away,” Okrepkie said, reflecting on her loss. “It’s just learning how to manage it.”
“When I married my husband, when my kids were born, he wasn’t there,” she said. “I miss him.”
Her son Tillman, 5, who just started kindergarten, was born on Nov. 10, 11 years after her father died.
Okrepkie learned she was pregnant with daughter Quinn, 3, three days after losing everything in her Coffey Park home to the Tubbs fire in 2017.
“It was a blessing, definitely a gift from God,” she said.
Both children know who “Papa Mike” is from photographs, and they know he was a soldier who died in Iraq.
Jeff Okrepkie, her husband, was a founding board member and president of Coffey Strong, the neighborhood support group that helped the subdivision rebuild from the loss of more than 1,400 homes.