Bakersfield’s mayor had a front-row seat for the terror of 9/11, and the fear that lingered for days afterward

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Twenty years later, most Americans over the age of 30 have vivid memories of 9/11 — where they were and what they were doing during that fateful day. 

Bakersfield’s Karen Goh certainly remembers: She had a front-row seat.

In 2006, on the five-year anniversary of the terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., 17 News interviewed Goh, a former publishing executive who two years earlier had moved back home to Bakersfield after living in Manhattan for 11 years.

Now she’s Mayor Karen Goh, elected in 2016 to serve the city she’s called home since the age of 7. And the events of September 11, 2001, are etched in her memory.

“I was working for MacMillan-McGraw-Hill,” she said, “and at that point I was at a building that was above Penn Station in Madison Square Garden, 21st floor, unobstructed view, so we’re just looking south. And we could see that plane right there.

“What was interesting was just to see the various emotions. So, on my floor there were all kinds of Ivy League-educated people, people who were totally confident in their Armani suits, Prada shoes, and  … they fell apart. And some of the guys who  were working in the mailroom, they were the ones who rose up with inspiration and courage,” Goh said.

She felt responsible for her colleagues that day, but was at a loss.

“For me as an executive that day, I was expected to ensure the safety of our people,” she said. “And for us, this is something we’ve never been trained on. You don’t get to practice with something like this.”

The terror, the uncertainty, wasn’t confined to just the events of that terrible Tuesday morning. A few days later Goh and her coworkers were still on such edge they spontaneously evacuated their 23rd story office building in a panicked frenzy that, it turned out, was based on … nothing.

“We just self-evacuated because somebody saw others in another building running down,” she said. “And so it was that type of fear that gripped us. Those were the kinds of emotions that we felt. That uncertainty of just not knowing, is life going to be over for us today?”

The mayor said that, while she hopes the country never has to experience anything like that again, she hopes we can again, one day, return to the spirit of unity and compassion that that day inspired.

“That’s what we can take away 20 years later,” she said. “Let’s think about how we can serve others the way that others served people on that very day.”

The Karen Goh interviewed in 2006 was somewhat prophetic when she explained what kind of direction she expected her life to take, post 9/11.

“For right now, I know this is where I’m supposed to be,” she said, “giving back to my community.”

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