GCU student honors brother at ROTC 9/11 event
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Of all the images of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks etched in John Herold’s memory, there’s one that hurts him the most.
It’s the image of the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, slamming into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. that day.
“I feel like that’s the moment that my brother died,” said John, a juvenile probation surveillance officer for Maricopa County and an online criminal justice student at Grand Canyon University who plans to attend Saturday’s GCU Army ROTC flag-planting event. The event, on Cypress lawn, will remember those lost in the terrorist attacks 20 years ago.
His brother, Gary Herold, was working at the World Trade Center that day, on the 98th floor of the South Tower.
“When 9/11 happened, he called his wife, I think twice, and just left messages – a plane hit the North Tower, across from his,” said John. “He told her everything was fine, there was stuff going on and that he’s OK.”
Gary had only been working at the World Trade Center for five months after accepting an offer from Aon Insurance to work for the company as a risk management supervisor. It would be a long commute from his home in Bethpage, Long Island, and he had three daughters at home, ages 16, 13 and 9. “For the boost in income, he thought, it’s going to help with college. Gotta do the commute, you know,” said John.
So Gary made the 80-minute trek from Long Island to Lower Manhattan, without question, to do what he did best, which was be that pillar of support for his family.
Gary called his wife, Angela, one more time, to tell her they were going to evacuate their building.
But he and another Aon supervisor, Eric Eisenberg, were the last to leave. Eisenberg spoke to his mother and grandmother to assure them he was evacuating, but his mother did not believe him. According to a Nov. 19, 2001, profile published in the New York Times, his mother, Paula Shapiro, said: “I knew he was there trying to get other people out.”
And Gary was there, right alongside him.
All of the Aon employees working on the 98th floor that morning escaped – except for Gary Herold and Eric Eisenberg.
John, who spent his first 23 years in New York and has been an Arizonan since 1988, said he wanted to jump through the television that day and help. He felt helpless and recalls he and his wife deciding to go to New York with 6-month-old daughter Marisa in tow to try to find his brother, who his family hadn’t heard from after those few rushed messages from him the morning of Sept. 11.
“The world was so uncertain then,” he said. “You didn’t know how the environment was going to be there. But we decided to go as a family. We went to New York, and we did everything we could.
“At that time, when we went there, they had a family center. They started to ask us questions and this and that. I didn’t know where that was going. … We went to a room, answering questions – we’re Catholic. The next thing you know, we had a priest and an official person from the city of New York there, and they handed me a folded flag,” said John, pausing for a few seconds as his voice started to break up. “That was the moment I realized that my brother’s not coming back.
“There was still hope, you know. Maybe they’ll find a pocket, there’s this, there’s that, but once I got the flag. … It was just overwhelming at that moment.”
For years, when Sept. 11 would roll around, John said he would get an equally overwhelming feeling of emptiness.
“I knew it was coming, and there was nothing I could do,” he said, and then something amazing happened.
John and his wife, Stella, were contacted by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to see if they would be interested in becoming race directors in 2016 for the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk in the Phoenix area. The foundation’s namesake was a New York firefighter who, on Sept. 11, 2001, raced on foot through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which had been closed for security purposes that day, to the Twin Towers, where he gave up his life while saving others.
John and Stella didn’t hesitate to take on the role of race directors and have been doing so since then.
John shared the story of firefighter Tommy Arriaga, who joined the run in Tempe.
“He was SO excited to be there. He had his Tempe fire shirt on. A really great guy. The next year he came out, he ran in his turnouts (the protective gear worn by firefighters).”
A few months later, John and Stella heard from Arriaga’s family that he was diagnosed with occupational cancer.
Although the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19 protocols, Arriaga’s family contacted John and Stella and they walked together unofficially in honor of Arriaga and first responders like him who do not hesitate to help their fellow man in emergencies.
About 100 of Arriaga’s family showed up to last year’s unofficial walk.
“Even though we couldn’t do something, that was amazing to do for Tommy’s family,” John said.
On Saturday, the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, he plans to head to GCU to remember his brother.
His daughters, Marisa and Gia Herold, also attend GCU. Marisa is a third-year pre-med student, and Gia is a freshman nursing major. As for John, he said he never finished college and, although he’s close to retirement, his goal is to finally get his degree.
Around 5 a.m., he plans to help the University’s Army ROTC cadets place thousands of handheld American flags on the Cypress lawn in honor of those who died on Sept. 11, including his brother.
Then he’ll head out to Amped Coffee Company’s coffeehouse in Anthem, Arizona, for its 9/11 Never Forgotten Tribute, which will include a prayer, testimony, T-shirts, silent auction, gift-basket auction, moment of silence and concert. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which helps catastrophically injured veterans, first responders, fallen first responder families and Gold Star Families.
The Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk launches at 7:30 a.m. the next day, Sept. 12, at Tempe Beach Park.
It’s important to him, he said, for people to remember what happened that day.
After meeting so many amazing people at these events, John said he doesn’t have that same feeling of emptiness he used to have. He feels more than the tragedy of that day. He also feels the heroism, the love of family and the triumphs.
“I’m proud of my brother,” he said. “I’m proud of what he did.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.