(September 2001 photo by David Hutchinson)
By Clay Eals
Special to West Seattle Blog
A dozen years later, Dean Keppler reels at the memory. His eyes well up. His voice chokes as he talks haltingly, reverently, and, in the end, almost dazedly in trying to describe the indescribable.
“It all just happened,” he says, over and over, through tears.
Keppler is standing in the second-floor workroom of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society‘s Log House Museum. He combs through hundreds of an estimated 1,000 brown-paper bags on which people from all over West Seattle and beyond inscribed messages of sadness, anger, fear and hope.
The trigger for these emotional expressions, of course, was the terrorist attack on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, that came to be known as 9/11. The inscribers were countless men, women, and children who for five days following the tragedy gathered beneath the Statue of Liberty replica on Alki Beach.
And the catalyst for the heartfelt messages was Keppler.
(Southwest Seattle Historical Society video)
Keppler will be among four who will speak briefly at a 9/11 memorial event, “The Earth Cried Out,” at 6:30 pm next Sunday (September 8th), at Alki Arts, 2820 Alki Ave. SW, two blocks west of the Statue of Liberty replica.
Organized by SWSHS, the free event also will feature reflections by King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert.
The focus of the event, however, will not be the speeches.
Rather, it will be the opportunity to experience – for the first time in 12 years, and for one night only – the emotions preserved on the 1,000 bags. Each bag in the days after 9/11 encased beach sand and a tiny candle, and at night became part of a seemingly endless river of luminarias that stretched the length of the Alki promenade.
The historical society had preserved several of the bags along with toy fire trucks, police hats, and many more mementos left at the statue after 9/11. These items were the subject of a Log House Museum exhibit in 2002 and a 10th-anniversary event at the statue in 2011. But the full collection of 1,000 bags became available only this year.
In colored pens, the handwritten messages on the bags emitted rage: “You can hide, you cowards, but we will find you.” … “The slaughter of innocents cannot, must not be forgiven.”
They also spoke of hope: “You will always be in our hearts.” … “I will love one another.” … “We have really only one thing in common: freedom to believe what we want, in peace.”
How the messages emerged is a story of spontaneity.
Like most everyone watching the attack unfold on TV on the morning of 9/11, Keppler, 31 at the time and a resident of Alki, found that “the whole world came to a screeching halt.” He thought of friends in New York, where he had attended college, and in Washington, D.C.
A traveling salesman, Keppler also soon learned that an imminent work trip was off because an East Coast flight was canceled. The morning after 9/11, he didn’t turn on his TV.
“I couldn’t stand sitting in the house, and I went for a walk to the statue,” he says. “A good number of people were there, standing around, praying and singing. There was a young guy handing out candles, and several people were saying that we should make luminarias.”
So Keppler drove to Admiral Safeway, where he bought a bag of tea-light candles and a packet of bags. He came home, grabbed an art box of colored pens and a card table, trooped to the statue and started making the bags available to passers-by.
At first, he asked people to put a name on a bag and to light a candle in someone’s honor. Then a mom told him, “Oh, I wish my kids could color.” Then someone else said, “What if we don’t know anyone?” Keppler replied, “Then you can write whatever you want.”
The writing and coloring began, and the feelings flowed.
“It clearly was something that clicked,” Keppler says. “It just worked and was very organic.”
Speedily, his supply of candles and bags dwindled. From an IKEA catalog, he had seen the concept of lighting a pathway, and a broader vision took root. He thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a million tea lights?”
He hopped back in his car, drove to IKEA in Tukwila to buy a larger supply of tea-light candles and returned to Safeway for more bags. “By 4 o’clock on Sept. 12, I was back at the statue and was set up for good.”
People kept stopping by. One by one, each wrote on a bag, added sand and a candle and placed the resulting luminaria on the bulkhead. Some asked to be honorary candle-lighters and returned at sunset to join Keppler in lighting the candles – and the line of lights grew.
Some people spelled Keppler for restroom breaks. Some came by periodically to check on the progress of the display.
“People would be at the table again and again and wanted to talk,” he says, “but some just couldn’t speak. They did their bag and moved on, and you’d never see them again.”
By Thursday, Keppler had a restocking routine: driving to Safeway and IKEA before heading back to the beach. “Each morning, I walked the bulkhead to replace the candles that had burned down,” he says. “We went through a lot of Bic Stic lighters.”
He also used a canning kettle to collect donations to the American Red Cross, which in the course of five days totaled $2,000.
Eventually, the luminarias stretched the length of the bulkhead and circled back inside the promenade to the statue. A few people returned to take their bags, but most left them.
“It was glorious to see that long, long line of natural light,” Keppler says.
The highlight was Sunday, Sept. 16, the final night, he says. “The ferries flashed their lights, and people on the ferries waved to us,” he says. “It was so bright. You could not not see it.”
As memorable for Keppler as those five days were, in the years to come he could not bear to re-live them. The bags – eight giant IKEA bags full – he eventually stored out of sight at a friend’s house.
“I didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. “I couldn’t bring myself to do anything with them. I didn’t want to profit from them or exploit them.”
He moved to Capitol Hill in 2003. In recent years, he has helped his parents operate a jewelry store in Monroe.
Last February, Keppler’s friend, Alki resident Hudson Burke, donated the bags to the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, with the consent of Keppler, who finally warmed to reconnecting with his 9/11 experience on Alki.
“I grew so much during that week,” he says, as tears form in his eyes. “It was being able, in every moment, to be in front of someone and have it not be about me. I felt like I was helping. If you feel you are helping someone else, you don’t have to worry about what you’re feeling.”
Now 43, Keppler finds that time has deepened his insights about the messages on the bags.
“It was just everyone,” he says. “There was rage, sadness and fear, and I’m so grateful that this opportunity created itself so that we weren’t all just sitting and waiting for the world to end.”
“There was something very sacred about coming to the Statue of Liberty (replica) and feeling that connection. It was very community-driven, community-maintained, community-supported. It was pure. It was group healing. It was all about doing what anyone could do in the point of their grief and fear. It brought out people’s willingness to believe in the best of each other.
“I could witness and facilitate. I just let them feel something by coloring on a bag.
“I like to think of Alki Point as our Manhattan. It should be our hallowed space for feeling something sacred. This is where the settlers came to make a better world. If we can’t do that where the boats first landed, then … ?”
And once again, Keppler begins to cry.
[Clay Eals, who was editor of the West Side Story history book, is executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society.]