John Holmgren sat, like the rest of the patrons in the restaurant, in stunned disbelief. Earlier that day — Sept. 11, 2001 — he’d received the terrible news of what had happened in New York City, across the continent from where he sat, yet at the same time, as close as his backyard. Silverware plinked softly on plates as TV news reports rolled, somber and sad.
“That day, I was driving out in California and I didn’t have my radio on or any of that,” Holmgren recalled. “How I even found out about Sept. 11 happening was I had missed the place that I was getting ready to load at and went to do a U-turn in a parking lot for school buses. I pulled in there, and there were (some) guys standing around talking, probably about six of them.
“I pulled up and turned my truck off, joking around, and said, ‘Hey, you can’t have a union meeting on company property,’” he continued. “They turned and said to me, ‘They hit the towers.’ I said, ‘What, did they drive another car bomb into it?’ The guy said, ‘No, seriously. The twin towers fell today.’”
At the memory of that moment, still raw and fresh nearly two decades later, Holmgren pauses.
“I just felt really alone, and I did for a long time after,” he said.
Searching for a way to do something, Holmgren made a small mural for the side of his rig, a design featuring the twin towers and the Pentagon, with planes flying above in missing man formation, an aerial salute often performed at funerals or memorial events. The design was a simple, personal gesture, but it planted a seed for something much bigger to come.
“It didn’t matter how you felt politically,” he said. “Regardless of who you were, we had to remember a couple things. We had to remember that these people died — that 2,977 people died for no reason. We had to remember that we then had guys that were going over (to the Middle East) every day, active in our military.”
As Holmgren noticed that the sting of 9/11 was starting to wear off on the public, his efforts to never forget grew bigger and louder. By 2003, his cause had grown to a rolling memorial devoted to the victims of 9/11.
“I got tired of hearing people talk about, ‘Why are we doing the war?’ and everything like that,” he said. “I decided the best thing to do was for someone to make a memorial semi. So, out of my own pocket and with some help from my friends, we decided to build this truck that had the names of every person who died Sept. 11 on it.”
Holmgren’s fully wrapped Freightliner and 53-foot refrigerated trailer struck a nerve with the public, as Holmgren quickly discovered.
“I would wake up with wreaths in front of my truck, money taped to my truck, letters — just all kinds of stuff,” he said. “This was huge. I’d actually go park someplace, like a hotel, and in the middle of the night they’d wake me up because a TV crew was out wanting to video the truck.”
Holmgren wanted to capitalize on his rig’s popularity by having a die-cast model made and donating proceeds from its sales to charity. But when he contacted a manufacturer, he was quickly smacked with the financial facts of life regarding the production of his dream.
“When we got ready to make the first truck, my ex-boss a couple years earlier had for Christmas got us drivers these trucks from this company called DCP, Die Cast Productions, which is now owned by First Gear out of Peosta, Iowa,” he said.
“I called them up and talked to a lady named Peggy Haverland about making this truck. She said, ‘In order to do that, you’ve got to have about $50,000,’” he continued. “So, I asked her if she would send me just one of their blanks, which was a maroon truck and white trailer.”
Holmgren had the graphic artists who designed his original truck make up stickers and used them to create a mock-up of what the model would look like. Then, he hit the road with his late wife, Amy.
“My wife and I kind of became show freaks is the best way to put it. State fairs, county fairs, you name it, all over the United States. I became a circus act,” he said.
Holmgren eventually filled 30 pages with names and contact info for people interested in buying the model once it came out. Unbeknownst to him, the people who signed the
paper barely scratched the surface of the actual demand for the memorial model.
“I didn’t really think nothing of it; just kept doing that around the country for about six months, a year,” he said. “Then I was up at Dubuque, Iowa, sitting there doing a show, and Peggy (Haverland) came in. She introduced herself and said, ‘How you doing on getting this truck made?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m still about $50,000 short of $50,000.’
“And she says, ‘No, you’re not. Fred Ertl is tired of getting phone calls for this truck, so we want to make it.’ Fred Ertl owned DCP, and his cousins owned the Ertl toy company,” Holmgren shared.
Holmgren’s barnstorming efforts had essentially presold thousands of the model, which was released in 2002. And while in some ways things are very different for the Kansas City-area native since then — he quit driving in 2014 because of a health condition — in other ways, they’re eerily the same, such as actively promoting the release of a 20th anniversary edition model of the memorial rig.
“Now that we’re at the 20-year mark, I called a toy company and asked them if they were interested in making them and they said, ‘Yes, without a doubt,’” he said. “I told them I wanted to hook it in with a charity, and we’re doing that as well.”
That group, the Tunnels to Towers Foundation, is an organization formed by the family of slain 9/11 firefighter Stephen Siller. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the model will support the group’s work on behalf of military members, first responders and their families. Holmgren said getting the second truck made, while easier than the first go round, has been no less gratifying.
“I’m just a proud American,” he said. “We have to remember the people that died. We have to remember our (military) guys who went over there who possibly weren’t going to come back. That’s why I did the truck. It’s a helluva story, and a helluva journey.”
The 20th anniversary 9/11 memorial die-cast truck is available for pre-order through First Gear Inc., the manufacturer. Ordering information is at firstgearonline.com/60-1019. To learn more about the Tunnels to Towers Foundation, visit tunnel2towers.org.