The date 9/11 is a moment 20 years ago echoed in the minds of people worldwide and seared into the hearts of Americans who witnessed the attack.
It was a normal early morning for most Americans on the East Coast heading to work, getting ready for school, sleeping in or starting that day with a fresh new start. That is until 8:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the Twin Towers in the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. As many watched the aftermath of what happened, 17 minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., another plane, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower, revealing the incident was not an accident, but the U.S. was under attack. A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was flown into the western side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., in Arlington, Virginia, and a fourth flight, Flight 93, crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania.
It was later learned that 19 terrorists from al-Qaeda were responsible for the four hijacked planes in a coordinated effort to destroy the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. However, investigations concluded the passengers of Flight 93 learned of the other attacks and fought the hijackers, thwarting their efforts as it crashed. According to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum website, the attacks killed 2,753 people in New York, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 on Flight 93.
The website read that at the time the Twin Towers were struck, there were nearly 18,000 people in the WTC complex, where the vast majority were evacuated as first responders rushed in to rescue those still trapped or injured. The burning jet fuel from the planes weakened the infrastructure of the towers, which eventually caused both to collapse, causing damage to five other buildings in the WTC complex and destroying them.
Les Atkins of Roanoke Rapids was working with WPTM radio and WNVN News as an anchor and reporter at the time on that day in 2001. Atkins said he had just finished the radio news for that particular half-hour just before 9 a.m. when they received word from the Associated Press Newswire that a plane had hit the first tower.
“I think our first instinct was that it was a terrible accident,” he said. “As reports started to come in, we decided to remain on the air live instead of returning to pre-recorded programming to keep listeners updated.”
When the second plane hit, Atkins said he did not think anybody in the room thought it was a terrorist attack in the first moments of the events. He said it was reported previously that day that the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce members were at a meeting at the U.S. Capitol as part of an economic development effort for Halifax County. Atkins said they received word that the Capitol was in the process of being evacuated and made contact with the chamber members to retrieve a report on what they were seeing and hearing.
“Then when the plane went down in Pennsylvania with Todd Beamer on board, we heard from his family on Lake Gaston who began to tell us about his efforts to regain control of the aircraft to keep it from crashing into the Capitol,” he said. “Beamer died along with 44 others in that crash. There were so many Roanoke Valley connections that unfolded within minutes. It was so surreal.”
Sammie Jo Moore said she was in her economics class at Northampton County High School on that day. Moore said teachers put the news on showing the planes hitting the towers.
“I thought about all of the families that just lost their fathers and their mothers,” she said. “I called my dad to come to pick me up.”
Her father, Larry Bullock, who is an engineer worker, decided to begin driving trucks again to help carry food and supplies to New York to help families, Moore said.
“I would say we’ve come a long way, but I think we are kind of backtracking again because of the whole COVID-19 issue that we’re having and our kids not being able to enjoy their school experience as they should,” she said, looking back 20 years and now.
Volunteer firefighter Jay Conrad at Gaston-Fire-EMS said he grew up in Ohio and was 10 years old in the fifth grade when it all happened. Conrad said a teacher came into the classroom and told another teacher what happened as they turned on the television.
“At 10 years old, we didn’t really recognize what was happening, but you could see the horror on the teachers’ faces,” he said. “We knew the seriousness of the situation, but didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Conrad said everyone went home early that day and his mother explained to him what was going on.
“It still doesn’t really put it in perspective for a 10-year-old, but you understand the gravity of it,” he said.
Emergency Medical Services Director Paul Nowell of Northampton County said he was on a shift as a paramedic for the county on that day when he stopped at a store. Nowell said he was standing in the cashier line when a woman came in saying a small plane had flown into a building in New York.
“We had to get back to the station and turned the TV on and found out that it wasn’t a small plane and that it was actually a big plane,” he said. “Later on during the day, I actually got to see the towers fall. So, it was a different time then. There was emergency services before 9/11, and then we have emergency services after 9/11. So, it changed our business that much.”
It was not until later that Osama bin Laden’s name circulated as the founder of the Muslim militant group al-Qaida behind the attacks. In response to the attacks, the U.S. led a global attack on the group with the initial invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, when the Taliban refused to hand over terrorists involved in a declaration to those who harbored them. “Operation Enduring Freedom” was launched. In May of 2011, U.S. forces dealt a blow to al-Qaida when troops killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.
While growing up, Conrad learned more about what happened on 9/11 as more service members were being sent overseas and not returning.
“That kind of propelled me onto that pathway,” he said.
Conrad said he joined the U.S. Marine Corps military police when he was 18 years old because he wanted to make a difference. He said then he, his wife and his son moved recently to the area where he could continue his love of helping people through the Gaston fire department.
“As I got older and went into the Marine Corps, I always told myself that I’d be one of those people that would run to the sound of chaos because there are so many people that don’t,” he said. “There’s so few that do — we need everybody that we can get.”
When asked what he thought about the first responders racing toward the WTC, Conrad said they are all heroes.
“They did what they were called to do, and there were so many of them,” he said. “They’re just heroes. Going into that knowing there’s a good possibility that they’ll never return just to save one life if they can is unfathomable.”
According to research, the Fire Department of New York lost 343 firefighters on 9/11, and more than 2,100 firefighters and EMS personnel retired with disabilities from WTC-related illnesses such as lung disease and cancer since the event. A report showed more than 111 FDNY responders died from those illnesses, of which 44 were from cancer.
Some people were born on the cusp or after the 9/11 event.
Firefighter and EMT Seth Mahaffey with Gaston fire department said he was 9 months old when it all happened. Mahaffey said the 9/11 event was the biggest thing people talked about while growing up.
“It was all over the news all the time every year, every 9/11 people made big celebrations honoring those lives lost and all of the firefighters,” he said. “I grew up every year looking at the same videos of all the firefighters, paramedics, police officers, you know, digging through the rubble and trying to find survivors and lost firemen. And it was just a real big impact on my life.”
Mahaffey said he is looking to become a paramedic but is also considering joining the military, which Firefighter and EMT Dustin Jenkins already signed up for active duty with the Army military police.
Jenkins said he has been with the department since he was 14 years old and was not born during the 9/11 event.
“I was born in 2003, where some people were still grieving and finding things,” he said. “We always watched documentaries about it, learning about it and learning our mistakes, and that really boosted me toward the fire and EMS side to help the people of the aftermath so I could learn why they did what they did.”
While working, Jenkins said he heard from an EMT he looked up to who said, “It’s better to be proactive than reactive.”
“That made me think, maybe I should join the armed services,” he said. “So I talked to a recruiter recently and now I’m in the military.”
Jenkins said he will leave for basic training on Oct. 4.
The 9/11 travesty hit all Americans hard — images were documented by many people, including news agencies.
When asked what image comes to mind when looking back at the event, Atkins quoted former then The Daily Herald Publisher Stephen Woody who said, “a single newspaper image is more powerful than 30 seconds of video news footage.”
“I would have to agree with him,” he said. “I think the two images that are ingrained in my memory are the “falling man” photo of the person jumping from the Twin Towers and the image of the NYC firefighters carrying people out of the building. As I think back on the events of that day, I think those two images sum up what happened.”
Atkins quoted Fred Rogers, who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I think we saw that day how important the ‘helpers’ are in the scariest of situations. We also saw the fear ultimately resides in all of us. Sometimes fear can overtake us to the point that we see no other way of escape. Sadly, those people saw jumping as their only way out. I don’t think any of of us could ever second guess what was going on in their minds at that time. To this day — I hope I’m never in that situation.”
When it comes to reporting the news where content may be graphic, Atkins was asked if it was important for the media to show the public imagery of people falling from buildings and other graphic scenes.
“Journalism is essential to our freedom,” he said. “Yes, I think its important to cover the news and see the images as they happen. Sometimes these are difficult to digest, but also necessary. I remember one of my college journalism professors saying, ‘good journalist provide people with the best possible available information so they can make informed decisions about all aspects of their lives.’ That’s what I always tried to do as a journalist. The 24-hour news cycle has changed how may perceive the news business today. I strongly believe there are still journalists who take their work seriously and seek to do their best.”
When asked why it is important to remember the 9/11 event, Mahaffey said it is important to know that events can repeat themselves.
“There are people that wake up every single day and hate America,” he said. “They would do whatever they can to put an end to any American’s life, and that was proven again in Kabul just recently where 13 service members were killed. So, it can still happen any day to any one of us and we need to always remember that and always be prepared.”
Nowell the event has made everyone more aware that the U.S. is not always going to be safe from external threats.
“It is important to remember it so it can’t happen again,” he said. “That also woke America up that we have external threats and further it exposed a lot of short comings in the emergency service field as far as communications. The response was not that great.”
Atkins said part of forging a path ahead is to remember the journey everyone already traveled.
“There were good people who lived very ordinary lives who had their lives forever altered that day,” he said. “There were also just as many people who came to their aid. There’s so much good amidst the tragedy of that day. I hope we never forget.”