“We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”
-President George W. Bush (after 9/11 terrorist attacks)
Where were you on September 11, 2001?
Everyone remembers the beautiful clear blue cloudless sky and sunny conditions of that September day. Most remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that planes had plowed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania … and the realization that the United States had been attacked by terrorists.
American flags were pulled out of storage to be displayed on houses, businesses, vehicles. Stores sold out of everything red, white, and blue. There was a sense of unity unknown in my lifetime. We were no longer Democrat or Republican or black or white — we were Americans.
My 90-year-old stepdad was 15 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a day set in his memory. He was 75 when 9/11 occurred. He worries that younger generations have forgotten Pearl Harbor, and that 9/11 is quickly fading from memory.
Here we have shared some memories from friends and colleagues who wrote their thoughts from September 11, 2001….
Brian Schoeneman, Bearing Drift Editor, Centreville
There are two events in my lifetime that I will always remember exactly where I was – when Challenger exploded and 9/11. Today is the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth. Each anniversary, I like to take a few moments to reflect on where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt. It was an exceptional time – one of those events that can never be recreated and which we will all struggle to explain to our children and grandchildren. But, regardless of the difficulty, I try my best to recreate those memories each anniversary, to help ensure that I never forget them. Where were you? Here’s my story.
I was still in graduate school. I was working my way through my master’s degree at GW in downtown Washington, DC, at the time, and as part of my benefits package, we were given free classes. I was an administrator in the campus housing department, and one of my primary responsibilities was as the fire safety officer for our branch of the student services division. Once every semester we had full fledged fire evacuation drills that were unannounced to the students, and we would observe the results and see where we needed to make improvements. This was a big deal, requiring cooperation with the University Police, our Risk Management staff, the local fire department (to make sure they knew the alarms were a drill), as well as my staff of student employees. We had just gotten to the first dorm we were going to drill and we had gotten everyone staged when people started gathering around the big-screen TV in the lobby. At the time, we were on the far edge of campus – less than three blocks from the White House. We saw the results of the first plane hitting the towers, but time was pressing and we needed to get the drills going.
We rang the bells and the kids started shuffling out of the dorm. It was around that time that the second plane hit the south tower and things got out of control rather quickly. We cut the bells as fast as we could and got everyone back in the building. The University Police radios we had been using to coordinate the drills started going crazy.
All of our students were ordered to hunker down where they were, and after a quick pow-wow with the UPD and Risk Management staff, we called the rest of the drills off. About that time the next plane hit the Pentagon. At first, no one was sure what exactly had been hit. Our radio was dispatching UPD to the State Department because there had been rumors of a car bomb going off there, although we hadn’t heard anything like a bomb going off and we were mere blocks away.
I had taken a number of courses in national security policy and counterterrorism at school in preparation for my old dream of becoming an FBI agent, so I had some pretty good guesses as to what was going on, and my main concern was to get the heck away from the White House as quickly as possible. I grabbed my boss and told her we needed to get back to the office and inside ASAP, so we hurried back across campus.
We could see a plume of grayish black smoke to the southwest, which made me think that maybe the reports were right and the Pentagon had gotten hit.
We got back to the office, and there was yet another crowd around the TV tuned to CNN, and we watched the towers on fire. The crawl on the bottom of the screen had all kinds of crazy unconfirmed reports of different things happening across the city – there were reports that there were car bombs going off down on the National Mall, the Capitol and White House had been evacuated, etc. Then we heard confirmation that the Pentagon had gotten hit.
I went into my office, which was right off the lobby, and I could still hear the TV. I tried to get onto the CNN website, but it was so slammmed I couldn’t get it to load. Fortunately, I knew a URL that was less well known to get on CNN’s site, and I was able to get on and get some first hand news. I started to get some emails, including one from a buddy of mine who was ex-NSA who told me what he thought happened, and he was pretty accurate. We both thought it was Bin Laden, because “He’s the only one with the balls to pull something like this” as my friend said.
I tried to call out, but my cell phone was out-of-service. So many people were trying to call out on the University phone system that it completely failed. The school had a large population of kids from New York and New Jersey. I went back to the lobby and watched with everyone else as the towers fell and as we heard the first reports of the amazing heroism on Flight 93.
It was eerie outside. No one was talking. Cars were gone, there was no one on the roads except for Metro Police, Uniformed Secret Service and other police cars zipping around. There was nothing in the air, either. It was just quiet. I’d never seen DC like that before and none of us will ever see it that way again. It’s hard to put into words how things felt.
The phones eventually came back on, and I called my parents and let them know I was okay. I went home early at around 3 PM, as most people were told to just try and get home. My apartment was about a mile from the Pentagon, but the Metro was still running, so I got on and walked back to my apartment. From there I watched the news coverage until I fell asleep around 1 or 2 AM.
The next few weeks were surreal. Major events like the Oscars and baseball games were canceled. I remember wondering how anybody could watch a ball game or read People magazine and gossip about celebrities anymore after something like this happened. I remember that for the first time in my adult like in DC, people were driving like rational people and being polite on the roads. American flags sprouted up on buildings and cars across DC and northern Virginia. It was a sad time, but it was also a time when all Americans came together and reacted as one.
Shaun Kenney, Bearing Drift Editor, Kents Store
I was on the other side of Army-Navy Drive when the plane hit the Pentagon. What I will remember about that day are two things: it was bright, clear, and cool that AM — probably the deepest blue sky a September can afford … and that on 9/10, road rage was a thing. After 9/11? Folks remembered that the stakes weren’t that high after all… it was all of us together trying to get home to loved ones that morning.
For all the sentiment to “never forget” it seems as if too many people have forgotten, or at the very least have settled in to the old tribalism, the old hatreds, the cheap plastic pettiness that divided us on 9/10 — all dissolved in a great national sobering on 9/11.
On that day, we were Americans. All of us. We were together. We were resolved in the face of violence and hatred, of old divisions that would threaten our liberties and the idea of America — no matter what our background or heritage, our race or creed, our birthplace or paycheck, our education or the car we drove to work that day. That’s the America that we need to be reminded of in 2016, because that America still exists and is worth fighting for.
Whenever the day in September starts out crisp and cool with a bright clear sky… that’s 9/11. That’s my reminder in a country that seems to have forgotten.
Joe Zogbi, Shaun and Jason Kenney’s cousin, NYPD
This is the week that lasts forever. 15 years. For us, and those like us, it was yesterday. The pain and rage will never diminish, we just get better at managing it. To my comrades we lost, I miss you every day, I miss knowing that you are out there, living lives that were cut short. This is who we are, we weren’t drafted, we said yes we will, and yes we can. There are those that malign us because of their fear, while enjoying the security that we provide. That is their right, and we have the right to disagree. We will still put our lives on the line for all of you, those of us who have worn the uniform, the First Responders, the Military, the Veterans. So, as we lead up to the 15th Anniversary of September 11th, here’s to us, and those like us … damn few left….
Matt Colt Hall, Bearing Drift Senior Contributor, Roanoke
I was nine years old and in the 4th grade at Saint Paul Elementary School in Cana. Students were not told what had happened that day so we had no idea. The school wanted to let parents explain to their children what was going on, and the next day teachers talked about it with their students.
On the way home after school I walked into a convenience store and saw it on TV but thought it was some kind of new action movie that had come out. I made my purchase and walked out to the car where my uncle was waiting and told him there was a new movie coming out where a plane flies into a building. I was convinced it was some kind of action movie. That’s when he told me it wasn’t a movie. It was real. At nine, it doesn’t make sense — we didn’t know what terrorism was at that age — and it never occurred to me that someone would kill someone else over a difference in beliefs.
One of the first things I remember was being worried for President George W. Bush. I loved the president and was concerned something had happened to him. My dad told me the president was okay. That night I sat and watched the president on television as he addressed the nation, tears running down my face out of worry and fear about what was happening. The next morning, the 12th, NBC didn’t air “The Today Show” because of ongoing live news coverage. I remember that because my mom got up every morning and watched “The Today Show” so I ate breakfast with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. Because they weren’t on that morning, I was worried they had been hurt in the attack.
In 2012 when I was in college, we took a bus trip to NYC and the very first thing we did after getting off the bus was go to the 9/11 Memorial. It was 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, and I remember it was very quiet for downtown NYC. Only the sound of trickling water could be heard, and it was amazing to see that what came out of such a terrible disaster was this beautiful memorial fountain. It was as quiet and peaceful as you can ever imagine, and very sobering to experience.
Donald Williams, Chesterfield
I cannot remember what the weather was like on a single other day 15 years ago. But I remember it on this day. It was warm and the sunny sky was a deep blue. Like all of you, I remember exactly where I was that morning … what I was doing. Then it happened. And like you, I saw the first glimpses of America under attack. The horrific images are seared in our memories.
We must never forget what happened that warm, sunny September day. Nor can we ever forget the nearly 3,000 innocent people who went about their lives as they did any other day … only to be murdered at the hands of truly evil people. And we must never forget the pain and anguish felt every single day since by those who lost loved ones on that day.
Amid the horror and pain of so many, courageous Americans purposefully entered burning buildings to save others, and over 400 of them gave their own lives. We must never forget them. And we must not forget that as an airplane was aimed at the White House, over Pennsylvania a band of indescribably brave Heroes forced that plane-turned-missile into the ground, killing all aboard, but saving our nation’s Capital of even more death and destruction.
Today we remember. Tomorrow, we must never forget.
Colin Lord, Blacksburg
I was a junior in high school in Atlanta. After school I was supposed to have marching band practice and then was going to the Braves game. Since this was before smartphones, nobody knew what had happened until right before lunch when somebody came on the PA and told us. I was ironically enough sitting in Peace & Justice class. All after school activities were cancelled a bit later. Then that afternoon MLB postponed all games. So when class ended I remember having this confused feeling of not quite knowing where or what to do. It wasn’t until that evening when I got home that I saw pictures of what happened.
I’ve often thought about how different that day would have gone and been remembered if we had social media. We would have had Facebook Live and Periscope streams from trapped people in the towers, Pentagon, and United 93.
Tony Pham, Richmond
There are moments in our lives where we recall distinctly where we were and what we were doing. It was 15 years ago when the September 11th occurred, forever erasing my naivity and the view of the world. I was a young prosecutor, rough around the edges, so I thought. I had prepared for the day like any other day. I had been married for just over three months and was still riding the marriage bliss that day.
It was supposed to have been a basic and simple day at the office with a few cases here and there. Little did I know the world literally would change right before my eyes. I was actually in the middle of a preliminary hearing for a narcotics possession case. Ready to establish possession and was moving the certificate of analysis into evidence, when deputy sheriff Howard Jackson quietly walked up to Judge Ralph Robertson and whispered something in his ear. “Your honor, the Commonwealth would like to mark FS Lab # ….” I never finished the sentence because Judge Robertson immediately stood up and rushed off the bench, leaving a courtroom full of stunned individuals. After 10 minutes, the judge returned to the bench to announce that “some planes” were flown into the World Trade Center and that the Sheriff had closed court for the rest of the day. Back in my office, my colleagues and I were all huddled in the conference room glued to the television with disbelief. Reports were coming in about the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The tragedies I learned that resulted were truly heart breaking. It was difficult to see the continual images of the attack on our country. We all have our moments where we “grow up”. Certainly September 11, 2001 was one of those days for me. However, through the tragic memories of seeing the carnage left behind and the feelings of disbelief that this could ever happen to us, for a brief moment in our history, our country came together as Americans. That’s the feeling I wish to be left with.”
Sara Mahayni, Midlothian
The morning of September 11th, I was in my show choir class. A senior in high school, my 18th birthday two weeks away, the only thing I was concerned with at that time was learning our Fall Choral Concert pieces perfectly. Everyone talks about how beautiful that day was, and it really, really was – it was a gorgeous, crisp, perfect Pre-Autumn day filled with sun and not a cloud in the sky.
I remember the Band Instructor coming into the choral room, whispering something in our director’s ear, and then leaving. A few minutes later, she came back and whispered something to him again. He looked at her, and she said, “Should we tell them?” and nodded to the class, and he responded that we would find out as soon as we left class – better we know before hand. That was when they both told us that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center Towers.
The class exchange afterwards was probably the quietest I had ever experienced. The usual rushing to get to lockers to deposit and pick up books, yelling, and goofing around was absent as everyone moved through the halls, the most noise being made from hushed conversations. When I say that every single television was in use for the rest of the day, I am not exaggerating one bit. Classes were merged together so that students and teachers who didn’t have TVs could watch the news as everything happened, live and unfiltered. Everything stopped.
The most poignant memory for me was one of two scenes. The first was watching someone in one of the top floors of the Towers make the decision to jump. I will never forget the camera focusing in on someone as they climbed through their window, crossed themselves, and simply let their bodies fall. The camera followed them all the way down, until it could follow no more. No one in the class room I was in spoke. There was not one gasp, there was not one cry, there wasn’t even so much as an, ‘Oh my God.’ I think we were all too horrified and too in shock to process what we were watching at that moment.
The day continued on, silent shuffling through the halls until we reached our last period, and this is where my second memory comes in and it is something, just like the first, that I will never forget. My last period of the day was Government, and my teacher, Mr. Gurecki, did something that I don’t know if other teachers did, but I know a good majority of them did not — he went on with class. Of course, we were stunned — we (rightfully) wanted to get the news turned on so that we could be aware of what was going on. 3000 of our country men and women were just murdered and the whispers of terrorism were beginning to make the rounds on the newscasts only hours after the first tower fell.
But our teacher, after hearing us out shook his head. “This is what they (the terrorists) want,” he told us. “They want you to stop what you’re doing. They want you to stop your life. They want you to think about them and when you do, they want you to be afraid of them. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to go through the lesson, and when I feel we’ve come to an appropriate stopping point, I’ll turn on the television. Get out books and put your homework on your desk so I can come and check it.” That lesson has stayed with me every single time a terrorist attack has struck the United States. Maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t, but Mr. Gurecki provided all of us some very much-needed guidance and leadership that day, and I have never forgotten it. I think he knew that, in a very real way, the way a lot of us were going to continue our lives from that point on had forever changed. Some of us, instead of heading to college, joined the military right out of high school, and even if we didn’t go into the service, I believe he understood that what our lives could have been in the America that existed on September 10th were not the lives we would have after September 11th. In his own small way, he prepared the students he taught for that fact with his actions on that day.”
Leanne Nowacki Irvin, Staunton
You hear about six degrees of separation, and on 9/11/01 that was driven home for me. I was waiting at Paul Obaugh to have work done on my van. Sitting in the waiting area with a television going and two small children by me. Good Morning America or the Today show was on.
Suddenly, they begin reporting of a plane striking one of the Twin Towers. And then go to live broadcasts of commentators that were filming for entirely different reasons near the Towers. As the film of the plane striking the Tower is being shown again and again, the customers and employees are gathering in the waiting area to watch and hopefully find out what is unfolding.
There was much speculation about what had just happened. I will never forget one young salesman repeatedly saying that it looked like a small plane, and pilot error was probably to blame. I also remember thinking that he clearly was wrong. I just felt it in my gut that this was very, very bad. Then, the 2nd plane hits; everyone knows then that this is not an accident. Still, the young salesman continues to suggest that it was just pilot error, that maybe air traffic control was to blame. Perhaps he was just trying to keep his cool or stay optimistic.
What I will NEVER forget, what happened next, what tells me every moment I think of 9/11, is how connected we are to our fellow humans. And what happened next was the plane that hit the Pentagon. There was a sobbing so loud at that moment from this young salesman; the young salesman whose father worked at the Pentagon. Heart wrenching sobs. The response of everyone I saw in that waiting area will also remain with me. Compassion and a willingness to try and help. That is what makes our country strong. To this day, I do not know if his father made it out alive. I do know that every person in the United States found out just how connected they are to fellow humans on that day.
Julie Crone, Fishersville
I was at home. I was a stay-at-home mom with a kindergartener and a toddler. Sydney and I were watching PBS kids like always–I loved their kids’ shows. I was also playing some game on Pogo.com, maybe Poppit or Word Whomp. They have a chat in the room you play in and someone said something about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center.
I quickly switched to a news channel, probably CNN. I tuned in just in time to see the second plane headed toward and then collide with the second tower. I could not stop watching. I hated that Sydney was watching too, but I knew it was too important to turn off. I tried to keep her busy with toys and books–anything but the TV. I watched most of the day and into the evening. I remember having some flag bunting in the closet for our wagon when we were supposed to march in a parade. I tied it around one of our front porch columns like the yellow ribbon. I felt so strongly that we needed to show that we were part of something larger.
What I remember most was the eerieness of the silence. There was no air traffic, people mostly came home to be with their loved ones. Later on that evening, we got a call from someone somewhere asking if we were related to or knew the whereabouts of someone with our last name. I felt bad for telling them no, I figured it was probably someone involved with the Pentagon. It’s strange how vivid the memories of this day are.
Vonda Lacey, Staunton
Blue, clouded skies today. September 11, 2001, was clear, blue skies and the eerie thing was the lack of airplane contrails. This day changed my world, as it did your’s! But little did I know or realize the impact of that change. My children were in school or day care, and I just wanted to get them, and hug and hold them. Today, my oldest is in Kuwait on his 2nd deployment. And with new orders, just established last night, of fighting this war so close to his location, I am reminded once again of the impact of that day!
Godspeed to ALL our soldiers deployed on this day! You are missed and loved! This world is all my children know … they will never know the world that I knew.
Let us NEVER forget!
Mike Simon, North Carolina
In Manhattan, on 9/11 there was at first disbelief, then a controlled panic started to set in. Folks started getting out of Manhattan any way they could but were quickly hampered by all public transportation shutting down. Rumors were rampant about more attacks, about unexploded bombs planted everywhere and, of course, continuing bomb threats were being called in to all media sources and police departments.
A lot of us found ourselves more or less trapped in Manhattan. We all scurried around and found accommodations for the night — you might think that should have been easy, except the hotels were all empty of employees and they were doing the best they could with very limited staff. Folks that lived in high rise apartment buildings, or were in top floors of hotels, office buildings, etc, were all scared to death of another plane attack!
The morning of the next day, 9/12, Manhattan was literally a ghost town. No taxis, no buses, no cars, no trains, no subways, very few pedestrians! Army jeeps with mounted guns and military personnel patrolled the streets. Bomb threats and rumors persisted throughout the day. Finally after multiple attempts during the day, limited trains started to run. Other than the engine sounds, there was very little other noise,no one said anything, just got on the train and prayed it would leave the island. Some of the men and women on the train were covered in dirt, clothes were dirty, hair messed up, yet no one noticed or said a thing. The train was stopped numerous times and was inspected by Army personnel, armed to the teeth and some had dogs.
When I finally reached my home station, I literally kissed the ground. Looking around the station, there were Army personnel all around and a huge tank parked near the center of the station. As weeks went by, things loosened up a bit, yet there was a reminder every day. Some of the parked cars hadn’t moved since 9/11 and a growing amount of flowers, and signs started to cover the cars of the folks that never would return. A lot of good deeds from the citizens of NYC happened in those following weeks. A lot of caring and reaching out to others … I was proud of the people of NYC.
My son also worked in Manhattan at the time. So my wife had two of us on the island and communications went completely out between Manhattan and the rest of the world. My wife was home in NJ worrying, with everyone we knew — all the relatives, etc — calling her, meaning well, yet multiplying her worry for us. This went on most of the morning and later finally the computer worked and we sent her a message that we were ok. We had our stress, worry, and fear but we were alive unlike the innocent victims and their families.
Lt. Commander David Williams, USN (as told by Bryan Hoyt, former BD contributor)
Navy Lieutenant Commander David Williams served as the department head for the Operations Department aboard USS Nashville (LPD 13) from 1999-2001. In his roll he led over 80 men who he was charged with taking care of, training and inspiring. He did all of that and more.
Lt. Cmdr. Williams was known for his department “all-hands” meetings. Although they were held to discuss important issues and business with his men, they would normally decay into a stand-up routine where he would take good natured shots at us, regardless of rank, and it was always funny. His spot-on impressions of his Sailors, his mocking of the stories we never knew he heard about and his laughter in reaction to others doing impressions of him always created a sense of team, brotherhood and trust. He knew his Sailors.
However, Dave Williams was no pushover. Those who did not perform up to what he perceived to be their best ability were called to task and no one ever wondered where they stood with the ‘Operations Boss’. His trust in his officers and Chiefs was felt throughout the ranks and no one ever questioned his dedication to the Navy and his men. Everybody wanted to be like Lt. Cmdr. Williams and no one wanted to let him down.
At home, his dedicated wife and two children understood that he loved the open sea and loved his job. After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) he went directly to sea and served aboard three ships before finally being convinced by his family to take a job that was not on a ship, but was in fact in the worlds largest office building; the Pentagon.
Lt. Cmdr. Dave Williams worked for the Chief of Naval Operations (the highest ranking officer in the Navy) and although land locked, he did enjoy his job. The daily grind of the ‘Zoo’ was no measure for Williams’ work ethic and unwavering sense of humor: a must for working in the Pentagon. Adding to his joy was the news that his he and his wife, Sara, were now expecting their third child. A boy, he hoped, to help balance out the two girls that would help their mother gang up on him. In the end, it didn’t matter to him because the only thing he cared more about than the Navy was his family.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, all hell broke loose. The nation was under attack and a concerned Sara called her husband at the Pentagon to ask him what was going on. Dave Williams knew he only had a moment to talk to his wife because the entire building was racing to react to the attack. That conversation was cut short.
Lt. Cmdr. David Williams spent his final moments serving his nation at the headquarters of the Department of Defense and the Navy he loved. David Williams was killed as highjack American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the side of the Pentagon.
News of his death spread quickly and within days those of us who were still serving aboard USS Nashville had received the news that one of our own had been killed in the attacks. Those who served with him were shocked, saddened, angry and heart-broken.
Thousands of families lost love ones that day but we lost “Ops Boss” and that was all we needed to know to make this horrific day even worse.
Every year I think of Lt. Cmdr. Williams and how he served not only his nation, but a team of Sailors who are better people for having served with him. Before he left USS Nashville, Williams wrote me a letter of recommendation for the Navy’s officer program. In 2002 I submitted that letter with my application. In 2003 I became a commissioned Naval Officer. I know in my heart that Lt. Cmdr. Williams, given the chance, would have been proud of me … but would not have missed the opportunity to give me a little hell, do his impression of me, and remind me of where I came from. Every year about this time I think of that and I think of David Williams and I am sad but grateful for having served with him.
In the spring of 2016 my family visited Washington D.C. During our trip, we spent the day at Arlington National Cemetery. It was an important for us, as parents, to take our children to this sacred place.
Near the end of our visit, we took a walk in search of David Williams’ gravesite. He is buried in an area designated for those killed on 9/11; Section 64. The area overlooks the Pentagon. It was an emotional visit, but I left with a feeling that I was finally able to pay my respects in person and I am thankful that my family was there with me.
The History Channel is showing “15 Septembers Later” through September, featuring insightful interviews with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, along with Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Matthew Broderick. The documentary examines 9/11 through the lens of the last 15 years and shares photos declassified in 2016, recently released documents from the 9/11 commission, and never before heard stories from photographers and first responders. (Additional 9/11 resources available at the George W. Bush Presidential Library.)
Politico has an excellent article detailing step-by-step what occurred that day from those who surrounded the president (“We’re the only plane in the sky”).