Where were you that September day?
The Suffolk News-Herald asked people for their memories of where they were, what they were doing and what they were thinking on Sept. 11, 2001. These responses were solicited in the newspaper, on Facebook and on our website, inviting people to respond via the website, Facebook or email. Below are some of the responses we received. Responses have been edited for spelling, grammar, style and length.
It was my privilege to serve in the U.S. Army for 25 years. My last active duty assignment was on the Army staff in the Pentagon. Just prior to the Sept. 11 attack, I had been working on a project along with fellow staff officers to recommend how and where our office would continue to function if we could not get into the Pentagon due to an attack on the building. We conjectured an attack using a chemical, biological or radiological weapon. This would cause the building to be unusable until it could be decontaminated. We dismissed the idea of a conventional attack as infeasible. We thought that getting sufficient explosive power close enough to do any significant damage was unlikely at best. We were having a difficult time imagining how any attack might take place that would make the Pentagon uninhabitable.
The Pentagon was a target because of its obvious significance to America’s military operations. Due to its unusual shape and large size, it is also quite easy to spot from the air. But it is an exceptionally poor target, because it is an immensely strong building constructed of reinforced concrete, the very opposite of the soft target favored by terrorists. If you have never been inside the Pentagon, it’s hard to grasp its scale. The Pentagon covers nearly 35 acres. It is so large that a friend of mine working on the opposite side of the building from the crash site was completely unaware that anything unusual had happened.
The surprise and shock of the attack on the Pentagon are difficult to describe. It was an ordinary workday; we were all going about our normal business. We had already heard the news of the ongoing attack on the World Trade Center in New York and were trying to understand what was happening when the Pentagon was struck. At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the ground floor on the west side of the building and penetrated the first three rings. The full load of jet fuel immediately ignited in an intense fire that eventually caused the structural collapse of part of the building. One hundred twenty-five military and civilian personnel were killed in the Pentagon, plus the 59 passengers and crew aboard the airliner. Part of my office had recently moved into the portion of the building that was hit. Two of my co-workers were killed there; a third was seriously injured. But the death toll at the Pentagon was remarkably low, because the plane struck a part of the building that had recently been renovated and was still mostly unoccupied. This newly renovated section included stronger walls that held together for about twenty minutes after the crash before collapsing. People I knew who were on the floors directly above the crash site had enough time to get out unharmed.
What’s even more remarkable is what happened afterwards. The long-ingrained habits of military training and discipline took over. In the chaos immediately after the attack, the building was evacuated in a mostly orderly fashion, despite the fact that we had not had a single fire drill in the two years I had been assigned there. An immediate effort was started to account for everyone. Military and civilian personnel on the side of the building where the crash occurred rushed to help first responders. The injured were removed and transported to area hospitals. The National Military Command Center continued to operate without pause, but went immediately into crisis action mode to account for the missing, assess the damage, and collect and pass information.
During and immediately after the attack, the bravery and selflessness of firefighters, paramedics, police officers, military and civilian workers, and simple passersby was an amazing thing to witness. Americans are generous with their courage.
After we evacuated the Pentagon, we were ordered to move farther away from the building due to a report that another hijacked airliner was inbound to Washington. That airliner never arrived. A small group of ordinary Americans, armed only with their courage and the knowledge that their country was under enemy attack, reacted with astounding bravery and took down Flight 93 in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before it could reach its intended target. Their selfless actions thwarted the terrorists who had commandeered their airplane, at the cost of their own lives. They are an example of the best that America has to offer.
The United States is a changed country. The Sept. 11 attacks shocked the nation in a way that hasn’t happened since the Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. We have lost the broad sense of security that we once enjoyed.
The day after the attack on the Pentagon, firefighters were still putting out the last of the fire when word came that President George W. Bush wanted to visit the site to see the damage for himself. Before his visit, soldiers and firefighters unveiled a huge garrison flag and draped it over the side of the building. Then they stood and saluted.
That moment became emblematic for the American spirit in times of crisis. The United States had been attacked, the World Trade Center destroyed, the Pentagon seriously damaged, friends were missing, thousands of innocent citizens killed in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, yet the American flag still flew. That flag signified the unconquerable nature of the American people as it remained on the side of the building for the next month. Each night, workers illuminated it with floodlights. Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, “The Old Guard,” took it down a month later on Oct. 11. That flag is stained with soot and ripped at one spot where it rubbed up against the building. Now preserved at the Army’s Center of Military History, it is treasured as the 9/11 generation’s Star-Spangled Banner. We, like Francis Scott Key during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, looked to the flag for both inspiration and comfort.
Americans are often at their best when times are at their worst. You see this every time there is a crisis, and what happened after the Sept. 11 attacks was no exception. People donated their money and their time, gave blood, flew flags and were truly proud of this great country of ours. Americans are optimistic and forward-looking, with an ability to come together and support each other in times of need. May it always be that way.
— Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Frank Womble
I was vacationing in Ireland. My husband, Patrick, and I were walking downtown when a man asked if we were Americans. We said we were. He said a plane flew into the World Trade Center. We went into Dunne’s and watched the news. People were huddled around the TV sales display. As we watched, the second tower was hit by a plane. It was then clear. This was not an accident. When smokey images of a penetrated Pentagon appeared on the screens, a kind of panic set in my guts and I thought first about my East Coast family. America was under siege.
— Carole Maguire O’Keeffe
We were in Waldorf, Maryland. I remember first turning on the TV after I got the kids off to school, then standing in the street with my neighbor watching the sky. It was a horrible, terrible, helpless feeling. We prayed, prayed and prayed some more. My husband was active duty Army. He was at the Defense Intelligence Agency building that day. He saw the Pentagon from across the Potomac. My girls were in fourth and sixth grades. I did not know my husband was OK until about 9 p.m. that night. The schools shut down; we could not pick up our children. I felt alone and helpless. I’m so thankful for the friends and family that checked in on us that day. The images of those in the next days and weeks holding up “looking for” signs outside the Pentagon still break my heart. This is not history to us; it affected our lives from that day forward. We got transferred to Suffolk in August 2002, and my husband had five war zone deployments between 2003 and 2009. We retired here in 2011, and this is now our forever home.
— Kathie Stuckey
I was at work, building the sound wall along the bypass between Route 58 and Carolina Road beside Davis Lakes Campground. My kids were at school, one son at Elephant’s Fork and one at King’s Fork Middle. It was probably one of the scariest and strangest days of my life.
— Lou Madray
I was in third grade, and to this day, Sept. 11 is the earliest vivid memory I have. Our teacher was supposed to pick us up from the cafeteria, but she never came. Finally, someone else escorted us back to class. We saw our teacher sitting atop a desk, mouth open, staring at the TV. I remember the look of horror on Ms. Inge’s face more than I do the smoky Twin Towers on the TV. From there, it was chaos. My grandparents picked me up from school early, as did most other parents. I don’t think Ms. Inge said one word the entire time we were in the room with her. I saw that look on many adults’ faces that day, and those looks of pure grief and shock will always remain with me. It was a uniquely traumatizing experience to, as a child, see adults you’ve always looked up to seem so at a loss for words and emotion. No one knew what to do, how to feel, or what would come next. Everyone changed after that.
— Tamara Critzer
I was in Bremerton, Washington, with my toddler son. My husband was deployed on the USS Carl Vinson. Another Navy spouse called and asked if I had heard what happened and said to turn on the news. I was glued to the television for the next several days. I knew the world as we knew it had changed forever.
— Kesha Barnes
I was in my Honors Colloquium class at ECSU. My professor called us all into her office to watch the small television that she had on her desk. I remember being surrounded by my classmates and feeling amazed and terrified at the same time. We were dismissed shortly after the second plane hit the Twin Towers.
— Christy Fitzwater
I was actually in Manhattan when it happened. I was 10 years old, and this completely shook the city. I was sitting in class and remember everyone had to get picked up by parents immediately. As a child, I was confused and so were my classmates. Once I was picked up, my family already had the TV on and all they played was the Twin Towers and how we were attacked. This was one of the scariest times in my life. I actually lived 27 minutes from the World Trade Center. All you could see was smoke from afar, and that lasted a couple of days. That is how terrible it was. This day was definitely a day I would never forget truly heartbreaking.
— Ashley Reyes
I was working for the U.S. Coast Guard as a federal civilian executive assistant. The department commander and chiefs were holding our weekly meeting as we all gathered around the conference table. Suddenly someone rushed in and turned on the TV to live news. Everyone was in silence. Instead of continuing the meeting, the commander of aeronautical engineering stopped and ordered silence and bowed his head and led us in prayer. I will never forget this day and can name every officer and supervisor in attendance. Their faces come to my mind at every Sept. 11 anniversary, as I am sure it does to each of them as well.
— Melody Wilson
I am a native of Suffolk, Virginia, and was living in Long Island, New York and was working in Brooklyn. That morning I, along with a co-worker, Mrs. Lula Walker, was scheduled to attend mandatory training for the school and community center at 2 Lafayette Street in New York City. As I rode the train from Long Island, I felt an uneasiness, and the closer I got to my stop in Brooklyn, it got worse. I called Mrs. Walker and said to her that she could come in a little later, because we were not going in to the city. She asked why and reminded me this was mandatory training. I said to her that I just had an uneasiness and we could figure it out later and we were not going. I got in my office and was there about an hour and a half when suddenly a parent raced in and came into my office saying, “They are bombing the city and I am signing my child out!” Before I could ask any questions, she dashed out and I immediately turned on my television. Shortly thereafter, the second plane struck. Being a former Army soldier, I thought we were under attack by a foreign enemy. The phone rang and my secretary said that my husband, Dr. Elliott Cuff, was on the line. He had pulled over on the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens and could see that there was something on fire in the city. He knew that I was supposed to be in the city for training at 9 a.m. and so he was checking to see if I had left my office, as he could not get me on my cell phone. After assuring him that I and Mrs. Walker were OK, he said that it would be a while before he could get into the office because the traffic was at a complete standstill. I told him to be careful and watchful. Shortly after hanging up from the call, a New York Police Department officer came in and said that I needed to lock down the building. “No one in and no one out.” I immediately told security to lock down the building and advised teachers not to turn on any televisions and to keep the children away from the windows. Mrs. Walker took the children down to the basement, pretending that we were having a fire drill and told the children not to look out of windows. The children had practiced this so many times before and they, along with their teachers, followed Mrs. Walker like little ducklings. Parents arrived frantic and banged on the exterior doors, screaming and crying to get in to get their children. While security did their earnest to assure them that the children were OK and said that we were on lockdown by order of the NYPD, it didn’t cause the cries and pounding to cease. The phone rang and it was a young lady, who volunteered with the center, letting us know that she was OK. After that, another call came from members of the church where the school and center were housed, letting us know that they were OK. I had not thought to call mom, Mrs. Dorothy Watford Williams, to let her know that I was all right, as I had talked to her when I first got on the train. This was a part of my morning ritual. Her voice soothed me in a way that only a mother’s voice can soothe. She sighed in relief knowing that we were OK. After all, I had said to her that I had training in the city that morning. After chatting for a few minutes, we said I love you to one another and hung up. The school and the center stayed on lockdown until the afternoon. Even the phone lines eventually went down. Teachers played games and kept the children entertained, abandoning all instruction for the day. Mrs. Walker and I kept abreast as to what was happening via the news. We were alerted that persons could enter and exit our facility. Police officers remained in the area and later we discovered that an alleged cell group was discovered about a block or so away from our building. Finally my husband made it to my office and we hugged each other so tightly that it was amazing that we did not crack one another’s spine. We remained in the building until very late in the evening, as some of the parents had difficulty getting there to pick up their children because the trains had stopped running and there was limited taxi transportation from the city. When my husband, Mrs. Walker and I finally exited the building, we commented about the smell in the air. It smelled like flesh burning, and tears began to flow down my cheek, as I was both hurting and angry that such a callous act could be committed upon innocent people. Little did we know that evening, that very scent would remain in the air for seemingly months to come. Mrs. Walker headed to the hospital to see her mom, and my husband and I headed home. The usual one-hour ride became about three hours. As Hubby and I listened to the radio personalities, they seemed so somber and grieved, causing even more tears to flow. We rode in silence, which was so out of character for us. Occasionally, one of us would utter, “God have mercy”; otherwise, silence. After arriving home and turning on the television, I sat in my husband’s lap like a toddler. He wrapped his arms around me and I sat there crying like a baby. A few days later I discovered that my former secretary, who had just started a new job the day before, Carol Rabalais, was one of the victims. My heart was grieved even more, as she left behind a handicapped son. He was the very reason she took the job, because it was far more than our nonprofit could pay her and the benefits were great. How could evil abound like that?
— Virginia Watford Cuff
I was on an airplane heading to Greensboro, North Carolina, for a meeting. We were in the air at the time the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. After landing, I was walking from the concourse to meet a colleague when I saw a group of people watching something on TV, so I stopped to see what was happening. I met my colleague and he filled me in on the details. As we were leaving the airport, we tuned in to the radio news station in his vehicle and listened to the broadcast about the plane that had just crashed into the Pentagon. I called my wife (a schoolteacher in Virginia Beach) to let her know that I was safe. Of course, our meetings that day were canceled indefinitely, so I returned to the airport. By then, all flights were grounded, but I was fortunate to be able to rent a car and drive back to Suffolk. It’s still hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since that awful day.
— Robert Rhodes
I was in Goose Creek, South Carolina, with my friend at the base gym. The first plane hit, and as the station was re-airing it, they broke through with the second plane. The gym was quiet. We left to go to NFCU, not knowing what was still happening. The bank had a phone out for people to call loved ones. The base went on lockdown. I called home to check on my mom. My dad was pretty sure he’d be shipping out. That day was filled with sadness and fear. I remember the next day, the people helping others and the gracefulness you saw in stores, even in South Carolina.
— Mary Lau
I was cleaning staterooms during that time. I remember I was called to an officer’s stateroom to vacuum their carpet, but when I got to their room, the first plane had hit and they asked me not to vacuum because, it would be too noisy and they wanted to listen to the news. So there I was, bottom-of-the-totem-pole, E-nothing cranker standing there with a vacuum cleaner in my hands watching the news with a bunch of officers in their stateroom. Then, thinking that it couldn’t get any worse, we watched the second plane hit the other tower, live in real time. The whole ship and the crew had sort of an eerie, defeated heaviness to it, as I’m sure people back home probably felt the same way. The Enterprise was actually on its way back home when Sept. 11 happened. We were going to sail around the horn of Africa, hit a port in South Africa, sail to Rio de Janeiro and port there, and then sail up to Florida to drop off the squadrons, and then back to Norfolk, but none of that happened, because we had to turn around and go back to eventually make the initial airstrikes against those responsible.
— Brandon Holmes
I was scheduled for a C-section that morning. Our son was born at 8:16 a.m. When we were wheeled into my room, the TV was on and we all saw the second plane hit. I was a little groggy and did not think it was real. The nurse said my son had many angels watching over him that day.
— Lauren McGhee
I had dropped the kids off at school and when I got home I was watching it unfold on TV. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I went and got in my bed and just tried to comfort myself. It was unreal.
— Christa Mabry Parsons
I was getting my toddler ready for a pre-operative appointment. Surgery was scheduled for the next day. They canceled the pre-op appointment, and his surgery was the only one the team did the next day.
— Sarah Wiacek
I was sitting in 1033 class, learning the skills to be a fire investigator, when four chairs slid back. Their pagers had been activated for a FEMA team deployment.
— Pam King
I was watching events unfold in the kitchen area of Suffolk Department of Fire & Rescue’s Station One. I was standing next to then-Chief Mark Outlaw the second plane hit. We were stunned.
— David A. Taylor
I worked at Burger King and was on my break. Typically, I’d sit in my car and listen to music. This time, all I could find was talk radio. I kept scanning until I finally caught a bit of what was being said. I went in to tell the crew, and customers had already brought it to their attention. A couple of workers put money together and bought a small portable TV from Maxway just so we could see what was going on. It was very difficult continuing to feed people knowing lives were lost and not knowing how it would all end up. Sometime in the following week, a friend and I sat at Huntington Beach afraid of every plane we saw fly overhead and realized we live among some of the most important military facilities in the country and the fight could have very well been right here.
— Jamie Landry
I was standing watch onboard USS Enterprise, up on the bridge. It was surreal and went from being a really excited cruise to very quiet and somber.
— Jennifer Marie
I was in Norfolk cutting grass at USAA and another co-worker came flying across the lawn on another mower and stopped me to tell. I won’t ever forget that day.
— Aaron Landry
I was at work at the Oceanfront. I got some calls at the hotel of loved ones of people at a conference at the hotel, wanting to know if they were OK.
— Lisa Dehaven
It was my first day as a teacher at Southwestern Elementary school.
— LuAnne Carr LaPoint
I was coming from school that day.
— Omari Midgette