When I was working in the front office at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School in Anniston, the early morning arrival of students was always the most hectic part of the day. But after the first-period bell chimed, a peaceful quiet would settle over the entire building.
That’s the way it was on Sept. 11, 2001.
A typical school day.
And then the phone rang.
It was one of our parents, Nancy Cassidy, on the other end. “Have you heard what’s going on?” she asked.
“No, what?” I replied.
“A plane was flown into the World Trade Center.”
“They don’t know,” she responded. “Are you near a TV?”
At that time, the only TV was in the computer lab across the hall. I slipped in and turned it on, telling the lone teacher in the room, Sue Perkins, about Nancy’s call. Sue and I watched as the second plane hit, but we didn’t know it was the second plane. We thought we were watching a replay of the first. Within minutes, we realized the horrible truth: Our nation was under attack.
Sacred Heart had purchased the school building at Fort McClellan the year before. When word of the terror attacks spread, frantic parents began calling. They were afraid that the former U.S. Army base, which had been utilized as a chemical-agent training facility, could be a target.
“What if the terrorists are using outdated information?” more than one parent asked.
The same thought must have occurred to the McClellan Joint Powers Authority, because the organization closed all the entrance gates and put the entire fort on lockdown.
Our phones began ringing off the hook. Calls from frightened parents, of course, but also the media: radio, newspapers and even Birmingham TV stations.
At one point, during a phone interview with ABC 33/40, Maureen Patty, the school principal, was asked if the children would be staying overnight in the school.
“No!” she all but shouted. “They will be with their families tonight. If I have to meet parents at the gate and hand their children over the fence, one at a time, that’s what I’ll do!”
Such drastic action wasn’t necessary. Later in the afternoon, the gates were unlocked and life returned to normal — or as normal as life could be, considering the circumstances.
Once the fort was re-opened, many parents raced to the school, checked out their children and hurried home. The remaining students, along with the faculty and staff, gathered in the common room for prayer.
Like me, everyone knows exactly where they were and what they were doing on 9/11. It’s memories such as these that will stay with us forever.
What do you remember about that day?
Beverly Hill, director of Anniston’s Center of Concern
I was working at East Alabama Planning Commission when word spread through the office about the terror attacks. I remember thinking that this had to be a mistake. This couldn’t be happening here, in the United States. I can’t describe how I felt seeing those planes being flown into the buildings. It was like I was having an out-of-body experience.
I knew war was inevitable and all I could think about was my daughter. She was 21 years old at the time and had just joined the Army Reserves. Her unit was activated and she was deployed to Afghanistan the very next month.
Kerry Holt, executive vice president and CFO of NobleBank & Trust
I was at work on the second floor at SouthTrust Bank on Quintard when Bill Priddy came down from the sixth floor to give us the news about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We were all thinking, “What a terrible accident,” and gathered to watch TV. We literally saw the second plane come into view and I remember saying, “Did I just see another plane hit?”
I was totally confused for a minute and then a terrible sense of fear came over us all. There was silence throughout the room and when the first tower fell, many began to cry. We later went outside to the flagpole and prayed. The rest of the day was a blur.
Summer Jennings, stay-at-home mom and Kitty Stone Elementary volunteer
I had arrived at JSU for a morning class when I heard other students whispering about the attack. It was a journalism class, and our professor told everyone to stop talking about it. I remember him saying — “We’re journalists and we only report when we have the facts.”
It wasn’t until after class that I learned what happened. I watched the news all day until I had to go to work at Outback Steakhouse that night. They kept the news on there, too. I don’t think I turned the TV off for weeks. I was so scared something else would happen.
Stephen Miller, Miller Law Firm, Anniston
I was one of 16 attorneys working at a firm in Lancaster, Pa., when our managing partner told us what was going on. We gathered in front of a television and silently watched the events unfold. My thoughts went to my wife’s cousin, Brandi, who worked with a financial company at the World Trade Center. She was able to get out of the building, and I drove to New York City to bring her back to stay with us.
My memory of that day is dominated by the vision of huge columns of smoke rising into the sky that I could see from miles away as I made my way there.
Derrick Kirby, investigator, Anniston Police Department
I was a freshman at Alexandria High School back then. I was sitting in Coach Heathcock’s geometry class when another teacher came in and told us to turn on the TV. I remember the look of shock on Coach Heathcock’s face when he saw what was happening. For the rest of the day, each classroom we went to had the TV on, broadcasting the news.
At the time I was 15 years old and didn’t grasp the magnitude of what it all meant. It was days later when I realized how tremendous the death toll was.
Julie Hope, navigator for Enroll Alabama at The Right Place
I was working at the local AIDS clinic in Hobson City in those days. That morning, I was getting ready for work, sitting on the bed, putting on my makeup, when the news hit. I had visited the World Trade Center the year before, and there’s no way to describe what it felt like to see those planes crash into them.
A number of us were getting ready to fly to Miami for a U.S. Conference on AIDS. The nationwide halt on air flights prevented us from going, and the conference was cancelled.
Shannon Jenkins, president and CEO of United Way of East Central Alabama
I was off work that day and was watching the news on “Good Morning America.” When the second plane hit, it felt like a punch in the gut. There was no way this was an accident!
My wife was on her way to work, and I called her and told her she needed to come back home. I was so relieved when she pulled into the driveway. I can’t even imagine how the families felt with loved ones on planes, in the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon.
She and I watched the first tower fall and both fought back tears. Our world had changed forever.
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.