911 Anniston

Firemen and Policemen post the Colors during the annual 9/11 Commemoration Ceremony at Centennial Memorial Park in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Eighteen years to the day, mixtures of methodically marching military and scattered, strolling civilians gathered to remember and reflect.

After almost two decades, the deaths of 2,997 people in attacks on New York City and the Pentagon and an airliner over Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, are still honored across the U.S., and in two ceremonies Wednesday in Calhoun County. 

 The attack on “9/11 has become our generation’s Dec. 7, 1941,” Oxford fire Chief Gary Sparks said, alluding to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor during World War II. “It’s my hope that we never forget what happened and never forget that sacrifice.”

On a sunny, scorching September morning, folks gathered in Jacksonville and Anniston to mark the anniversary of the attack.

Army Maj. Dwayne Williams, one of six Alabamians to die in the attacks, was a native of Jacksonville; he was killed when an airliner hijacked by terrorists crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, where he worked. A healing and remembrance ceremony was held at the monument to Williams in the Jacksonville 9/11 Memorial in the city’s cemetery.

“I didn’t know Maj. Williams, but I do know Maj. Williams,” said Col. Marvin L. Walker, the commander of Anniston Army Depot, speaking in front of Williams’ memorial. “I know he is a great soldier, because they only have great soldiers at the Pentagon. He could have been anything he wanted to be, but he chose to be a soldier to protect his family and his way of life.”

After Walker’s remarks, three wreaths were laid near the black stone emblazoned with a gold representation of the Pentagon, and members of the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office Honor Guard performed a fallen comrade ceremony, taking steady strides in to place and salute a pair of empty boots, a vest, a rifle and dog tags.

At Anniston’s event, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey stood alongside newly unveiled names on the Alabama Firefighters Memorial in Centennial Memorial Park to address the anniversary.

“We should never forget that freedom is not free,” Ivey said after the ceremony. “The act of terrorism came on our shores, and for us to remember is important. We encourage our young people to take up the mantle as they join the police, fire and military to protect us. We have to have protection to keep our nation free.”

A wreath placement and fallen comrade ceremony were also performed in Anniston, as wreaths representing firefighters and police were set afloat in the Alabama-shaped reflecting pool at the park. Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes at both ceremonies.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Kent Davis, a former Anniston city manager who is now commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, had a message of nationwide unity, citing the swell of patriotism after the attacks.

“We should never forget Sept. 11,” he said, “and we should never forget that we are all Americans, and we are better as one.”

At the ceremony, Davis read the names and stories of all six Alabamians who died in the attacks 18 years ago, including Williams.

Lt. Col. Lonzie McCants, roommate and football teammate of Maj. Williams at the University of North Alabama, shared some fond memories of the two in college at the Jacksonville ceremony, recounting stories in front of a seated Pearl Williams, Maj. Williams’ mother.

“He and I were hooked on soap operas,” McCants said. “We scheduled our classes from 8 to 11 so we could be back in front of the TV at noon watching ‘All My Children.’”

Walker, like many other speakers, expressed his gratitude for all who help protect the U.S. and its citizens.

“I thank God for allowing you and I to be here today and for our way of life. That’s why soldiers die, to protect our way of life,” Walker said. “First responders are helpers and savers. They run toward the bad guys so everyone else can run away.”

Contact Staff Writer Daniel Mayes at 256-235-3561 or danielmayesstar@gmail.com. On Twitter @DMayes_Star.