Community weighs in on terror attacks
By Sherry Koonce and Chelsea Henderson
The News staff writers
It’s been 14 years since the United States was attacked on its own soil, and the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda first became part of the American vernacular.
But, for those who watched the terrorist attacks play out on television sets across the nation, the memory of that fateful day is as fresh as it was on September 11, 2001.
“I remember it clearly just like the Kennedy assassination,” Ronnie Harrington 65, of Port Arthur said.
That was the day the world changed for America, the day a series of four coordinated terror attacks on symbolic U.S. landmarks shook the nation’s psyche — but not its soul.
Four passenger airliners, all departing from the U.S. East Coast, were hi-jacked by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who planned to fly them into buildings.
Two of the planes were flown into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, while a third plane was crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth plane, steered toward Washington, D.C., crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers made a daring attempt to overpower the hijackers.
The attacks claimed the lives of 2,996 people, including the 19 hijackers, and resulted in $10 billion in damages to U.S. property and infrastructure.
Lives lost that day included 343 firefighters and 72 police officers.
Bob Williamson, a Port Arthur policeman at the time, said he was home when he saw the attacks on television. Williamson called a friend, who was at the U.S. Coast Guard Command Center in Washington, D.C.
“We cried like babies,” Williamson said.
His friend was so close to the Pentagon that the hijacked jet scorched the Coast Guard’s Command Center as it flew toward its target.
“We had an extreme sense of foreboding, because we knew what was coming. We knew our response would be war, and we would lose more lives,” Williamson said. “It was just a very grief-stricken moment, just an awful day.”
Rod Carroll, with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, was also owner of Stat Care EMS 14 years ago when the attacks occurred.
Carroll said he came home after working the midnight shift and immediately went to bed. When he woke up, he said, Carroll heard something on the news about a plane crash in Pennsylvania but did not know about the terror attacks.
That all changed when he got to the barbershop.
“I walked into the barbershop and people were watching T.V. I said ‘hey guys,’ and they looked at me like I was an idiot. They had to tell me what was going on,” Carroll said.
He immediately called the sheriff’s department and was on standby in case he was needed, then went to the ambulance service office.
“I immediately thought about the petrochemical industry, thought we could be a target,” he said. “All my co-workers were in shock. There was nothing you could do at the time other than to stand ready. We needed to be ready. I think the terrorists wanted us to roll over and play dead, but I saw us — as a nation — become fortified.”
Carroll said over the next few days, calls on the scanner dropped as Americans came together.
“I was proud to have the American flag at my house and at my business,” he said. “My dad is part of the greatest generation. He remembers where he was during Pearl Harbor. I remember 9/11, and my son remembers the Boston Bombing.”
Ronnie Harrington was a merchant marine pulling a barge from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville, Fla. when he heard reports of the attacks over the radio.
Harrington said they were about 24 hours out from Jacksonville, and when the merchant marines arrived at the port, it was locked down.
“Everything got quiet everywhere. It was really strange,” he said.
Normally, he said, his crew would have flown home, but all U.S. flights were grounded that day. Harrington said the company he worked for secured cars, which had to be picked up at the airport.
“They checked everything going in and out of the airport, and had roadblocks set up. We were lucky to get the vehicles when we did,” he said.
During the 1,300-mile trip home, Harrington said he stayed glued to the radio.
“It was just a terrible, terrible thing,” he said. “There was a helpless feeling, but nothing you could do about it.”
Port Arthur Fire Chief Larry Richard said he remembers going to Fire Station No. 1 on Woodworth Avenue after the first plane hit. There, the firefighters on duty were gathered around the television.
Richard said once the second plane hit, everyone knew it was no accident — the nation was under attack.
“It was sickening,” Richard said. “When I saw the buildings collapse, we knew there were a bunch of firemen that died. The mood around the firehouse was somber, shock, anger.”
Charlie Jehlen, principal of Central Middle School, said it’s different remembering 9/11 in schools now, because the upcoming generation has always lived in a post-9/11 world.
“It’s been long enough that even our eighth graders do not know a time before 9/11. They have no first-hand experience or memories from that day. All they know about it is what their parents say at home and what we can teach them at school,” Jehlen said Friday. “We let them know it was a human tragedy, and we do use it as a civil teaching moment to talk about our first responders.
“The first responders in New York were the ones running toward the noise, running toward the problem — doing everything they could to save lives during a tragic situation. Many of them lost their lives saving others. We honor them every year to show our appreciation for their bravery and their heroism. There’s nothing political about it. But we do use it as a moment to pay our respects to our heroes here at home.”