As the nation notes 20 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, The Meridian Star asked people around town to reflect on that day. What follows are their responses.
‘I knew exactly where those terrorists had been’
Jeanette Atterberry was a sergeant detective with the Boston Police Department on Sept. 11, 2001. She now resides in Meridian, but vividly recalls when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
“I was heading to the station for my shift when I saw the first impact; I quickly grabbed my portable TV and my batteries. I arrived and got the TV going, just in time for us all to see the second plane hit,” she says.
Atterberry’s department quickly switched to emergency mode in preparation for what might happen next.
She recalled flying out of the very same terminal, #26, at Logan International Airport, where one of the flights originated.
“I knew exactly where those terrorists had been. I had just flown out to California not long before that,” she said.
‘That day is forever seared in my memory’
Corbin Kill, a funeral director at Robert Barham Family Funeral Home in Meridian, was a seventh grader living near Memphis, Tennessee when he heard the news.
“I had walked to the bus stop and was waiting there when one of the other students came and told us "a little plane just hit one of the Twin Towers in New York,” he said. “By the time I arrived at school, it was clear from the tears on the faces of the teachers that it was more than just a "little plane."
Kill said the rest of the day was a whirlwind as the principal came across the intercom with an announcement about what had happened and a recommendation that the teachers not turn on the televisions in their classrooms.
“Several of them didn't heed the admonition, and so we watched with terror-filled eyes as the news replayed on an endless loop each of the plane crashes and filled the airwaves with unrelenting speculation and conjecture,” Kill recalled. “The schools dismissed early and I was shocked to find my father already home waiting on me.”
Kill said at that time, his dad travelled each week to Huntsville and Birmingham, and so seeing him home on a Tuesday added to the surreal events of the day.
“My mother was the station manager at United Airlines in Memphis that day; it was four or five days before she was able to leave the airport and come home because of the amount of meetings and intelligence briefings they were receiving as airport staff,” he said. “That day is forever seared in my memory. I pray, 20 years later, that we never forget.”
‘The world is upside down’
Doug McLain of Philadelphia had been in Denver for a week, working on a remedial mechanical project for Saks Fifth Avenue, and was supposed to leave on Sept. 10, 2001.
But the job ran longer than expected, so he changed his ticket for an early morning flight on Sept. 11.
As McLain pulled into short-term parking, it was obvious that something was wrong – people were rushing from the terminal.
“I told the guard who stopped me inside the Denver airport terminal how urgent it was that I leave, as I had work scheduled for the next day and a worried family back home,” he recalled. “He told me no planes would be flying for days and that they were getting ready to lock the doors.”
“As I left the building amid the throng, I saw a young man, sitting on his suitcase, crying. I stopped to see what I could do.”
“The world is upside down,” McLain recalled the man saying. “So many dead. It’s the end of the world. I just want to get home.”
“No, son,” McLain replied. “It’s not as bad as all that. Sure, things look bad, but they’re not hopeless. This is a horrible thing done by some evil people, but as bad as it is, this will pass. You’ll see.”
McLain said he spent a few more minutes with the man, trying to comfort him.
“My words sounded uncertain and hollow,” McLain recalled. “For I truly felt that America would never be whole again.”
“As I drove away, I saw the distraught kid sitting there still, head in hands, and to this day I am haunted by his image,” he said.
‘So then it became personal’
Meridian City Councilman George Thomas was attending a meeting at Mississippi State University - Meridian when he was told a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
“Our assumption was it was pilot error or something like that,” said Thomas, a professor of education at the time. “That they had accidentally hit the tower.”
Then the second plane hit, followed by a third striking the pentagon and another crashing into a field in Pennsylvania Thomas said he wondered what systems had malfunctioned to allow four planes to crash.
“We had no idea it was an attack,” he said. “That was not a concern at that point. It was later that day, I was out of that meeting, that we really found out what had happened.”
Sept. 11 was not one day, Thomas said, but several.
As more information came to light about the attacks, concern grew that more attacks could be carried out. Being on the city council, Thomas said he was worried about Meridian being targeted.
“Where else are they going to hit?” he said. “Are they going to do something else? Are they going to try to hit military bases, and if they do, would they try to hit Naval Air Station Meridian? Would they try to hit Key Field?”
“So then it became personal,” Thomas said.
Questions of who was responsible, what could come next and what could be done to prevent it continued throughout the days and weeks following the attacks. Thomas said it was a difficult time.
“It was a bad period of time,” he said. “It wasn’t just that day because again, if they were able to do it once, would they be able to do it again. And, you know, there was no way of knowing this was going to happen.”
‘I couldn’t believe what I heard’
Danny Alexander was teaching his first period chemistry class at Meridian High School. He recalls a student returning from the office to tell him she had gotten a text from her mother about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
“I couldn’t believe what I heard,” he recalled. “I had a television in my classroom, so we began watching as the second plane hit. It was a gut punch. We stared at the TV in disbelief as one tower started collapsing,” he said.
In 2001, Alexander’s brother-in-law, who worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, issued the order to ground all aircraft in the United States.
Alexander recalls his brother-in-law telling him about watching the radar.
“There was only one blip on the radar,” Alexander said. “However, he was able to see one plane still in the air, and that plane was located in the Delta region of Mississippi. That blip was a farmer in a crop duster plane. He was oblivious to world events, and as he carefully sprayed his fields, he noticed he was surrounded by two jets with pilots motioning him to put his plane on the ground.”
“History unfolding before our very eyes’
Jonas Crenshaw was teaching American History right around the corner from Alexander’s classroom. He was notified of the events by one of the principals.
“We turned on the classroom television,” Crenshaw recalled. “I was shocked at what I was seeing. I had been teaching history. But, little did I know, this was history unfolding before our very eyes,” he said.
‘I remember watching it on CNN’
Meridian Parks and Recreation Director Thomas Adams wasn’t in Meridian on Sept. 11, 2001. He wasn’t in the United States.
A former professional basketball player, Adams was competing in Portugal when he learned the World Trade Center had been attacked.
“I remember watching it on CNN, myself and my wife,” he said.
It was a scary time, as increased travel restrictions and security left uncertainty about how they would get back to the United States. Especially worrisome, he said, was their travel plans, which had them flying from Portugal to New York City.
“At the time we were to fly to New York, from Portugal to New York to Atlanta to here,” he said.
Eventually, Adams said he was able to arrange to fly directly to Atlanta from an airport in France. While there was a lot more security on the return trip, both he and his wife were able to return home safely.
‘What a sad day it was’
Bill Barham, funeral director and preplanning specialist at Robert Barham Family Funeral, was in the kitchen having coffee with his family while watching Good Morning America.
“We were getting ready to take our daughter, Blake, who was five at the time, to Pre-k” he said. “Suddenly, we saw where a plane hit one of the twin towers. We drove Blake to school, and on the radio, we heard where a plane had hit the second tower.
“At that moment, we realized this was a terrorist attack on America. All Americans stayed glued to the news media in shock and unbelief of what was going on…what a sad day it was.”
‘I just had a deep sadness’
On Sept. 11, 2001, Meridian Mayor Jimmie Smith was serving on the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors.
That morning, he was attending a meeting of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation at MSU-Meridian when he learned about the attack.
“I think everybody really felt in distress, because nobody knew what was what. I think it was a lot of confusion. It was painful too,” he said. “I just had a deep sadness.”
Smith said it was an emotionally draining day as he and others struggled to understand what had happened and recognize there wasn’t anything they could do to help.
“It’s just the fact that our homeland was attacked,” he said. “We knew it was happening, but we didn’t know what to do.”
Smith said the fear, frustration and sadness he felt that day were something he would never forget.
‘I will never forget that day’
Wilson Washington III had graduated from Meridian High School in May 2001. He was living in Brandon, Miss. with his father and had just graduated from Marine Corps boot camp four days before 9/11.
He was activated that day.
“I will never forget that day,” he said. “I honestly thought I would begin training for a simulated situation. My father was in the Navy for years and never went to actual ‘battle,’ but when I was standing in that kitchen, he looked at me like he had never looked before. He hugged my neck, and in the same breath, he told me that this is what I was trained for. Seven days later, I went to Camp Lejeune, then Camp Geiger and Camp Pendleton.”
Washington was sent to Afghanistan in 2002 and returned in 2003. Currently, Washington is the owner of tRuckFIT Gym in Kennesaw, Georgia.
‘I looked in disbelief’
Jay Crane was a firefighter at Station #7 in Meridian. He had finished his shift and began watching the coverage before he left that station.
Then, he headed home, listening to the continuing developments on the radio in his truck.
“Before I knew it, I listened as the second plane hit,” he said. “I almost went back to the station, but I also felt like I needed to get home. As I watched the coverage for the rest of the day, I realized the changing role of emergency firefighters. I looked in disbelief as I saw bodies falling from the top floors of the World Trade Center.”
‘I can just remember the silence’
Lauderdale County School District Superintendent John-Mark Cain was a student teacher at Mississippi State University in Starkville.
“We were just standing there in shock…I can just remember the silence,” he recalled.
In the days after the attacks, Cain recalled a sense of pride in the community.
“I think it was one of those times in my lifetime that I felt like the country was the most united,” he said. “It just seems like everybody came together… you could feel the unity reverberate throughout the entire country.”
‘I had a range of emotions’
Adrian Cross, executive director of the Meridian Freedom Project, was sitting in an Advanced Placement English class at West Lauderdale High School.
“Being an emotional teenager, I know I started crying,” she said. “I had a range of emotions that started with sadness because people died,” she added. “I was scared, afraid..and really, really angry.”
‘It didn’t seem real’
Ward 3 Councilman Joe E. Norwood was in his first semester at Meridian Community College when he saw the events on television.
“It didn’t seem real,” he recalled. “When it first came on, it just showed smoke coming from the first tower. Then, we saw the second tower. We were just shocked that something like that could happen….Then, the news goes to the Pentagon. That’s when it hit. We were under attack, but this is America – How could anyone come over here and do this?”
‘It became clear that life had changed’
Capt. Brent Moore, Commanding Officer of NAS Meridian, was stationed in Virginia, having just returned from a deployment three months earlier.
“I remember feelings of shock, disbelief, being heartbroken over the loss of life, and anger at the evil within the terrorists that carried out the attacks,” he said.
“But what I remember most from 9/11 are the hugs that I gave to my wife and daughter when I got home that evening, as I told them I would likely be deploying to the waters off New York City in the coming days.”
Moore remembered gathering near the television with his colleagues as they watched the second plane hit the South Tower, realizing that the country was under attack.
“It became clear that life had changed, as our squadron began contingency planning to deploy multiple detachments on U.S. Navy warships, as part of our nation’s response,” he said.
Since 9/11, Moore has been deployed six times.
“Those challenging times apart have made our family rely on God’s faithfulness in countless ways,” he says. “We’ve become closer as a family and stronger in our faith over the last 20 years.”
Reporting by Bianca Moorman, Thomas Howard, Cheryl Owens and Laura Hyche, with editing by Bill Graham.