By The Associated Press
Most people old enough to understand and remember can specifically identify where and how they heard about the terrorists’ attacks on New York and Washington 10 years ago today. Such benchmark moments of universal magnitude happen usually only once or twice in a lifetime.
That bright, clear September morning became the darkest day in U.S. history since the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941 – the 20th century’s equivalent moment for Americans.
Some Northeast Mississippians – resident and expatriate – were either eyewitnesses or in some way observers in New York and Washington and during the aftermath.
David Shirley, an Oxford resident and former Tupeloan, lived in New York in 2001. He was ready for his daily exercise run when he noticed on television a special report about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center. He turned to look out his apartment’s panoramic window on the city’s skyline and saw the building in flames – and watched in disbelief as the second plane exploded when it slammed into the other tower.
Shirley, who is a consultant to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, is like countless others: He knew people who died that day, especially for him several heroic first responders who perished in the conflagration.
“I found it initially very disorienting,” he reflected. “It made me realize that I do not have all the answers.”
Shirley said he lived, along with a close group of friends, with a worldview committed to non-violence (he is a Quaker) and in which he believed that if everyone else behaved as he thought people should behave, the world would be better.
In the aftermath, Shirley said he developed an “immensely powerful respect” for first responders, and for the soldiers who went to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, although he protested entering both wars.
Shirley noted, as have others, that immediately after 9/11 Americans generally became more tolerant and respectful and unified, a spirit that has disintegrated in the 10 years since.
“I hope we can recapture that idea that we really need one another,” he said.
Shirley said he is optimistic about New York’s recovery because the city is resilient with a “quiet patriotism” that “rolls up its sleeves” and does what must be done.
He said he is certain to call several friends today who still live in New York, reaffirming relationships that are strong and enduring.
Brenda Reece of Pontotoc
On the morning of Sept. 11, she was on the subway from Staten Island riding to work, and when she reached street level at her stop, the first tower had collapsed. She helped get people off subway trains that had been stopped because of the attack before she was able to return to her home on Staten Island.
Reece, who returned to Mississippi in 2005, said sometimes while driving on Staten Island she would be behind a garbage truck hauling ground zero waste.
“It smelled like burned blood,” she said. “One night after I came back I was in a kitchen where fresh venison was being cooked, and that’s what it smelled like. I had to leave.”
Reece said her cab driving work took her many times past ground zero in the months after the attack.
Renasant Bank Vice President John Oxford was a 24-year-old White House staff member in Washington.
He was in a meeting about stem cells when news broke that first one, then both World Trade Center towers had been hit in New York.
The secretary of Health and Human Services was whisked away from the meeting to safety, and Oxford was among staff members left to run the HHS communications office. From there they saw the smoke from the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Oxford, who subsequently met and married a woman from Tupelo, said last week that 9/11 had a profound effect in the long term.
“It changed my world view,” Oxford said. “I had never even heard of al-Qaida at that point.”
Oxford, 34, said he has become “totally aware of my surroundings. When I travel I look at the other people on the airplane with me. Sometimes I get angry, especially when I think of the brave people on Flight 93 and their sacrifice to stop the plane short of its goal. I have visited ground zero – it’s holy ground, as far as I am concerned.”
Oxford said he will actually fly to Washington today for a professional conference. (See Oxford commentary on Page 13A of today’s Journal)
“I am sure at some point there will be a special period of reflection and remembrance.”
Raymond Doherty, a software entrepreneur who divides his time between Tupelo and New York, was getting ready to leave for work when the first tower was hit.
“I worked for Lego, and our building was pretty near ground zero,” Doherty said. “The effect it had on me was nothing short of profound, and it lasted for a long time.”
Doherty said he was especially affected by the smell of the smoldering ruins, carried with smoke that wafted around the building where he worked for two full months. Doherty said the stench defined acrid, and he thought often of the people who were incinerated in the fire.
“I almost cannot express in words how the aftermath affected me,” Doherty reflected. “I cannot believe it has been 10 years. It certainly has made me appreciate life more, and I hope that we never are confronted again with that kind if human tragedy.”
Doherty said he will be in New York today for part of the memorial observances.
Tupelo resident Amy Tate, who was working temporarily on assignment for TVA in its Washington office, also identifies with the stench caused when a hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon.
“We had all the televisions in our office on CSPAN and the news channels all the time, so we stopped working to watch when the first plane hit in New York, and then we sort of broke up to go back to our work. When the second plane hit we knew it was really serious, but it still seemed far away. When the Pentagon was hit we knew we were in the middle of whatever war this was.”
Tate, an administrative staff member with TVA in Tupelo, said everyone was released from work, and she walked quickly home to her nearby apartment.
“The streets were just chaos … People running, I guess trying to get to where their families or homes were,” she recalled. “It was like the impossible had happened.”
Tate said her mother called soon after she reached her apartment to tell her that her father and husband had left Tupelo and were driving to Washington to get her and bring her to Mississippi.
“I don’t know what kind of record they set, but they were there about 1 a.m. I was packed and ready to leave.”
Tate said her innocent view of the world ended on 9/11.
“I don’t mean that it has affected everything I do, but it has changed so much about how all of us live – security, cameras, extra precautions.”