Ten years ago today, the United States was under attack, carving an indelible moment in time that introduced everyone to a new phenomenon – the Post 9/11 World.
Not since Pearl Harbor nearly 70 years prior to Sept. 11, 2001, had Americans felt so vulnerable on its own soil and so uncertain as to what the future held for the most powerful country in the world.
This weekend, Americans have had the opportunity to reflect on ten years since the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history and the sweeping changes that have come about since the improbable, graphic images of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Center Towers in the this country’s most recognizable city – New York City.
“It changed a generation,” says Rod Carroll, public administrative official for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, who also oversees the Beaumont Rotary student exchange program that has seen drastic changes to its protocol in the last 10 years.
“I sat in awe that whole day, and it’s a day that everyone remembers what they were doing when it happened,” said Carroll, who coincidentally, slept through the attacks. Working as the midnight patrol deputy for the sheriff’s office, Carroll, who would get off work and usually make it home by around 7:30 a.m. to sleep for four hours, remembers waking up at 11:30 and left his home to get a haircut. It wasn’t until he arrived at the barber shop that he was alerted to what had happened after seeing video of the planes flying into the World Trade Center.
“I literally woke up in a different world,” Carroll said.
Never Forget Ride
Several special events took place this weekend, including a blood drive at the Beaumont Fire Station #1 on Friday morning, as well as a 5K run sponsored by the Beaumont Police Officers Association that was dedicated to fallen Beaumont officer Bryan Hebert, who was killed in the line of duty. Both of those events were also dedicated to those who passed away as a result of the 9/11 tragedy.
Another event in Beaumont was the Never Forget Ride, which was an idea that Hal Burke, general manager of Cowboy Honda, came up with to honor the first responders locally as well as those from 9/11.
“You don’t want the younger generation to forget,” said Burke, who was actually at a car auction buying cars in Dallas the day of 9/11. He said he remembers finishing up at the auction and heading to the airport when he was told the airport was closed and all flights that day had been grounded. “I actually drove one of the cars I bought back to Beaumont that day, but I remember it taking two hours to get out of Dallas because they had evacuated all of downtown.”
Because Cowboy Honda has such a diverse clientele of both young and old said Burke, there’s that younger generation that was in school that has a recollection of 9/11, but not necessarily the understating of the gravity of that day.
“We’re still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 10 years later because of it,” Burke said. “And sometimes we forget what started this whole thing. If you don’t remember history, it ends up repeating itself.”
Mayor Becky Ames was the emcee of the event and Jefferson County Sheriff Mitch Woods was the keynote speaker.
“These events are important, because the impact of 9/11 never goes away,” said Ames, who was getting ready for work when the planes struck the towers. Ames, who will be busy all weekend attending 9/11 Memorial Events, said this is a very special weekend for her and one that she takes very seriously as Mayor of Beaumont.
“I get asked to do a lot of events, and sometimes it’s hard to balance, but for something like this with the significance of 9/11, I don’t mind a bit.”
Sheriff Woods, who was preparing to play golf when 9/11 occurred, said he was honored to be chosen to speak at the Never Forget event. A Harley Man through and through, Woods said he’s happy to be a part of the ride, but also to recognize first responders for the work they do.
“Quite often, we take them for granted,” Woods said, “it’s hard work, and when you see what they do, especially something like (9/11), we don’t pay our first responders so much for what they do, but for what they’re willing to do. And what they’re willing to do is put themselves in harm’s way. When other people need protecting, and their lives are at risk, or in danger. You see other people trying to get away from those scenes, you see the first responders going to those scenes, going into buildings and taking care of business.”
Ames said she is also looking forward to Sunday’s event at Tyrrell Park, where at 4 p.m., the Mayor and several speakers from the United States Armed Services will speak as part of the “In God We Trust, United We Stand September 11, 2001 Memorial Garden” tribute.
The event will be held at the September 11th Memorial which is located at the Beaumont Botanical Gardens in Tyrrell Park. The Memorial Garden features granite monuments to represent the World Trade Center Towers as well as a garden that has dirt from the three crash sites: Ground Zero in NYC, the Pentagon in DC, and the crash site in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 went down.
Speakers include Beaumont Fire Chief Anne Huff, Beaumont Police Sgt. Tim Ocnaschek, Lt. Col. Les Edwards from the Texas Army National Guard; Lt. Col. Michael Arnold, United States Army; Capt. George Paitl, United States Coast Guard and Col. Gregory Baine, United States Army.
Baine, a 24-year veteran of the Army who is currently attending Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said he is honored to be included as a guest speaker at both the Tyrrell Park and Never Forget ceremonies.
The Charlton-Pollard graduate, who was in Germany during 9/11 as an executive officer in an infantry battalion unit, has a unique perspective given he spent 14 years of his career pre-9/11 when the military had a “Cold War” mindset, and the Soviet Union was the United States’ biggest enemy in the world.
“I grew up during the cold war, and back then we had a very monolithic type of adversary, which was easy to find, and hard to kill,” said Baine.
Of course, after 9/11, suddenly the military found itself fighting a different kind of enemy, one that was hard to find, but easy to kill. Factions that were spread out all over and suddenly, the military had to adjust, and Baine said the military – across all branches, has adapted quite well.
“After 9/11, we were faced with a very different set of adversaries, but we adapted,” said Baine. “Look across the military, and see how adaptable our service is to the conditions we were faced. We had to adapt very quickly, and I think that’s part and parcel to the type of education we have in our military across all services, and how, based on lessons learned, from previous conflicts, how we incorporate those into the curricula and educational systems.”
“I would say we would have adapted very well, but what I would say has taken us the longest to adapt and accept is cultural aspect, whether it be Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Baine. But the long-time Army veteran said he’s very pleased with how his branch has incorporated training and teaching soldiers on the cultural customs of those in the Middle East, as well as the soldiers and leaders from the Army getting out amongst the natives in Iraq and Afghanistan to gain a better understanding and to develop a better relationship.
Baine said he’s proud of the job the US Military has done since 9/11, and he believes that the country is safer now than it was 10 years ago, and he points to the fact that there has not been a terrorist attack since. However, he cautions that it is impossible to guard against every threat, and that inevitably, the United States will suffer a terrorist attack again.
“It’s extremely difficult to say we’re going to prevent everything from happening forever, because you’re not. Something is going to happen sooner or later. We have to do all that we can to create that element of security within our cities and communities but still allow that basic freedom to prevail throughout our nation, that freedom we have all grown up to enjoy and expect. It’s a fine balance there.”
And with local law enforcement, coupled with Homeland Security and the FBI that join together to create joint task forces, Baine said he is “very confident in our law enforcement across the country that they are doing everything they can to keep people safe at home and in their communities.”
Pentagon First Responder
Jerry Sonnier attended Saturday’s Never Forget ride, not only riding his motorcycle to the event, but he played Taps on his bugle as part of the ceremony.
He reached out to Robin Troy, owner of NeilTroy Advertising, who helped organize the event with Burke and Joey Hardy from Cowboy Harley-Davidson, and asked if she had anyone to play. Troy didn’t, so Sonnier agreed to do it, plus after taking two years from participating in a 9/11 ceremony, he wanted to contribute to something, considering he contributed his time 10 years ago hours after a plane smashed into the Pentagon.
“I had taken half the day off and was working on the bilge pump on my sailboat when my buddy a couple boats down told me what was going on,” said Sonnier, who was living in Annapolis, Maryland at the time, about an hour from the Pentagon.
Sonnier and his friend watched on television what was going on, and his friend said to him, “I wish there was something we could do,” and Sonnier replied there was something they could do – they could go help the people at the Pentagon. Four hours and some slick talking later, Sonnier and a friend had worked their way through to the Pentagon and we’re on site to help the rest of the first responders.
“It was surreal,” said the now 58-year-old Sonnier, who lives in League City, of the experience being at the Pentagon. While most images of 9/11 involve the Twin Towers, there are very few public accounts of what happened at the Pentagon, and there are very few images of the destruction from D.C.
“There’s a reason for that,” said Sonnier, a former Marine, “no camera crews, no one with a camera was allowed close to the Pentagon to take pictures. If they found you with a camera, they would confiscate it. I did see one woman with a camera, and I told her, ‘hide your camera if you want to keep those pictures, or they’ll confiscate it.’ She was standing behind the fence. I don’t know who she was or how she got there, but she was there taking pictures. But because they didn’t allow the reporters closer than a mile, all the reporters were on a little hilltop at a gas station, and that was as close as they’d allow them. Reporters really didn’t get good photos, close photos, maybe with their telescopic lens. And they didn’t get to talk to anybody. So there’s not much out there to show people what happened.”
The destruction was intense.
“It was pretty bad,” said a solemn Sonnier. “It was burning pretty fierce when we got there. You could smell the bodies had been hit, and been burned. There was a dust in the air that was laced with all kinds of debris, asbestos, everything else. Nobody knew really what to do for the first day and a half. We all just kind of funneled around, doing what we could.”
Sonnier remembers seeing a Marine flag that miraculously was still hanging with no damage to it despite the room it was in being heavily damaged from the incident. Sonnier pointed that out to President George W. Bush when he shook hands with him, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Sonnier, after a day of pulling out bodies from the debris, “you’ve had a long day.”
Rumsfeld then selected Sonnier to walk around with his photographer to snap photos of the scene. Two weeks later, Sonnier received a package with pictures that had been taken.
For Sonnier, who carried out bodies, picked up debris, and spoke to both President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld, the images and experiences he has from the four days he was there, he will never forget being a part of 9/11, and thinks about on a daily basis – 10 years later.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life, been a lot of places, but those four days will stick with me more than anything else,” he said. “You think about it, it’s just something that crosses your mind every day. You think about the people that were lost. You think about the people that were there helping, wonder what happened to some of them. And you wonder about some of them, we didn’t know anything about each other, and we never did.”