Almost every year on Sept. 11, local public safety agencies in Statesboro hold a commemoration of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, whose repercussions are still being felt.
This year the observance, hosted jointly by the Statesboro Fire Department and Statesboro Police Department, but with Bulloch County agencies and possibly others also planning to attend, will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday outside the Statesboro Fire Department headquarters, 24 West Grady St. It will be open to the public, but don’t expect an elaborate ceremony, even on the 20th anniversary.
“Over the years there’s been a time or two when circumstances have prevented us, but we have made a conscious effort to remember the day, even if it’s with something small,” said Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams. “It was a major event that affected a lot of us, especially in public safety.”
However brief, the observance will take place at an appropriate hour. At roughly 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, an airplane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. At 9:03 a.m., a second plane struck the center’s South Tower. About 9:40 a.m., a third plane crashed into one side of the Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. military, near Washington, D.C.
During the course of the day, these planes were identified as American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 77, large airliners hijacked by Islamist terrorists and intentionally flown into their targets, killing everyone aboard. A fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 a.m., also with no survivors.
Grams, now 42, has served 24 years with the Statesboro Fire Department and so was a 22-year-old firefighter here on Sept. 11, 2001. He had worked the night before and was sleeping at home when his wife called him with the news and he turned on the television.
“Shortly after seeing what had happened I found myself up at the Fire Department, sitting in the dayroom, several of us over at Station 2 and like pretty much everybody else that day, just watching and then just feeling kind of helpless,” Grams recalled. “It was difficult to sit and watch and not be able to try to help in some way.”
Firefighters with the Fire Department of the City of New York famously rushed into the World Trade Center towers that day, trying to rescue more people while fires, stoked by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, raged in the upper floors. Both towers collapsed within two hours.
Grams numbered the FDNY’s immediate losses Wednesday when asked how that day affected him. It brought home the importance of brotherhood, community, training hard and preparing for the unexpected that had been abstract ideas to a young firefighter, he said.
“Up until that day, nobody could imagine something like that, but yet those firefighters that day didn’t hesitate, went in, did what they could, you know,” Grams said. “Ultimately 343 died, and countless more from the after-effects of all the concrete dust and all the different hazards that came from the collapse. …
“That’s why I think it’s so important and we always have tried to do something on September 11th to remember and remind ourselves of just how quickly your limits are going to be tested,” he said.
It was no drill
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn, also the county’s Emergency Management Agency director, was already serving in that role 20 years ago. He recalls that he was conducting a fire drill that day at Nevils Elementary School when he received a text message from his office at the 911 center, then in the basement of the county annex, that a plane had hit one of the Trade Center towers.
As he worked with school personnel to continue the fire drill, someone called with news that a plane had hit the second tower.
“I left and came to the office, and I just remember well the deep sadness we felt from seeing that and realizing that thousands of people would most likely perish, as well as hundreds of firemen and police officers and paramedics and EMTs,” Wynn said. “It was an extremely sad feeling that I felt, and that feeling still lasts today for me.”
‘Same team again’
Today, Lee Eckles is deputy director of the county Public Safety and Emergency Management Department. But 20 years ago, he was the Emergency Medical Service director, standing in the dispatch center at the old fire station on Siebald Street on Tuesday, Sept. 11, when he heard a TV news report that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. At first, everyone assumed it was a small plane, he recalls.
“It was just hard to believe,” Eckles said. “One plane could certainly be an accident, but then as the morning progressed, it became obvious that this was something that nobody in my generation had ever seen or experienced.”
The initial disbelief soon gave way to unity among Americans, who previously in 2001 had been sharply divided along political lines, he remembers.
“After 9/11, there were American flags everywhere and we were all on the same team again,” Eckles said.
In addition to the 343 firefighters, more than 70 law enforcement officers who responded were among the almost 3,000 people who died as an immediate result of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Chief Laura McCullough, who has been in charge of the Georgia Southern University Police Department since 2015, joined it in 2005. But on Sept. 11, 2001, she was in her first year as a patrol officer with the Georgia College and State University police in Milledgeville.
On foot patrol, she noticed people gathered inside a continuing education building watching a big-screen television at a time when the area was usually vacant.
“While standing there, watching, is when the second plane hit the tower, so yes, I remember that very vividly,” McCullough said.
Not only the actions of first-responders that day, but also the service of public safety personnel who worked in the rescue and recovery efforts long afterward, continue to impress her as examples of the best in public service.
“Anybody that would run into a burning building in self-sacrifice I think shows that human spirit to care for our fellow citizens, people we know and people we don’t know, to try to do what we can, and then the people there day-in and day-out, sifting through all of that rubble and trying to find that one person still alive,” McCullough said.
Current Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead was then a patrol sergeant with the department in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. He also remembers how he heard the news.
After last year’s observance was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, local public safety officials wanted to restore the tradition this year for the Patriot Day 20th anniversary. He said the observance may be somber and fairly short.
“We all said we wouldn’t forget, and as time passes, we do forget, or we do put it in the back of our minds, and some of that’s natural, I think you can’t live in the moment of a disaster all of the time,” Broadhead said. “But at the same time, we really do owe it to those folks that died, innocent victims as well as the public safety people who ran into those buildings, that we shouldn’t forget them.”