Even though the tragic events of 9/11 were 20 years ago, the memory of that day remains fresh in the minds of many Greene County residents.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a group of terrorists affiliated with the Islamist extremist group al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden, hijacked four airplanes. They flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A group of passengers fought the hijackers on the fourth plane, and it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 people died.
Many still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned the United States had been attacked that Tuesday morning.
“I was in a church in Morristown installing a sound system. There was about 10 of us there working on it,” John Brown said. “One of the church ladies came in and told us what was going on, and she and the other church ladies immediately started praying and calling people and starting a prayer chain. I assumed it was an accident at first, but then as the day went on you got a clearer idea of what was actually happening. We went to get supplies at a hardware store and saw the second plane hit live on the store’s TV.”
For Amy Saxonmeyer the morning started out just as any other morning would have until she received a call from a friend.
“I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was laying in bed having coffee, and then a friend called me and told me to turn on the TV,” Saxonmeyer said. “That was just seconds after the first plane had hit, and within minutes the second plane hit. I was working second shift then, so I was glued to the TV for the rest of the morning.”
Mary Goldman was already at work that morning when she heard news of the events unfolding in New York.
“At the time I was a chef for a group of doctors in Minneapolis in a hospital. I found out while I was cooking that morning, when someone came in and told us in the kitchen. Then we got a radio in the kitchen and listened to the news for the rest of the morning,” Goldman said. “I was in disbelief. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Ella Price believes it would be difficult for anyone to forget the events of that day.
“Who doesn’t remember?” Price said, “I was getting ready to leave for work, and had the TV on while I was getting ready. When it happened I initially thought it was an accident, before the second plane hit. My husband and I sat for 15 minutes in complete shock in front of the TV.”
Price then went and got her three children from school.
“In hindsight it may seem paranoid, but we were worried that the entire nation was under attack. We lived the whole day in the TV room glued to the TV and talking on the phone,” Price said.
Lena McNeese was teaching in the Greene County Schools that morning when another teacher came into her room and told her what had happened.
“I thought it was a mistake,” McNeese said. “Once I realized what was going on it was really scary because my husband Jeff was on a plane that day. I knew where he was going, but I didn’t know his flight number or anything like that.”
Teaching her students helped McNeese through that day while she waited anxiously to hear from her husband.
“I didn’t hear from him until two or three o’clock in the afternoon, but I kept business as usual. Teachers teach, and that helped me try to keep my mind off of it during the day,” McNeese said.
Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels was the chair of the Greeneville Planning Commission at the time, and was in the midst of a meeting when the news broke.
“Jim Snyder, who was our building official at the time, came in and said one of the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane. I thought this cannot be happening,” Daniels said. “There was a lady there at the meeting who was pretty well shaken, and left because she had a relative who lived in New York City and worked downtown.”
Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison, who was a pharmaceuticals sales representative, was making his normal deliveries that morning.
“I was in the MOB at the Laughlin Campus, and I saw it on the TV news station in that office. I saw the black smoke rising out of the building against that blue sky. At first nobody knew it was a deliberate act. I was wondering why a plane would be flying that low. As I was standing there watching in the office, the second plane hit the second tower live. That’s when people began to figure out that this was intentional,” Morrison said. “My manager in Nashville called and said the company had suspended operations for the day and to go home.”
Some people were students in school that day, like Kiefer Helle, and too young to recall the dramatic events in great detail.
“I was in the fifth grade. I briefly recall the news being shown at school and hearing about the incident that had occurred, and then going home later that evening and talking about it with my parents,” Helle said. “It was hard to understand at that age what had occurred.”
Alex Seals was a freshman in high school in 2001.
“I was at my locker, and a girl told me that the towers had been hit by airplanes. I went into science class right after that and the teacher had it playing on the TV during our science test,” Seals said, “Then the first tower fell and the teacher turned the TV off. They didn’t want freshmen to watch it.”
‘HOW COULD SOMEBODY DO THIS?’
A common thread through many people’s memories is a feeling of disbelief and vulnerability.
“It was surreal to see it play out in front of your eyes,” Morrison said, “There was a weird sense of shock and stun all at once. There was a disbelief and indignant anger. How could somebody do this?”
For Saxonmeyer, it had been nearly four decades since she had witnessed something so shocking.
“I questioned a lot of things, like leadership and how such a thing could have happened. It concerned me because we all assumed we were safe and nothing could ever happen on our shores,” Saxonmeyer said. “It was the most horrific and stunning thing I have seen or experienced since the JFK assassination.”
Price worried if another attack could strike the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, less than 100 miles from Greeneville.
“I was left feeling vulnerable in the direct aftermath. We were afraid and unsure,” Price said. “Was Oak Ridge going to be bombed? Anything could happen if that could happen.”
“Americans assumed we were invincible, but we weren’t,” McNeese said.
“It just didn’t feel real,” Helle said.
‘IT WAS A NEW AGE’
Too many, the event signified a shift in how the world worked.
“It brought on a different era. People became more aware of their surroundings. It brought on insecurity for some people. Communities and organizations became more aware of providing security and protection for the nation,” Daniels said.
“It was a defining moment for the world. There is a definite demarkation between how the world was on Sept. 10, Sept. 11 and Sept. 12,” Morrison said.
Goldman flew in an airplane three weeks after the attacks, which was a time many in the country were afraid to fly due to safety concerns.
“I was flying to Seattle and hardly anybody was flying because everyone was scared. There was maybe 11 people on the huge jet I was on, and the flight attendants thanked every one of us for flying,” Goldman said. “Security got so much more intense in airports. We all had to adjust our lifestyles. That was a moment of change. It was a new age.”
“I began to get more interested in politics and keeping closer tabs on what was going on around me. I had a heightened sense of awareness,” Saxonmeyer said. “This was our reality now.”
McNeese felt that the attack made her much more aware of what was going on around the globe.
“I realized how little we knew about the rest of the world, and that it matters what is going on in other places,” McNeese said. “We need to value other cultures and other individuals instead of thinking we don’t care about the rest of the world, because what happens around the world affects us.”
“When I was talking about it with my parents that evening, they said that the world wouldn’t be the same. It seems sort of similar to what we are going through now with COVID-19,” Helle said.
The fact that American airspace was cleared in the aftermath of the attack left a lasting, surreal impression on some.
“They cleared the airspace for days, and there were few if any clouds. It was so clear. That was just so unusual,” Brown said.
McNeese’s husband’s plane was one of the thousands grounded that day, and he had to find a way home.
“Jeff had to rent a car and drive home because there were no planes flying anywhere for the next couple days. That wasn’t easy because everyone at all those airports was trying to rent a car for the same reason,” McNeese said.
“My family has always thought that it was so extraordinary that we could say that there was a time in our lives that there were no airplanes in the sky,” Morrison said. “That even in the modern age of technology, there was a period of time where you could look up and there were no airplanes in the sky.”
‘THERE WAS A COMING TOGETHER’
While many remember the horrors of the day, they also remember the unity and patriotism that united the nation in the weeks, months, and even years following the tragedy.
“There was a coming together of people. I felt the community come together. Everyone had flags waving and flag stickers on their cars. It was a way of coming together as Americans,” Saxonmeyer said.
“The unity after that event struck me as very poignant and strong. People were standing in line to give blood, and religious services were held across the country. There was a stronger awareness of manners and the disposition of your neighbor,” Morrison said. “I reached out to former military colleagues as I was only three or four years removed from the service. The likelihood that I could be recalled to active duty was something that was very real. My family and I were preparing for that.”
Although prepared, Morrison was not recalled to active service.
“It brought on a lot of patriotism, and unfortunately that seemed to be short lived,” Daniels said. “Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring people together and thank the good Lord for providing all that we have. It is often that way with war, too. It is sort of like wishing everyone had the same attitude year round as they did at Christmas. It brings on that good feeling.”
Even Helle, who was quite young at the time, recalls a feeling of unity.
“I remember a sense of community after that happening. We showed support to each other. The flag had more weight behind it,” Helle said. “I found a greater sense of the American spirit. The true American experience is togetherness and supporting one another. That sort of clicked for me then.”
“After we all took a big collective breath, the country seemed to unite, and it was a remarkable moment in history. For a brief time we actually knew what it meant to be an American. It was something beautiful after something horrendous,” Price said.
Price longs for that unity now.
“That feeling went on for a couple years. That means more now because we seem so far apart. It is such a contrast to 20 years ago,” Price said. “No one cared who they voted for that day. They supported their government, and President Bush.”
That sentiment was echoed by Goldman, who also thought that politics seemed to take a back seat in the aftermath of the crisis.
“We supported the president because it was a crisis, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with his politics. You may not have voted for him, but you stood by him in a time of crisis,” Goldman said. “We don’t seem to have that same feeling now, and it saddens me that we can’t pull together like we used to.”
Both Daniels and Morrison hope that the memory of the event does not fade with time.
“My father’s generation always remembered where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot, and now 9/11 is that for my generation and others,” Morrison said. “Now here we are at the 20th anniversary, and we have almost passed a generation since 9/11 that wasn’t even born. Time marches on, I suppose, but it was an important moment that I hope we continue to remember.”
“It was devastating, and we still feel the effects today. It had an effect on the entire country and we all felt pain,” Daniels said. “Unfortunately, people sometimes forget these kinds of situations, what happened and the lives lost. People have short memories when all of the sudden things get better. We have a tendency to forget, even though we shouldn’t. It should never be forgotten.”