At first, it didn’t seem real.
A terrible accident? Right?
Americans began turning on their televisions and radios to hear more about the “accident.” And then, as we strained to see the flickering image or capture a word came the explosive answer.
This was no accident…this was terrorism on a grand scale never seen before in the history of modern man.
On that brilliant September morning 10 years ago, the safe and secure world most Americans believed they lived in collapsed, as sudden and as earth shaking as the Twin Towers.
America changed that day. Those moments immediately before and after make up our nation’s collective conscience and changed our ideas about our future security with a resonance that strikes a chord here in today’s Ashe County.
Here are the memories of several local people about that fateful day.
In 2001, he was a newly retired former NYC firefighter who had just moved to Ashe County
He lost 54 brothers on 9/11
Kirrstetter wasted no time heading north after learning about what had happened at the World Trade Center.
“Basically, we drove up from Ashe County the day after, and I volunteered two months up at Ground Zero.”
And, as one might imagine, even for a grizzled veteran of fighting fires, it was hard to comprehend. “We dug in on the pile, and came up with just everything imaginable. Fingers, wallets, rings, photographs. If you could find it on a body…we found it.”
For Kirrstetter, he “dug in” to a task, was difficult.
“I lost 54 of my friends that day. Being there, digging through that mess, was just overpowering. Seeing it all, the smell, the dust; it was terrible.”
Kirstetter had only been retired a short time from Ladder 33 of the Bronx that was one of many city fire departments that lost men that day.
“I was just newly retired. Went to Florida for a short period and didn’t like it and ended up in Ashe County. I’m on the fire department in Lansing; firefighting is in just in my blood and I can’t get rid of it.”
“I’m in the honor guard, they’re doing a wonderful thing, for 9/11 they’re going to have it this year at the civic center. The honor guard is doing a terrific job, one of the powerful things that came out of 9/11. We will always be at the death of an EMS worker, firefighter, police officer. Those people have to be remembered, always.”
Kirstetter was in New York, at a Yankees game, with the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background while being interviewed for this piece.
“The 10th anniversary was something I just had to be here for. We’re taking in a lot of ceremonies, and it’s just powerful stuff.
“To this day, I’ve got a wall, of the three guys I knew the best. They were on my truck; their names will never be forgotten to me. I stay in touch with their families, and they’ll never be forgotten, everybody that died that day needlessly.
“I should say murdered; basically I hope it never happens again. We have to keep our eyes and ears open, and I think Ashe is doing a good job training and everything.”
Ashe County Emergency Management Coordinator
On that crystal clear morning nearly 10 years ago, for Gambill, it was a day like any other.
“I was here at work,” said Gambill who has been with the EMO since 1999.
When the horrible realization of what had happened in New York began to take shape – a vicious terrorist attack – Gambill told then County Manager Dan McMillan, who was meeting with several commissioners at the time, about the news.
“Of course, everyone was shocked,” she said.
Gambill has essentially been on the front lines since that fateful day, moving the county’s operational understanding forward on how to best prepare, and handle, situations that only months before had been unimaginable.
“The events on 9/11 forced us to broaden our thinking on what to be prepared for,” she said.
Like what to do in case of an anthrax outbreak, or what to do in the event the water supply is deliberately contaminated, or if the primary electrical power systems in the county were sabotaged, or even, an act of agroterrorism, which is a term most Americans would not be familiar with and is defined as “the malicious use of plant or animal pathogens to cause devastating disease in the agricultural sector.”
Gambill said training for these types of situations is part of being prepared in the event of another terrorist attack.
She said that after the attack, grant money become available to allow counties and states to prepare for the nightmare scenario.
That has allowed fire stations across the county to get new equipment they may not have otherwise been able to afford. In one case, said Gambill, grants allowed for the purchase of a new fire truck.
Most recently, she said the county, which is part of Disaster Preparedness Region 8 in the state, will house a new mass casualty trailer – equipment you never want used, but need it if you need it.
Are we prepared for another 9/11? “We’re better prepared, better equipped, better trained and have better insights…yes, we are,” said Gambill.
Sheriff James Williams
Served as West Jefferson Police Chief in 2001
“Jim Hartley was sheriff at the time, and I was the chief of the West Jefferson Police Department.
“I remember turning the TV on in my office, and hollaring at the city manager and the girls up front. We all crowded around the screen. We were just in shock at first.
“As the day went by though, I remember getter madder, and madder. I think everybody did.
“In the days after, watching everyone unite…I knew it wouldn’t last. It never does. But it made us all feel stronger; even the politicians were united for a change.
“The grounding of all the flights was strange too; eerie. I guess we just got used to the background noise, and when it wasn’t there, you noticed it.”
For Williams, the final fate of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden was perfect.
“A bullet in Bin Laden’s head and a burial at sea was a fitting ending.”
Ashe County airport manager
“At the time, I was flying a King Air 90 and we had just landed in Danville, Kentucky and walked through the door and the TV was on. The woman at the front said, ‘You won’t believe what just happened.’ She was right. We spent the rest of the day gathered around with strangers.
“We didn’t actually know what was going on at the time, and being a pilot, you realize things can sometimes happen. Accidents are a part of what we do; we assumed it was an accident. And then the second plane comes into the frame.
“FAA grounded us shortly thereafter, and we wound up having to stay there three days, and we ended up driving home. I wound up driving back and getting the airplane on Saturday, some days later.”
Barbara McCoy and Ann Mitchell
They work today at the courthouse
In 2001, I worked at Thomasville, just before it shut down; we were in the office. Everybody pretty much got dead quiet, we fired up the computers, gathered around and started to pray.
Well, I was here in the courthouse. We were getting ready to have a department head meeting. I can remember everybody’s shock. I remember being right here outside the courthouse. It was a very shocking time, very shocking day.
“The department heads weren’t aware of what was going on until they came outside and we filled them in. We had about 30 seconds more information than they had…but it felt like we were filling them in on the whole world.”
Current fire chief of the Todd Volunteer Fire Department
In 2001, he was working the night shift for the Watauga Sheriff’s Department, and as a Todd volunteer.
“I know exactly where I was at, I’d worked that night, for the Watuaga Sheriff’s Department that night.
“My buddies called and woke me up, and I got up and turned it on. It was a really different feel, quiet, most of the locals were staying holed up.
“The deputies were put on high alert, and told to look for anything suspicious, but of course nothing did.
“The strangest thing was the silence; we used to run about 25 calls a night, and we ran none on that night, which was surreal.
“Kept some watches on some of the higher areas that could be attacked. Even the college was quiet that night, but I remember just running ragged because I’d only gotten a couple hours sleep that night.
“And seeing all those firemen die; it was rough for us. Burning building is nothing we shy away from, and it was not good seeing your brothers go down. It was a sickening feeling.”
Wife of Marvin Stump, who was the Ashe County Airport Fixed Base Operator at the time of the attacks
“I know exactly what was going on, but where I was. We were aware of it, and we saw it all on TV, but I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly where I was or what I was doing that morning, which has always seemed odd to me. I’ve thought about it before, but it’s just…I guess it all runs together.
“We were horrified to see it as it happened, and it was all you heard that day, so that day and really the coming days, they all run together for me.
“We were really waiting for other explosions to come, and then they came with the Pentagon and at that field in Pennsylvania. Days like that, you wait for some kind of good news, but nothing came for a long, long time.”
Manages the call center at the Ashe County Sheriff’s Department
In 2001, he was working in the Boone PD, and in his parent’s store, the Amoco in front of Walmart.
“The thing I remember was being stuck in a convenience store without a TV,” Hardy said with a laugh. “I knew what had happened, but I didn’t have a TV, so I was relying on people coming into the store and on my radio to tell me what was going on.
“Literally, no one was around Boone there, and I wound up working til about mid-day. People came in and told us stuff, and I had my radio, but I wound up finding what was going on when I walked into the police department.
“The whole town was dead quiet. I kept thinking, I need to be at the office, what if this goes bad. After about an hour or so, I realized that there was nothing going on around town. Everyone was in front of their TV’s. It was like that for a couple days after; people were just glued 24/7 for what they could get their eyes on.
“I remember that as the first time the news was really on 24/7, and it’s never shut off since.”
Jefferson Post staff writer
In 2001, he was a kid who just wanted to chase girls and play football.
“We’d just gotten done with trig class, and I remember someone sticking their head in the door and telling John Roberts that we needed to turn on the TV. I’m pretty sure we had already missed the second plane hitting the second tower.
“The high school was a mess, complete chaos in the halls when the bell rang. Somehow, I made it up to Polly Jones’ English 2 class on the second floor.
“I didn’t put two and two together that the whole thing wasn’t an accident until Polly connected the dots for me. I remember her telling the entire class that we’d just seen a war start. I’m pretty sure we didn’t write a paper or an outline for a week after that.
“After school, the JV football team huddled up on the soccer field. Some sounded scared, and some of us talked tough, but all of us were scared. I remember head coach Tim Trivette telling us to cut the chatter and show some respect because a lot of people had lost their lives that day.
“No sooner had he said that then a flight of F-16’s flew overhead. We scrimmaged that day under the watchful eye of the U.S. Air Force.”
Judy Porter Poe
Ashe County Board of Commissioners
“It was utter disbelief,” said Judy Porter Poe, the current chairwoman of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, who learned the World Trade Center in New York had been attacked by terrorists while working in her office that fateful morning.
And then there was the horror, the horror that potentially tens of thousands of people had been killed as the towers collapsed.
“The thought that thousands had been killed when the towers fell…it was beyond belief.”
In the years that have passed since that day, Poe believes that the country’s security against foreign threats has improved. However, she believes that there is still a threat that “homegrown” terrorists could again strike.
The attack, she said, has made people more aware of security issues in their day-to-day lives. “We are much more aware of what’s going on around us…it’s made us a little more nosy.”
When asked if she believed the new courthouse would have been built without security features like metal detectors and video surveillance if America hadn’t been attacked 10 years ago, she said, “That equipment is a sign of the times…it was just a matter of time…I foresee it in our schools one day.”
She added that with the people that come through the courthouse to visit departments like social services or to attend court and the violence that precipitated their appearance there, providing enhanced security for the people that work in the courthouse is essential.
Are we safer? “I believe we are,” said Poe, who qualified her assessment with the acknowledgement that homegrown terrorists will continue to be a problem in the U.S.