Eastern Kentucky's 9-11 Memories

Sep 8, 2011

It was a sunny and warm morning in Jackson on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. On the day the world stopped turning, Paula Miller was at work in her office. Her husband Mike was on a business trip in Somerset. And their son Michael was doing his residency at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “I was at the insurance agency, and I had the TV on, listening to the sound as I went over some paperwork,” Miller recalled on Tuesday. “As I was working, I heard the news come on that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. That got my attention pretty quick."

Across the Potomac River from Washington in Arlington County, Va. is the home of the nation's military – the Pentagon. A few minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Center's South Tower, what Miller heard next shook her hard – really hard. “Then, someone broke in on TV and mentioned that the Pentagon was hit by a crashed airliner. That really got my attention. I was terrified about my son.”

Jackson's Fire Chief, Roger Friley was in Hazard, attending a meeting with the regional coordinator of the State Fire Commissioner's Office. He was meeting with Chuck Colwell, who was the coordinator for Region 12, which includes Jackson.

Sometime before 9 a.m., both Friley and Colwell got a phone call. “The person on the line said we needed to turn the television or radio on,” said Friley during an interview Tuesday at the JFD's headquarters off Route 15 North. “He mentioned that an airplane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“We turned the radio on and was listening to it, when a report said another plane, a United Airlines plane, had slammed into the South Tower,” Friley remembered. “We just kept listening, and they said moments later that an American Airlines plane crashed into the Pentagon. Then another report said another airliner crashed in Pennsylvania. But before that happened, we got a call that put us on edge.”

LaWanda Watts was at her job inside the cafeteria of Sebastian Middle School. The cafeteria crew had finished serving breakfast and were getting ready to prepare the lunch menu for that Tuesday when someone turned on the TV and witnessed the terror playing out on New York's Lower Manhattan Island.

“We saw it on the news that morning. We saw smoke and fire coming out of the North Tower, where the first plane hit,” said Watts, who now works for the Breathitt County Circuit Court Clerk's Office. “The second plane hit the other tower. I could not believe all this was happening right before our eyes, and on American soil.”

“I was on the air that morning, and Kevin was here, too,” said Doug Neace of WJSN Radio. “Normally we do a mix of local programming and country music from our satellite service in the mornings. Then we got word of something 'completely fishy' going on.”

“At first, we heard on CNN that a plane had crashed into one of the towers, and that it was an accident,” said WJSN's Kevin Davidson. “Then CNN confirmed after the second plane hit the other tower that it was not an accident. It was a terrorist attack.”

“It was terrible, and we didn't know what would happen next. The phones here were ringing off the hook at first,” Neace recalled. “After the second plane hit, Kevin and I decided to stop running music and go with continuous news from CNN. After we did that, the phones began to calm down here.”

Rose Wolfe was in town that morning at attorney Mike Stidham's office, going over some legal paperwork for her husband Art. Art was at home, babysitting for their daughter Sarah's son, Brandon. “The TV was on in the conference room at Mike's office, when we heard the report on the first plane crashing into the North Tower. We then saw the second plane hit the South Tower. I told Mike, 'I gotta get home.' And then the phone rang. It was Art. He told me. 'We're at war.'”

“I was walking across campus at Lees (the Lees College Campus of Hazard Community and Technical College), and went into my office. I got a phone call, and at the same time, I looked up at the TV and saw an image of fire coming out of one of the trade center towers,” said Cluster Howard, who works in the college's administration. “Then I saw the second plane hit, and it this point I knew something wasn't right. The word to describe my thoughts then was 'confused'. It never occurred to me that such a terrible attack could happen on American soil.”

Up at Vancleve, Barbara Deaton was teaching an early-morning class at Kentucky Mountain Bible College. “The class ended just before the attacks happened. Our students learned about it during chapel, and I found out afterward. I was shocked. It's like it was unreal. I thought, 'This can't be happening to us, right here in our own country.' Then I thought who could be behind this, and why.”

The emotions running high that day were ones of surprise. Of shock and anger. Of dismay, confusion, and helplessness. And what would happen next.

Like many Americans who witnessed that morning of horror, Breathitt Countians were stunned, as they watched the images playing out over the TV screens, or heard the on-the-scene reports on their radios while driving or working.

For two of them, the events were hitting very close to their heart. “I think that in my mind, I could have walked in an hour to D. C. and get my son,” Miller recalled. “Cell phones weren't as popular as they were now, so getting in touch with Michael was hard. But some six-to-eight hours later, a friend of a friend of a friend called me and said Michael was OK. All the patients in the hospitals in the Washington area who could be moved were moved, to make room for the Pentagon victims, and all medical personnel were on call. Mike (then Jackson's Mayor) called me from Somerset and repeated to me that everything would be okay with Michael. When we finally got through to Michael that evening, we just cried.”

Meanwhile, Friley began to keep an eye to the sky. “We got a call, saying they thought a plane hijacked from Washington was flying over Kentucky and was headed back to Washington to crash into the U. S. Capitol. It turned out to be the plane that crashed in Western Pennsylvania. It was United Flight 93. It was pure chaos, buddy. Unbelievable.” Friley then paused a few seconds before he finished. “There was about 30 or 40 of us sitting there, listening and wondering what would happen next. It was beyond belief.”

“It never occurred to me that it was an attack on American soil. It was such a surprise,” added Howard. “It took me back to when I was a third grader at the old Quicksand School, and the teacher came in to tell us that President John F. Kennedy had died from an assassin's hands in Dallas.”

“I thought, 'Dear Lord', we're at war on our own soil. And then I thought of all those young kids that would have to go overseas and fight this threat,” noted Wolfe, who today is the Mayor of Jackson. “Later I recalled that to those of us of our generation there are two events that stand out in our lifetime. One was the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and that September day in 2001.”

Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. And for the ones who remembered where they were a decade ago, and who told this story in their own words, the time since 2011 have given some a sense of caution and loss of innocence. For others, it marked a finer appreciation for their loved ones and for those who fought the fight to protect this country.

“It made me appreciate our servicemen and women, and the people who protect us It gives you a whole new level of respect for the police, firefighters and EMT's (Emergency Medical Technicians),” said Paula Miller. “And now you really appreciate your children and your loved ones even more.”

“It couldn't believe it happened. It caused me to be more cautious of people,” added LaWanda Watts. “It was a terrible day. And as a result, I appreciate the ones I love even more now, because today could be our last time we see them.”

Long after Doug Neace left work that day, WJSN continued to air the breaking story. “It make you appreciate informing people, and being informed. It also makes you appreciate the people who are out there protecting us.”

Ten years later, WJSN's Kevin Davidson still can't get over how it happened so fast. “It was shocking and unbelievable. I never thought it would happen in America. I haven't flown then, and I still haven't now. And it happened on a sunny September day. You never thought it would happen.”

Roger Friley showed off a t-shirt made for the Mountain Firefighters Association, which the JFD is a long-time member of. On the back of the shirt is the number “343” - the number of firefighters who died at Ground Zero that afternoon. “If that could happen so many times in one day, it could happen anywhere. If we think we're not vulnerable in Eastern Kentucky, we are. We're better prepared now than we were then. We have mutual aid agreements all over Kentucky to enhance assistance, just in case. Here in Breathitt County, we have 25, 26 certified technician-level Hazmat Specialists to help out in case of an attack. Still, it makes you think about life more. We could go out today on a fire or rescue, and not come back. It could be one of us. You feel for the families, and those who put their lives on the line every day. We'll continue to do it. As a nation, we should never forget those who died. And those who responded.”

“I'm less trusting of people in general now, especially on an airplane or in a crowd,” said Cluster Howard. “And the lack of trust is hard to explain. We need to be less stereotypical of other people. We used to not be that way. But one positive thing that came out of this is the appreciation of what our first responders do to keep us safe. I personally don't mind the extra security at an airport.”

Barbara Deaton commented, “I look at America from a different standpoint now. I used to think we were so safe from an outside terrorist attack. And I look at the war on terrorism, and see all our soldiers, making our nation a safer place to be.”

“I worry that people would forget 9/11. I don't have that luxury because I still send packages to our local troops overseas,” noted Rose Wolfe. “After 9/11, patriotism was everywhere. You could go down a neighborhood and see American flags flying from the porches. Now you don't see a flag as often. I don't want anyone to forget those who died. Those who fight and those who responded. Those who do it every day. People don't think about it until they need them.”

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 burned a hole in the soul of America. For those who perished that day, for those who responded to help, and for all of us who endured that national tragedy, it must never, ever, be forgotten.