Chiefs recall the 9/11 attacks

Published 10:57 pm Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States and the world changed forever.

A series of suicide attacks by the fundamentalist Sunni group al-Qaeda stunned the world with hijacked airliner attacks on both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a failed attack that crashed in rural Pennsylvania, believed to have targeted the White House.

The twin towers collapsed from the attacks, with airliners crashing into each of the buildings. One wing of the Pentagon was damaged and repaired within a year. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks, but as a whole, the nation was affected.

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Demopolis Fire and Rescue Department chief Ronnie Few remembers the day well, having responded to the Pentagon crash as the chief of a department in Washington, D.C.

“I was in the office preparing for the day,” he said. “One of my assistant chiefs came in and told me to turn the TV on. After the second plane hit, I knew it couldn’t be just a coincidence; that it was purposely done.

“We talked about what could be happening, and all of a sudden, a plane went into the Pentagon. At that point, I said, ‘We need to get ready to send people over to the Pentagon.’ Before that, we got a call from the deputy mayor’s office saying there was another plane out there, and it could be headed for Washington, D.C., and then, I started calling our upper-level people back in. I was getting calls about the Pentagon, and they were saying that we should already be on our way.”

Few said they began planning for long-range and short-range tactics that the departments would use. They began listing the buildings that could be the target for that final rogue plane.

“We listed the Capitol, the White House and one more that we listed,” he said. “We put strike teams together; we had five engines cover those locations. We opened up the Civic Center and called the EMA (Emergency Management Agency), which got food and carts.

“I knew that day was something to remember because there was so much to do in that short period of time. I could hear the F-15s going overhead. The streets were so crowded, and the telephones were down. The only thing we had was our radios.

“That was one day that I thought my department was at its very best,” he said. “They did a fantastic job of containing that fire, very heroic firefighters. There were so many people piling out of the buildings, and gridlocked, so many people trying to get home and be with loved ones.

“In the fire service, those things become secondary. Your job is to take care of the emergency, and I thought we did really well.”

Demopolis police chief Tommie Reese also remembers where he was when he learned of the 9/11 attacks.

“When the first plane hit the tower, I was at home getting dressed for work (at the Marengo County Sheriff’s Department),” Reese said. “It wasn’t long after I arrived that the second plane hit the tower. We actually watched it hit the tower.

“We were in shock. We were wondering how this could happen in America. We’re supposed to have the best military might there is.”

Security has taken on a new meaning since that date, and things that seemed meaningless or unimportant before then are now issues of security and safety today.

“It has made us more vigilant,” Reese said. “You don’t take things for granted any more. If you see a bag that is unattended, you don’t pass it off as ‘just’ a bag unattended. When you see people taking pictures of certain spots for no known reason, you want to check them out and see why they are doing this.

“After that happened, we started watching the lock and dam and other sites in our county, the roads and bridges and stuff.

“I think the average person doesn’t realize what goes into security to protect a city, a state or a nation,” he said. “They may think that it’s kind of overbearing, but honestly, it’s for their own good. It’s like seat belts. They save lives, but a lot of people think we’re trying to govern how they operate themselves, but seat belts save lives.”