Twenty years after American soil was attacked by foreign terrorists, the events of 9/11 still have the power to draw together West Virginians in a bond of unity.
The City of Beckley is one of many cities in the state that typically hosts 9/11 memorials each year to remember the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and to come together as Americans. This year, because of the spread of Covid, the commemoration was canceled.
In years past, hundreds gathered in Jim Word Memorial Park to observe a service organized by At-Large Beckley Common Councilwoman Sherrie Hunter. At the center of the day is a piece of twisted steel that Ward IV Beckley Common Councilman Kevin Price, city treasurer Billie Trump and firefighter Brian Trump brought from Brooklyn, N.Y. The steel is a remnant of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The World Trade Center was seriously damaged when terrorists flew two passenger planes into the North and South towers, destroying the towers and killing 2,753 victims on Sept. 11, 2001.
Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold was a frequent visitor to the World Trade Center in the 1980s.
“I had been up there a lot and was fascinated by the size of the buildings,” he said. “Each floor was an acre of real estate in downtown Manhattan and to see those collapse like they did.
"To see the loss of life was the saddest thing I have ever experienced but also the sheer magnitude of property loss – it’s hard to imagine," Rappold said Friday.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Americans are again fighting a common enemy: a global pandemic that is killing the most vulnerable, regardless of politics, social class or race.
In memory of 9/11, area residents shared their memories of the day that changed lives around the globe.
Mount Hope Fire Chief Shane Wheeler
Mount Hope Fire Chief Shane Wheeler was part of an eight-member crew from Jan-Care Ambulance Service in Beckley that traveled to New York on Sept. 11 to assist other first responders as they sifted through the debris at the World Trade Center.
Before making that trek, Wheeler said the day started like only other day. He was at a barber shop when the news initially broke and immediately headed into the Beckley Jan-Care office, where he watched the news in New York unfold.
At that time, Wheeler also placed a call to a colleague he knew who ran Catholic Health Services in New York.
“I reached out to him and asked if everything was OK and did they need anything,” Wheeler said. “At this point the towers had not collapsed so my friend said he thought they were in pretty good shape and he’d get back to me.”
Not long after he hung up the phone, both of the towers collapsed. Wheeler said he wasn’t able to get hold of his New York friend right away so he and seven others with Jan-Care self-dispatched and headed to New York.
That team included Mike Harper, Randy Hardy, Matt Hilliard, Ivan George, Clint Tichnell, Chris Eades and Danny Wheby.
Wheeler said they arrived late in the day and after meeting up with emergency crews from New Jersey, they took a ferry across the Hudson to ground zero. At that point, Wheeler said he heard from his New York colleague, who was happy to have their help.
Wheeler said the first thing he remembers seeing, as he was walking out to ground zero, was a fire truck that had completely flipped over.
“There was an incredible amount of dust in the air,” he said. “I remember when we got there, we could not find a command post. We walked the entire perimeter of ground zero and we could not find anyone who was in charge. We did not discover until later on that most of the leadership with the city’s emergency services were killed or missing at that point and presumed dead.”
Despite the large leadership void, Wheeler said they were able to organize themselves into order to start sifting through the debris in the hopes of finding survivors.
“We started working these piles of debris – working long bucket lines and filling five-gallon buckets with debris, trying to sift through the rubble,” he said. “It was unbelievable and it’s hard to explain the experience. The smell of jet fuel and concrete was very overwhelming. What we found there was really unspeakable.”
Wheeler said his Jan-Care crew spent three days sifting through the rubble before heading back to Beckley.
“We knew after about 24 hours that there was nothing to save,” he said. “After we realized it was more of a recovery mission, we were recalled back in case we were needed here.”
Wheeler said he will never forget the smells, the sights or the sounds that he experienced over those three laborious days.
“But what I remember most was the way we came together as a nation,” he said. “There were no Republicans, no Democrats, there were no race concerns or sexual orientation concerns – we were all Americans for those few days and the weeks that followed and that is what I remember most and that help provides a blanket of warmth on the images and the things that we saw and experienced on Sept. 11 and working those massive debris fields and piles.”
Wheeler said he is disappointed and concerned that the feeling of togetherness the country experienced after 9/11 is a distant memory 20 years later.
“We’re just divided right now and I think we’re vulnerable again and that scares me,” Wheeler said.
Beckley Fire Department Capt. Ed Thompson
Capt. Ed Thompson, a 26-year veteran with the Beckley Fire Department, said it's strange to think that most of the firefighters who work for the department today were not around when 9/11 happened.
“There’s probably less than 10 of us that were here when it happened,” he said.
Thompson said he was off duty that day. His mother called to tell him that he should turn on the news because a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
“I think I turned on the news right about the time the second plane hit and there was no question at that point that it was terrorism,” he said. “But it was tough because I knew what the initial response would be on a normal call there and for a call of that nature. I knew it was going to be devastating as far as firefighter deaths, and I knew it would be high.”
Thompson said his thoughts were confirmed while watching the evening news that night, which showed videos of crews walking through ground zero.
“I could hear the PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices,” he said. “These devices are built into our breathing apparatuses and if you remain motionless for a minute, it activates a loud alarm.”
Thompson said he could hear the chirps from the PASS devices clear as day in the videos and knew that meant a firefighter was down and likely deceased.
Close to 3,000 people died as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center including 343 firefighters.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You think back on it and you think about the lives lost and most of those (firefighters) knew what they were going into when they went and that says a lot about the firefighter mentality. They knew what the risks were and continued to go in anyways.”
At a local level, Thompson said he remembers the uncertainly that he and others felt not knowing if something was going to happen close to home as well.
Following the 9/11 attacks, letters laced with anthrax started to appear in the U.S. Thompson said they responded to at least 20 suspected anthrax calls in the weeks that followed.
“There was so much general uneasiness and uncertainly at the time and it bled into us because no one really knew what was going to happen,” he said.
As the father of a now 19-year-old daughter, born after the attack, Thompson said he finds it hard to relay what it was like living through 9/11.
For kids like his daughter, Thompson said he feels like they understand the importance of that day but they will never fully be able to grasp the emotions that are wrapped up in it.
Beckley Fire Department Firefighter of the Year 2021 Chris Graham
Beckley Fire Department Firefighter Chris Graham had not yet joined BFD when he showed up at Beckley Municipal Court on Sept. 11, 2001. He was a "hopeful" for BFD, on the list to get hired. His job on that Tuesday morning, however, was to sit beside the city judge and take notes on the cases.
The door opened to court, and a secretary came in with an unexpected report, Graham remembered.
"They think we're under attack," Graham recalled the woman telling the judge.
"We asked her what she meant, and she said, 'It's all over the news. The plane flew into the World Trade Center.'"
Graham said by the time the case had finished and he and the judge had walked to the television, the second plane had hit the tower.
"There were two other planes missing, too," he recalled.
Later, the world would learn that one of the planes had hit the Pentagon and the passengers of the second flight had caused the plane, which was piloted by terrorists, to crash in a Pennsylvania field.
"It was kind of surreal, because you don't really expect that to happen here," he said.
Named "Firefighter of the Year" two times, to date, in his BFD career, Graham said that the unity in the country after 9/11 could inspire Americans again on Sept. 11, 2021, as they argue about vaccines and face coverings.
"Everyone realized how fragile our way of life was and is," he said. "They wanted to hold onto it, cherish it, and help each other up.
"A lot of times, people want to forget things.
"It seems like the last three or five years, things have been so divided. It would be nice to see the country unite, bond together, again."
Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold
Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold, who was working for an insurance agency in Charleston at the time, said the day started off well with clear weather.
When news broke that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Rappold said it was hard to fully grasp, especially when a different plane flew into the South Tower and in less than two hours both towers would eventually collapse.
Although it had been more than a decade, Rappold said he made frequent trips to the South Tower of the World Trader Center in the 1980s because the construction company he worked for at the time had offices between floors 54 and 72.
“I had been up there a lot and was fascinated by the size of the buildings,” he said. “Each floor was an acre of real estate in downtown Manhattan and to see those collapse like they did. To see the loss of life was the saddest thing I have ever experienced but also the sheer magnitude of property loss – it’s hard to imagine.”
Having watched that tragedy unfold more than 500 miles away on TV, and knowing the impact it had on the entire country, Rappold said he feels the city is fortunate to have a piece of that history in its downtown.
A piece of steel from the World Trade Center was driven from New York to Beckley in 2011 by Councilman Kevin Price, City Treasurer Billie Trump and Beckley Fire Department firefighter Bryan Trump, to be turned into a monument at Jim Word Memorial Park.
“In one word I think it’s magnificent,” he said. “It allows Beckley to honor a tragic event surrounded by brave people and wonderful citizens. And to the families that were affected, to have that physical, very definite monument as a reminder for posterity is magnificent. And I think it sets Beckley apart.”
Woodrow Wilson High School teacher Michelle Clarkson
Spanish teacher Michelle Clarkson was a student teacher on 9/11, she recalled. She split her time between the former Shady Spring Middle School building at Beaver and Independence High School.
"I was at the desk," she recalled of the moment she first heard of the attack on American soil. "The teacher that I was teaching with..comes back to me and she says, 'A plane has hit one of the twin towers in New York City.'"
Clarkson said that, not long before 9/11, she had seen media reports that another plane had hit an apartment building in the city.
"I was like, 'Gosh, those people can't fly up there' (in New York)," she recalled. "That was my thought.
"Of course, you're not going to think this was a terrorist attack."
Clarkson drove to Independence High and began to hear radio reports. At the high school, she and other teachers watched coverage in the teachers' lounge.
"They allowed the kids to watch the coverage throughout the day, and it was very frustrating, because nobody knew what was going on," she recalled. "The high school kids kind of took their cues from the teachers.
"They were saying how dumbstruck they were, but I just don't know if they ever grasped even the reality and the severity of it."
Clarkson skipped a class in South Charleston that evening because she did not want to drive past the Dow Chemical Plant near Charleston.
"Growing up, we were always told that was one of the area's hot spots," she explained. "I just remember the disbelief."
She said she now teaches children who were not alive on 9/11.
"I've taught now for 20 years, and there are no kids in school anymore that were even born then," Clarkson, 47, noted. "That has been the most amazing thing.
"All they know of 9/11 is the history book and the stories their families tell, because none of them were alive, and, sometimes, we forget that.
"For today's generation, sometimes, Hollywood is too good," she added. "When you see the film and the footage of things of 9/11, it's almost like it's 'too Hollywood.'
"Sometimes, there's a disconnect, especially with the students now.
"Same thing for us, growing up. We only saw footage of Vietnam."
Public servant Frank Williams
Frank Williams, of Beckley, who represented Ward 3 on Beckley Common Council, said he was going from business to business, selling insurance, on 9/11. He happened to be at a residence when he saw television coverage of a plane hitting a tower of the World Trade Center.
"Watching the planes run into the towers was totally surprising," he recalled. "I really got kind of bent out of shape about it, because of the magnitude.
"I thought a plane just accidentally ran into it."
When the second plane flew into the WTC, Williams said, he realized the country was under attack. Later, media reported of the attack on the Pentagon and the passengers crashing a fourth hijacked plane in Pennsylvania.
Williams said a lesson of 9/11 is to be careful.
"As a country, I just think that you've got to be careful," he said. "Anything is possible.
"People are people, regardless of what nationality you are.
"There's some people out there that's just evil, and you know, you've just got to be careful.
"I'm not saying not to trust anybody, because you have to trust people you work with, you have to trust people you're around.
"Some people are just meant to do harm, and, in that case there, they was well-trained, and they had a goal.
"They knew exactly what their intentions was. It just shows you how people can be influenced by other people, to the fact they would give their life for what they believe."
Danielle Stewart, U.S. Army veteran
Danielle Stewart, of Beckley, was in Hamburg, Germany, on 9/11. Because of the time difference, it was afternoon when the planes truck the towers.
A first lieutenant and company executive officer for Bravo Company 54th Engineer Battalion of the U.S. Army, she and her company commander had left the base that Tuesday morning to speak with someone at another unit.
"Somebody called me and said to turn on the news," she recalled Friday. "So I turned to the news, and we listened to it as we were going to the next base, and it was like, this is not a hoax.
"This is real. So there's a lot of shock."
At the base, Stewart saw news reports and video footage of the chaos on American soil.
"Remember, they didn't really know what had happened," said Stewart. "They thought bombs had went off at the Pentagon.
"Very chaotic, but we knew, at that point, something crazy was happening, so we headed to our own base.
"We got on back roads and got back. It still us three and a half hours to get in the gate.
"The company commander and executive officer can't get up to their own unit.
"So that's where I was for 9/11."
Stewart and her daughters watched television coverage later that evening.
"We knew at that point that something would come down the line, eventually," Stewart said. "We were a mechanized unit. We knew we probably weren't going to Afghanistan any time soon.
"It takes a lot to move tanks and armored vehicles to places like that.
"It put a whole lot of urgency on our training. Pretty much, across the boards, all the units were the same way. We knew things were coming."
Stewart served in both Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. She said she does not watch the news footage captured on 9/11.
"I'd get all angry, any time I would catch a glimpse of the building on fire," she said. "I get this anger inside of me.
"I feel for the family who lost family members in that and the first responders. I think a lot of people, especially in the military, are the same way.
"It was such a huge, life-changing event. It affected everybody, throughout the world, when you really look at it."