Everyone over the age of thirty knows where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. For three Hernando County citizens, it was more than just an event that they watched unfold on television. John Lightsey, Don Barbee Jr. and Deborah Gray felt it personally. They each told their unique 9/11 story to a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Winding Waters K-8 School this past Tuesday, the seventeenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. None of these students had even been born in 2001.
History teacher, Michael Cooper arranged the presentation. Students filed into the gymnasium and talked among themselves while waiting for the program to start, but as soon as it got underway their attention was riveted on the speakers. Hernando County Fire Department Battalion Chief Kevin Rittenhouse introduced the first speaker, John Lightsey, a retired firefighter with the department. Lightsey was a 911 dispatcher at a fire company in Manhattan located just one and a half miles from Ground Zero. “We got a call that a plane had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. This was at 8:46. Thirty fire trucks were dispatched, with ten or eleven fire fighters on each truck. About ten or fifteen minutes later, another plane flew into the south tower. We realized we had a real problem going on.”
Lightsey and the other first responders spent five days on rescue efforts and then on the sixth it became a recovery mission. He explained what that experience was like. “The fumes and odors were horrendous. The temperatures were close to 1000 degrees.”
Besides the people that died as a direct result of the terrorist attacks, thousands have developed illnesses like cancer and lung diseases because of exposure to the smoke and toxic fumes and many have succumbed to these illnesses. Lightsey’s life was changed forever by that day. “During this time the only thoughts that went through my head were just to do my job. We had the entire New York City area to protect. A couple of weeks later it hit me. I lost seven close friends.”
Don Barbee Jr., newly elected Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge, had been a Special Agent with the FBI less than two years when he faced the most challenging experience of his life – something he had never been trained for. Stationed in Boston at the time, that Tuesday morning started out just like any other day. Barbee was attending a morning meeting at a large office building and had just been sent to fetch coffee for everyone. “I walked out of the office and all the secretaries were gathered around a small TV. They were watching one of the twin towers burning and they said a plane had crashed into the tower. My first thought was ‘Oh it must have been an accident.’ As I’m standing there the second plane hit and now we know it’s not an accident.”
Five minutes later all the alarms in the building went off and they heard an announcement that everyone must evacuate immediately – except the FBI agents. They gathered in a conference room and everyone was given a job. Barbee’s job was to go to Logan Airport where the two planes that hit the Twin Towers had taken off and close the entrances.
“I grabbed my bullet proof vest and my machine gun, jumped in my car. I was thinking ‘nobody ever taught me how to close an airport.’ I get there and blocked the entrance and stood there with my machine gun. We stopped all the people from coming and going and started getting identifications from everyone.”
After Barbee and the other agents secured the airport his next job was to search inside the planes. They had to search every inch of each plane. This took from around 2:00 pm until about 2:00 a.m. Then the agents were told to go home, get some rest and report back first thing in the morning. “I drove home. It was like I was a robot because of my training, just doing what I was trained to do and what I was told to do. I pulled off the exit to go to my house about 2:30, 3:00 in the morning and there are hundreds of people lining the road holding candles. It was overpowering. When I got home to my wife and daughter, I hugged them as long as I could until I finally stopped crying.”
After a couple of hours sleep, Barbee showered, dressed and reported back to duty. His next job was to interview in person the family members of the people on board the planes that had received calls from their loved ones just prior to the planes crashing. He described it as being an unbelievably difficult and challenging thing to do. Barbee concluded, “It’s a day that changed my entire life. It makes you remember your priorities and how important and fragile life is.” Deborah Gray, a teacher at Winding Waters, talked about her brother, William Riedel who helped in the clean-up of the Twin Towers – something he volunteered to do.
“My brother, Billy, was an electrician who worked in the subway underneath the World Trade Center. That day he left work early and took the ferry to his home in New Jersey. As he was on the Hudson River, the first plane hit. He landed and then took the ferry back to Manhattan. It took six hours before we knew where he was. We couldn’t get any phone calls into New York City. He stayed there for one month and cleaned up the towers.” As a result of this her brother has severe COPD and he’s in danger of contracting lung cancer. He can barely speak from breathing in all that dust.
“He’s an amazing hero as far as I’m concerned. The people who were killed and who sacrificed their lives to save others that day – it’s something we should never forget and all you children need to learn about this,” remarked Ms. Gray addressing the students.
After the presentations the students were given an opportunity to view pictures taken of scenes from September 11 that were displayed on the table. The quiet demeanor of the students as they left the gymnasium showed that they had been moved by the speakers’ stories. Reese Laushot, a seventh grader stated, “Even from the tragedy, it was inspiring to see how everyone came together to deal with it.” Sixth-grader Rylie Csont commented, “One thing I learned is that they are still recovering remains from the attack even to this day. I also didn’t know about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers fought back and how it saved the Capitol Building from being hit.” Hopefully, these young people will never witness first hand another day like their parents and the rest of the older generations did on September 11, 2001.