Today we commemorate a day that all of us over the age of twenty-six remember. On September 11, 2001 the United States suffered a terrorist attack that forever changed us and our country. Ever since those tragic events, everyone knows what we mean when we say “9/11.”
Reflecting on that day nineteen years ago, I see parallels between those events and our reactions to them and the events of the past six months. Searching through the archives of the Hernando Today and The Tampa Tribune depicting the days following the terrorist attack was an interesting look back at history.
On September 12, the Hernando Today was all about local reactions and the impact of this catastrophic event on Hernando County’s citizens. I couldn’t help noticing similarities between 9/11 and the current coronavirus pandemic.
Businesses were shut down temporarily. Even Disney World and other theme parks were closed and Cape Canaveral sent most of its employees home. Major League baseball games were postponed.
Parents were concerned about their children. Some even went to their children’s schools to pick them up because they were afraid of what could happen or they wanted to comfort their children. People donated blood at the local blood banks. County and state officials devised emergency plans. Unlike what has happened here during the pandemic, where until recently, people have not been able to worship in their churches, synagogues and mosques, believers flocked to their houses of worship for solace and to pray for the victims.
There is one big difference, however, between the aftermath of 9/11 and what is going on today. Except for some unfair attacks on local Muslims, our community, the nation and the world drew closer together in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. We were united against a common enemy. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to much internal confrontation and conflict.
Local people rushed to New York City to aid the people there. Firefighters went to help their fellow first-responders.
Pat Brewer, a local funeral director, went to the scene of the carnage to help identify victims. He was experienced in this task, having assisted at several airplane crash sites and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as other disasters. Brewer belonged to a group called DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Team) and did not hesitate to answer the call to travel to New York City. He was there for almost three weeks. During that time, Brewer and his crew stayed in the background, but their work was crucial in helping families find closure.
The DMORT used various methods of identifying the victims. Besides using dental records, they looked at hair and eye color and examined the bodies for tattoos. Jewelry and distinctive articles of clothing also helped. However, one situation led to sometimes misidentifying the victim at first.
“There was one fire station that had just changed shifts. The firemen grabbed whatever equipment was handy and picked up whatever jacket was close by. The name on the jackets sometimes did not match the name of the victim,” Brewer explained.
Being involved in the aftermath of a catastrophic event like 9/11 often has a profound psychological effect on a person. Brewer, after his more than fifty years in the funeral business and his experience with other disasters, took everything in stride.
“There’s nothing much I haven’t seen. You train your mind not to get emotionally involved -before, during or after,” Brewer commented.
One thing did move him deeply, though. While Brewer and his team were in New York, children from a school in Pennsylvania sent “care” packages containing toothpaste, candy bars and other items to everyone on the team, along with a letter thanking them for their efforts.
Steve Wilson, a retired Army Sergeant Major was stationed at the Pentagon that fateful day. He heard a thud when the airplane hit the Pentagon. Wilson and his associates were ordered to evacuate, but he and another chaplain decided that they needed to go back in so they could give spiritual comfort to the wounded.
“We barely escaped when one of the floors collapsed as an aftermath of the impact,” Wilson stated.
Quoting former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Wilson continued, “The terrorists wanted September 11 to be a day when the innocent died, but instead it was a day when heroes were born.”
Many Hernando County residents with friends and relatives in the New York area were hit especially hard by the news. They immediately got on the phone to check up on their loved ones.
For local resident Diane Rowden, a County Commissioner at the time, the attacks hit close to home. She was a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. Rowden feared for her fellow employees at the airline because one of the planes that was hijacked was a Delta flight.
The headline in the Tampa Tribune on September 12, 2001 was almost four inches high and stated: TARGET: AMERICA. Next to it was the iconic picture of businessmen fleeing the World Trade Center and underneath was one taken the moment after the second plane crashed into the Twin Towers. The rest of the newspaper carried stories of heightened security measures at MacDill Air Force Base and airline passengers being stranded at airports all over the country due to flights being canceled. Another interesting side note, Kmart temporarily halted the sale of guns and ammunition at its stores as a precaution against violence.
The other news of the day included the postal service raising the price of a first class stamp to 37¢, as well as conflict in Turkey, Iraq and Israel.
Despite our world being turned upside down, life went on in many respects. Aside from the news that dominated the headlines, local stores were advertising sales; television shows were broadcast, although many programs were preempted for news coverage; and the local theaters, unlike what occurred during the first few months of the pandemic, were still showing films.
On TV, PBS was airing “Engelbert Humperdinck – Live from the Palladium.” NBC had the latest episode of the popular show, “Lost” and “The Drew Carey Show” was airing on ABC. The movies playing that week included “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” and “The Others.”
Murphy’s Market advertised such bargains as bananas for 39¢ per pound. Deli roast beef was $4.49/pound. You could buy a Nokia cell phone for just $69.99 and a brand new Lincoln Town Car for $18,460, while a 1997 Nissan Sentra with just 56,000 miles could be purchased for $6,600. A two-bedroom/two-bath home in Brooksville on one acre was going for $55,000. In the Tampa Tribune that day Dillard’s Department Store had a center spread advertisement about its Grand Opening at International Mall, but I doubt many people noticed it.
Yes, the memories of major tragic events last a lifetime. If you ask people over the age of ninety or so if they remember where they were when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they could probably recall December 7, 1941 as if it were yesterday. Just about everyone older than sixty-five can recount the details of November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. September 11, 2001 is another day that is forever etched in our collective memories.