October 19, 2021

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Time to Remember: It’s been two decades since terror attacks

The Odessa American produced a special edition on Sept. 11 detailing what was known at the time about the terror attacks. The edition quickly sold out by early evening at stores around Odessa. The special edition was the first since the Pearl Harbor attack. (Odessa American September 11, 2001 Special Edition)

Today is a time to reflect on the lives lost 20 years ago.

Take a quiet moment to reflect on your own or during a first responders and Permian Basin Better Business Bureau caravan of emergency vehicles that will drive down Chris Kyle Memorial Highway this morning.

Beginning at 8:46 a.m. (the time that Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center), the Odessa Fire Department, the Odessa Police Department and the Ector County Sherriff’s Office units will turn on their sirens and head down the Chris Kyle Memorial Highway from the intersection of 42nd Street and Kermit Highway on the west side of Odessa, and finish at the Chris Kyle Memorial. The event will be called Never Forgotten: The 20th Anniversary of 9/11.

It’s also a good time to visit Memorial Gardens Park at JBS Parkway and 42nd Street. Every September, for almost 20 years, Prosperity Bank, in conjunction with the City of Odessa, has displayed thousands of American flags at Memorial Gardens Park as part of its American Tribute with a small ceremony to honor the first responders and those who were injured or died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

This year, the flags will still be on display through Sept. 20, but there won’t be a public ceremony due to COVID-19.

It’s still a good way to honor those who died and to reflect on how that day changed us.

Looking back

A man lights a candle on Sept. 14, 2001 in memoriam of the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Three ministers in Odessa and Midland agreed the experience of 9/11 was an unforgettably disturbing one that is still having negative repercussions in American society.

The Rev. Mike Hanks, pastor of the First Assembly of God in Midland, said he “was totally overwhelmed that something like that would be happening in the United States.”

“I was just trying to piece it all together and figure out what was happening. At that time, I had no idea who would want to do something that disastrous.”

It was only in the ensuing days that Hanks learned the responsible parties were al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. “It was kind of like the pandemic with the uncertainty of everything,” he said.

“It caused me to pray and ask for wisdom. The Lord has been good to us all. He has been gracious and he always honors his word. He has been faithful and we had to learn how to trust him that we could not fix that problem. It has to be the Lord who turns things around.”

Asked what needs to be fixed in American society, Hanks said, “It’s a sin problem, not just a terrorism problem.

“It’s the lack of making Jesus the center of all things in our lives.”

Dan Johnson, head elder at Emet Ha Torah Church in Odessa, said it “was quite a shock that such a thing would actually happen on American soil.

“But then in reading the scriptures we knew that such a time of trouble would come upon the world. The question was, is it the beginning or an isolated incident? I think it was a wake-up call to America that has not been heeded very well. Thousands of people flooded the churches, but within four to six months they were back to their previous lives.”

Johnson said society has deteriorated since 9/11 with the prevalence of abortion and same-sex marriages, among other developments.

Faith Temple Fellowship Pastor Donny Kyker of Odessa was going to work at UPS when he began seeing “all these devastating things” on TV with the hijacked airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, he said.

“Nobody knew what was going on. Then we realized it was a terrorist attack. It was a horrible day. It opened our eyes and taught us not to be fearful, but who would have thought that that would happen on American soil?”

Kyker said life in the U.S. is much better than it is in most nations, but the country still has serious difficulties that it has not dealt with effectively. “One thing we can control is our border situation,” he said.

“I’m all for the American rite of passage, but we need to do it the right way, the legal way.”

I remember where I was

The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. In a horrific sequence of destruction, terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center causing the twin 110-story towers to collapse. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri was serving as an administrator at the Celebration K-12 School in Celebration, Fla., on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and he has clear recollections of that day.

“The students had arrived on campus and were all engaged in their first class of the day. I had just stepped into my office after the arrival process was complete when a colleague peered into the doorway and asked if I had heard about an airplane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers. I had not heard, but wanted to learn more so we walked to the reception area where a large TV was broadcasting the news. A small group of staff had gathered around the television to observe the tragedy, and the emotion in the room was that of deep sadness for the potential loss of life. While we were watching, the second airplane struck the second tower. In an instant, our emotions turned from sadness to grave concern because we knew we were no longer watching an accident. The United States was under attack,” Muri said.

A stunned President George W. Bush looks past Chief of Staff Andrew Card after Card told the President about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City, during Bush’s visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

“Because of our proximity to Walt Disney World, we had plans in place for a potential terrorist attack. We quickly activated those plans in order to provide the highest level of safety and security for the students and staff. We also knew that many of our families would want to be with their children, so we activated a plan to quickly release children to their parents. Within an hour of the second plane striking the tower, over 800 students had been released to their parents. The fear in our school and community was palpable,” he added.

“A few hours after the incident, I felt a strong desire to connect with my family. While none of them lived near the areas where the planes had crashed, I needed to hear their voices to know that they were OK. In the days and weeks that followed, conversations with my family and friends became a release valve for the range of emotions I felt about the tragic events of 9/11. I grieved for the loss of life; I was angry at those who perpetrated this heinous act; as an American, I felt violated; I was inspired by the selfless acts of bravery exhibited by many to save lives; I became fearful that terrorist attacks could become more prevalent; I felt great confidence in our country’s response to the tragedy. The range of emotions was vast, but ultimately I had never been more proud to be an American. In the midst of that crisis, the very essence of our humanity shone brightly,” Muri said in an email.

He noted that that one can observe changes in the world as a direct result of 9/11.

“From increased security at transportation hubs and large public events to the emotions that are triggered when violent incidents occur, the world was profoundly impacted. However, the resiliency and determination that are foundational to our existence continue to thrive within humankind. Our compassion for others and desire to persevere are stronger than ever. On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, I can think of no better place to live then within these United States of America,” Muri said.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush bow their heads during a moment of silence at the Sept. 11 10th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony at Ground Zero in New York, Sunday, Sept., 11, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Ector County ISD Director of Communications Mike Adkins was director of the Children’s Miracle Network when the attacks occurred.

Adkins said he had gone to Midland for something early that morning. Driving back to the office, he was listening to a local radio station and they were describing an airplane hitting one of the Twin Towers, but they weren’t offering a lot of description.

Adkins said he realized there was more going on, but the station was being careful.

Flipping through radio stations, Adkins said he learned it was a coordinated attack. Once back at the CMN office, “we had the news coverage on and that’s what we did the rest of the day.”

“We made some half-hearted attempts at work; things that needed to be done,” Adkins said.

There was a question of whether there were more attacks coming. They watched the coverage of the towers burning, the rescue efforts and the collapse.

“It was just stunning and heartbreaking,” he said.

Asked how life has changed, Adkins said there are security measures in place that now feel routine. There is extra security at airports and more surveillance.

“We’ve learned how to adapt to them and overall feel safer because those things are in place. That might not be the way everybody feels,” he said.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump stand as “Taps” is played during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Like Muri, University of Texas Permian Basin President Sandra Woodley remembers exactly where she was and what she was doing on 9/11 20 years ago.

“I worked for the Alabama Commission on Higher Education and that was moving day. We were moving into a new building and to new offices, so it was a very hectic day for us. But I do remember when it first started we had a conference room with a TV and we just could not get our heads around what was happening,” Woodley said.

“It was very confusing. Is this a mistake? Is it something that was just a terrible, inadvertent tragedy. But of course by the time the second tower was hit, we knew this was a terrorist attack and I remember very clearly thinking our world is going to change. And I had children at home, so I left for the day and went home just to comfort them. I remember finding it hard to find the words to make sense of all of it or to provide any comfort to them. I think there was so much uncertainty that we didn’t know when the attacks would be over, or what’s going to happen next, or how long we were going to be under attack so I think it was just a very frightful and concerning time,” she added.

“I think it’s always hard for people to understand evil and that’s how we characterized it,” she said. “This was an evil act, an intentional act to take the lives of people. It’s a teaching moment for yourself and your family to understand that there is evil in this world and you have to always stay vigilant and also to keep in mind the price of freedom and all that went into making sure that the United States upped its security presence to make sure that we could continue to be safe. I just remember thinking this is hard to explain, but we found a way to do it.”

Woodley said she doesn’t remember a change in security on campus. They were in a government building and there may have been additional security, but Woodley doesn’t remember much about that.

“Of course the first thing you noticed was the changes in flying and travel and the additional security that before you didn’t have when you had to travel. That was kind of the first tangible evidence of a major change in the security protocols from the U.S.,” Woodley said.

While she doesn’t notice the prevalence of security cameras, she said she’s glad they are around.

Army Sgt. Edwin Morales prays during a ceremony at the World Trade Center site in New York on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. With a moment of silence and somber reading of names, victims’ relatives began marking the 14th anniversary of Sept. 11 in a subdued gathering Friday at ground zero.(AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith)

Sept. 11, 2001, was like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Most people who were old enough remember where they were when it happened, what they were doing and how it felt.

“I remember very clearly that day. It was just shocking and the uncertainty of it all was hard to manage,” Woodley said.

Odessa Councilwoman Mari Willis, who was a teacher at the time, recalls that she was at the home of one her students when the terrorist attacks began. Willis said she was immediately bombarded with phone calls and messages about the news.

“I asked the student to turn on the television and explained to her what was going on,” Willis said. “We sat there in shock as her mom joined us to watch. We were unable to fully grasp what was going on and all were speechless.

“Within what seemed like minutes, we watched as there was another crash and after a bit of talking and not believing what was going on, I headed either back to campus or home, I don’t remember, but my eyes were glued to the news channels throughout the night. I simply could not believe what had happened.”

The tragedy united the country for a time, she said

“I believe that at that time and for a long period afterwards we were a better America,” Willis said. “We prayed more; we were quick to be kind and respectful to each other; we hugged and loved more. It changed us for the better for the most part.

“However, as time passed, although we, of course did not and will not ever forget what happened on 9/11, we are unfortunately not in the same spirit as we were then. We are not, on a large scale, as kind, helpful, loving and respectful as we were then and for the many years after 9/11.”

John Pristas, a firefighter for the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company, blows “Taps” on a trumpet during a ceremony in marking the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at their 9/11 Memorial in front of the station on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Cranberry, Pa. Butler county. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Gardner was working as a dispatcher for an oilfield company, when his alarmed boss asked him to come into his office to watch events unfold on TV.

“It’s not like it is today,” Gardner said. “We didn’t have internet like we do now. News didn’t travel as fast back then. The TV we were watching had an antennae and only got three channels.”

The son of a lifetime firefighter, Gardner thought he was prepared for anything that might happen.

It was inspiring to see so many people come together, not just first responders like his father, but the entire country, Gardner said.

But the reality was that “many first responders went into buildings, but never came out,” he added.

“When I saw the second plane crash into the building, I just had a pit in my stomach,” Gardner said. “I realized then that I had taken things for granted. That day changed our lives forever.”

Gardner said it’s important that people never forget what happened 20 years ago, or tragic events like the mass shooting in Odessa two years ago. It’s just as important that communities continue working together to try and prevent similar tragedies from occurring again.

“It’s a shame if we don’t learn from it,” Gardner said. “It’s a shame if we can’t all sit down and look at ways to see how we can do better.”

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Don Stringer still gets chills recalling that fateful day 20 years ago.

“I had just dropped off my oldest daughter, Kelsey, at her elementary school,” said Stringer, a longtime real estate agent said. “I went home and was frying some eggs for my wife and 2-year-old daughter when the news came on the Today show.

“I thought it was just a fluke at first, just like everyone else. When the second plane struck the tower, we stared in disbelief. It was a crazy, crazy time.”

Like many parents across the country, a shaken Stringer drove back to school, picked up his daughter and gave her a tight hug.

“A lot of people clung to their faith and family that day,” Stringer said.

First responders

As rescue efforts continue in the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York, President Bush raises an American flag while standing on a burnt fire truck in front of the World Trade Center during a tour of the devastation, Friday, Sept. 14, 2001. Firefighter Bob Beckwith is at right. Accompanied by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other New York politicians, Bush toured the disaster site on foot after getting a helicopter view of the devastation. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Odessa Police Department Chief Michael Gerke said he was on evening patrol and he was sleeping when the first plane hit the first tower. After the first plane hit, Gerke said his wife woke him up and told him he needed to see what was happening on TV.

Gerke said after the second plane hit, OPD called him to put everyone on alert just in case something happened in Odessa.

“Who knew what was going to happen,” Gerke said. “Who knew how far these attacks were going to go. Every police officer at the Odessa Police Department and I’m sure all the other local agencies were put on alert status.

“When I came to work that evening, it was just a weird feeling in the community. People had a sense of anxiety about what just happened.”

Gerke said 9/11 changed the United States as a nation.

“We lost some innocence that day. We lost a sense of security,” Gerke said. “You would always see news reports of terrorist attacks in other places, but not in the United States. That changed that day. We learned that day that it could absolutely happen here. It left a scar on us. It left a scar on our soul.”

Gerke said he was proud to be part of the first responder community.

“When you look at the actions of the first responders that day, that is the epitome of heroic actions that we expect from our first responders,” Gerke said. “When you saw those firefighters and police officers rushing into the buildings as victims were running out, it gave us a tremendous sense of pride and it still does to this day.”

City Councilwoman Detra White was serving as fire marshal for Odessa Fire Rescue.

“I was in my office when Senior Investigator Gary Peek rushed in to tell me that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center,” White said. “I expected it to be an accident involving a private plane.”

White soon realized the magnitude of the events after joining co-workers in a conference room to watch the news unfold.

“We obviously realized this was a major incident,” White said. “A few minutes later, we watched as a plane hit the second tower. Everyone was shocked and concerned. The news reported that the FAA was ordering all planes to land immediately. As we continued watching, the third plane crashed into the Pentagon.”

Later, “We learned that a fourth plane appeared to have been hijacked and had possibly crashed in Pennsylvania,” White added.

“The fire chief and command staff had already notified all stations to be prepared and ready for any response,” White said. “Most people may not have considered our community as a potential target. However, the Permian Basin is a major petroleum producer, and we did recognize the potential threat.

“Fortunately, our community was not directly affected on that fateful day, but the effects of 9/11 are still with us.”

Tribute in Light, two vertical columns of light representing the fallen towers of the World Trade Center shine against the lower Manhattan skyline on the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, seen from Jersey City, N.J., Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah))

A few years after 9/11, Odessa Fire Rescue received a piece of the twisted metal from the World Trade Center, White said. A tribute was constructed and is still on display in the lobby of Central Fire Station.

OFR employees continue to participate in 9/11 memorial stair climb activities to honor the 343 Firefighters (412 total emergency responders) who lost their lives in the World Trade Center.

“It is my prayer that we can get back to that spirit and that it does not take another tragedy such as 9/11 to turn our hearts to God and to live among each other peacefully as God has called us to do.”