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Remembering September 11, 2001

It was one of the most beautiful days I can remember.

The weather was perfectly pleasant, and the sky was a cloudless, bright blue. Maybe that made the tragic events that were about to unfold seem even more surreal.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I got up as usual and had some national news show on TV in the background as I got ready for work. All seemed pretty ordinary. I headed out the door, bound for the Moundsville office of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, where I was serving as bureau chief at the time.

As usual, I stopped by my parents’ house on my way out of Belmont. When I walked in, Mom and Dad were glued to the TV as they drank their coffee. The Today Show was on, and it was showing footage of the World Trade Center, where a plane had just collided with one of the towers. The newscasters were speculating about what could have caused this terrible accident.

Dad was skeptical. He had a strong interest in aviation (I think he had wanted to become a pilot someday). He didn’t think the pilot and co-pilot of a major airliner could have made such a horrible mistake, regardless of any flight instructions they had been given. He thought perhaps they had experienced a mechanical problem.

I stared at the screen for a few seconds before heading out the door again to go to work. With that breaking story on the TV, I thought it could be a busy news day.

I hopped in my car, listening to the radio. Before I had made it out of town, I heard reports that another plane had struck the second tower.

I instantly knew these crashes had not been accidents.

A feeling of dread washed over me as I headed east on Interstate 70. I wondered: Was our country under attack? How many more crashes were going to happen? What other types of terrible things might occur?

As soon as I arrived at my office, called the main office in Wheeling to see what was needed from me and my staff. All of the editors there were extremely busy, trying to round up all the latest details about what was happening before the News-Register went to print for the afternoon. They didn’t have time to fill me in or to come up with assignments for me to hand out.

So, I did what I think any reasonable but fairly isolated journalist would do — I went out and started looking around town.

That was an eerie experience.

By this time, a plane had struck the Pentagon. Planes everywhere were being grounded, and, looking up, I realized that bright blue sky was strangely empty.

There were no pedestrians in the area surrounding the Marshall County Courthouse, which stood just on the opposite side of Court Avenue. In fact, I believe almost all of the offices and courts inside had closed down for the day.

There wasn’t much vehicle traffic, either, but there was a pretty steady stream of traffic headed for a nearby school. Many panicked parents all over the Ohio Valley were making arrangements to pick their children up and take them home from school.

There was another common destination for many drivers — local gas stations. People immediately began to fear that a gasoline shortage might happen, so they rushed to fill their vehicles before fuel became scarce or prices shot up.

I thought they had a good point, so I followed suit.

When I returned, only one reporter was in the office. Others had scheduled time off or were out trying to interview people about the day’s unusual circumstances. So, being without a TV, radio or real internet connection in our office, that reporter and I took turns sitting in our cars, listening to our radios for the latest news. That was how we learned that yet another hijacked plane, likely bound for the Capitol or the White House, had crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers rebelled against their captors.

I don’t have a clear memory of what I wrote about that day. But I do remember the atmosphere that resulted from the attacks and continued for many months afterward.

Before the day was out, it seemed that every local resident who owned an American flag had put it on display. The newspapers soon printed full-page paper flags for readers who did not have one of their own. Those banners went up on the doors and windows of businesses and homes across the region.

Lawn and window signs also appeared, featuring slogans such as “United We Stand” or “Support Our Troops.”

We went to war — first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan.

We had been attacked. The differences among us didn’t matter anymore. We were all Americans.

Twenty years later, that sentiment seems to have faded away almost completely. Today, we are divided over nearly everything — the economy, immigration, foreign relations, COVID-19 and its accompanying masks and vaccines.

In my mind, we are being assaulted again, but this time the enemy is microscopic. This is a war we can win, though, if we work together.

This weekend we mark 20 years since those planes barreled into buildings filled with people in New York and Washington, D.C. We lost thousands of Americans that day. Those families will never be the same, but the rest of us came together to support them. We made it through.

Please take some time as we observe this solemn anniversary to reflect on those who were lost, as well as on those who answered the call to duty that followed — the first responders who pulled injured people from the wreckage and sifted through the rubble, as well as the military men and women who fought our enemies overseas afterward.

I also urge you to think back on the feeling of unity that permeated our lives in the wake of the attacks. Maybe remembering how we leaned on one another then will help us to heal our nation today.

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