Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terror attacks in world history, the 9/11 attacks, which claimed nearly than 3,000 lives, including those of 414 first responders.
Not since Pearl Harbor had the United States suffered such a devastating attack on its own soil.
Today, Washington County is both reflecting on how that day shaped the world, as well as ensuring 9/11 remains a Day of Remembrance.
Washington County EMT Richard Finch was working for the Florida Department of Transportation on that infamous day, but he was waiting for his hire date as a new firefighter in Panama City.
“I had gone to the mail room to pick up mail and saw it on TV. I was kind of stunned, not really understanding at first what was going on,” he said. “I thought maybe it was just an accident, the first [plane crashing into the Twin Towers], but when the second one hit, we knew then it was something major.”
Steve Yates was working as a Washington County paramedic at the time, a post he still holds today. He says he was off on September 11, 2001 and was at home watching television.
“[The news] cut into the program I was watching with the first plane, and I was just stunned,” said Yates. “And then the second plane went in, and from that point on, there was nothing on TV or on the radio that wasn’t about what was going on. It was everywhere. I called Randall Truett, who was the boss at the time and told him, ‘I’ve got my uniform on. What do you want me to do?’ He told me to just stay by the phone, and I did.”
“Nobody knew what to expect,” added Yates. “With our proximity to Tyndall and Eglin [Air Force bases], we didn’t know if we would be called out because of an attack there.
Meanwhile, Yates said he felt conflicted as he watched the scenes unfold on the news.
“I had a lot of experience, and I wanted to be there [at ground zero] to help, but at the same time, I did not want to be in the middle of what I was seeing. You were watching the buildings coming down, you were watching all the smoke and ash watching the people run away from the destruction. They were running away from the danger while first responders were running toward it. That’s what we do.”
Yates noted that within weeks, it was apparent the attacks would forever influence policies for first responders.
“We implemented new safety measures after that,” he said. “There were rumors that the ambulances were going to be used as decoys to go in and blow up. From then on out, we had to make sure everything was lockdown.” Finch agreed, stating he saw similar changes within the fire department.
“Fire stations used to be public buildings, used to be open,” he said. “But now, public access to first responders is very limited.”
Paramedic Supervisor Joey Tharp also recalled policy changes being made.
“Every agency, in this area, at least, implemented those changes because first responders have full access to go anywhere, so they started securing stuff a little more. Also, that’s when you really saw the use of ‘plain talk’ come into play. They mandated everyone go to ‘plain talk’ on the radio because so many other agencies were coming in, and they use 10-codes, which frequently vary from agency to agency. Now, when you have a mass casualty incident, everyone uses plain talk instead of codes. That way, everybody can communicate without those barriers.”
Tharp was on duty in Holmes County that day. We were speechless,” said Tharp. “We were seeing all the people running away and the first responders running in, knowing they probably wouldn’t be coming out. I felt numb, not knowing what direction the country was going in and not knowing who and what area would be next.
Sheriff Kevin Crews says he was serving as Chipley’s Chief of Police at the time and remembers being at his desk when the news came in.
“It was heartbreaking and shocking,” said Sheriff Crews, “but it also put us on a higher alert, and now that guard stays up, keeping us aware of even small things perhaps we wouldn’t have noticed before. I remember that in the days following 9/11, there was a sense of patriotism and general love for your neighbor. It seems these days, we have gotten somewhat complacent, and it is my hope that we educate future generations about the events of that day and ensure the lives lost are never forgotten.”
Staff with the Washington County Public Library in Chipley and Vernon are hoping to help with that last task with the recently announced participation in an educational exhibit titled “September 11, 2001: The Day That Changed the World.”
The exhibit is interactive with the assistance of patrons’ smart devices and offers downloadable features that present the history of 9/11, its origins, and its ongoing implications through the personal stories of those who witnessed and survived the attacks. Told across 14 posters, this exhibition includes archival photographs and images of artifacts from the Museum’s permanent collection, as well as a virtual tour of the museum. It explores the consequences of terrorism on individual lives and communities at the local, national, and international levels, and encourages critical thinking about the legacies of 9/11.
Library Director Renae Rountree says the 9/11 Memorial & Museum curated exhibition reflects the core pillars of commemoration, education, and inspiration as the community observes the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“We have something for all ages, from picture books for younger children who aren’t quite old enough to understand certain concepts to chapter books for older children and adults” said Rountree. “If you need to know what’s age-appropriate on the subject, just ask your librarian.”
Rountree adds that in addition to the informational posters and interactive aspects of the exhibit, the Chipley branch also features a star for every life lost in that attacks, as well as children’s activities, such as coloring their own first responder badge.
“It’s a good way to start a conversation,” she said. “We are humbled to participate in this exhibit that reminds us of ‘That Day That Changed the World,’ said Rountree. “It will be displayed all month long for anyone to experience.”
The poster exhibition was developed by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy Demands Wisdom.
9/11 Memorial & Museum President and CEO Alice M. Greenwald called sharing the exhibit a privilege.
“During this 20th anniversary year, it is our privilege to share these lessons with a new generation, teach them about the ongoing repercussions of the 9/11 attacks and inspire them with the idea that, even in the darkest of times, we can come together, support one another, and find the strength to renew and rebuild.”