Middle Georgians reflect on 9/11 experiences

pramati@macon.comSeptember 11, 2011 

Editor’s Note: The Telegraph asked readers to share their experiences if they were in New York or Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Here are four accounts from Middle Georgians from that fateful day.

* * *

Elise Myers had never been to New York City before. With her 45th birthday coming up on Sept. 18, 2001, Myers decided to go up a couple of weeks early, in large part because her lifelong friend, Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones, was finishing up a run on Broadway in the show “Major Barbara” before leaving to begin filming the movie “Signs.”

On Sept. 10, 2001, Myers and Jones were on a ferry headed back from Ellis Island late in the afternoon. It had rained intermittently all day, but the weather had begun to clear.

The women saw the World Trade Center in the distance. Clouds surrounded the tops of the Twin Towers, almost like a halo. Myers, still a novice photographer, asked Jones to take pictures of it.

She believes they’re among the last photos ever taken of the structures.

* * *

Veteran detective Daryl Hughes was serving on New York City’s drug task force in 2001. He was driving to work, going through Brooklyn, about 20 blocks north of the World Trade Center.

Hughes was listening to the radio when a news bulletin came in that a plane had hit the first tower.

As he switched to his police radio, a report came through that a second plane had hit Tower 2. A call went out to all of the city’s police force that a Level 1 mobilization was in progress. They were to report to designated areas and await further orders.

Hughes was sent to Queens, where police and firefighters were gathering at Shea Stadium.

Hughes’ job would be to escort firefighters to the towers.

* * *

David Baskette had just departed Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta. He wasn’t flying anywhere near New York or Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

Baskette, then 30, had just finished the ninth of 10 chemotherapy treatments. He was on his way from Macon to a business conference in Las Vegas.

Unbeknownst to Baskette or any of the other passengers on his flight, the plane was one of seven across the country that air traffic controllers lost contact with when the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ten years ago, there were no smartphones for airline passengers to get real-time news updates.

As Baskette looked out his window, he saw a couple of fighter jets flying alongside his plane.

“It was a very bright, blue-sky day,” he recalled. “I could see the fighter jets and they were relatively close. They were keeping speed with us. I wasn’t concerned, but I did think it kind of odd.”

Baskette turned, looked down the aisle of the plane and saw two flight attendants.

They were crying.

* * *

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jennifer Harrison was a corporate buyer making her monthly business trip to New York, along with 10 other people from her Charlotte, N.C.-based company.

Harrison had made the trip on many occasions, and nothing seemed unusual as the plane started its approach to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Then the pilot’s voice came over the intercom and told passengers that something had happened to Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.

Harrison was sitting on the side of the plane that faced the center. She saw a giant hole in the side of the building, with smoke and flames billowing out. The second tower hadn’t been hit yet.

“You could see the big hole that was burning,” Harrison said. “But you couldn’t see that a plane had hit.”

The woman in the seat next to Harrison told her she had a daughter who worked at the World Trade Center. She had no idea if her daughter was OK.

“At that point, I really did think it was some sort of terrorist attack,” Harrison said. “It was such a big hole. I knew they had hit the World Trade Center before, but never in my mind I thought it was a plane that hit it.”

* * *

Myers, a Milledgeville resident at the time, was scheduled to fly back to Georgia that day.

When word came that the first tower had been hit, Myers and Jones went to the roof of Jones’ apartment building in Greenwich Village, about a mile from ground zero.

They could clearly see the first tower burning, and Myers started taking pictures. As she changed the film in her camera, the second plane hit Tower 2.

“When the first plane hit, I thought ‘This is such a horrific accident,’ ” Myers said. “But then we saw the second plane hit. Cherry turned to me and said, ‘We’re under terrorist attack.’ ”

Other residents from the building were also on the roof. One of them had a portable radio. As they listened to the news, Myers said she heard the voice of a man named Jim Gartenberg, who worked on the 86th floor of Tower 1. It was his last day of work. He was cleaning out his office and saying goodbye to co-workers.

The local ABC affiliate was broadcasting as Gartenberg calmly described the scene inside. The radio on the rooftop had picked up that feed.

“Shortly afterward, the building fell,” Myers said. “We heard his last words. I’ll never forget it. When I came home (to Milledgeville), I watched TV on Saturday morning. There was a woman being interviewed sitting with a child and expecting. It was Jill Gartenberg, Jim’s wife. I broke down for the first time when I saw that. It just brought up a flood of emotions.”

* * *

Hughes had changed into his police uniform and was escorting firefighters through the city to ground zero. His job was to help clear the area of the wounded and keep the way clear for fire units.

Hughes, who retired in 2003 after 20 years on the force and now lives in Jeffersonville, arrived at ground zero about 9:30 a.m. -- and stayed there until 3 a.m.

“There was so much debris,” he said. “You’ve seen the pictures, but it’s hard to explain. It was like walking on sponges. ... We actually saw the buildings come down.”

Much of the time, amid the sheer scale of turmoil, Hughes and other officers could do little but watch.

“You’re helpless,” he said. “You want to go in and do what you can, but you can’t. It was just chaos.”

His wife’s cousin, Benjamin Clark, worked at Windows on the World, a restaurant at the top of Tower 1. She didn’t know what had happened to Clark, and Hughes didn’t know what to say to her.

“I knew that if he was at work in the building, he was dead,” Hughes said.

Sometime after 9/11, a DNA test confirmed that Clark had perished. The family held a memorial service about a month after the attacks.

“That’s when it really got to me,” he said.

Hughes finally returned home early on the morning of Sept. 12. He threw away his clothes, which were covered in soot, asbestos and chemicals.

Despite the long day, Hughes couldn’t sleep. He just sat on the edge of his bed instead.

“I started crying.”

At 6 a.m., he returned to work.

* * *

Shortly after Baskette saw the fighter jets alongside his plane, the captain told passengers that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center.

“The pilot said there had been an attack,” he said. “He said, ‘Don’t be alarmed by the fighter jets.’ ... You could sense the anxiety.’ ”

The pilot said their plane would be diverted to Memphis, Tenn. It took about 20 minutes for the plane to land.

Baskette said he and his fellow passengers still didn’t understand what the jets were there to do.

“We were just wondering what was going on,” he said. “Were they afraid that someone was going to attack the plane, or did they think someone on the plane was going to try to do something?”

* * *

Harrison’s plane landed shortly after she saw Tower 1 burning.

By the time they landed, passengers were informed that the second tower had also been struck.

Though much of New York City was without cell phone service, Harrison was able to call her mother in Macon and let her know she was OK.

Then she called her father, who didn’t know his daughter was traveling to New York that day.

Since Harrison and her manager were the only two people in their entourage with cell phones, they had to help figure out where everyone was. Some employees had already arrived in New York and were trapped in the city. A second plane that had flown that same morning was diverted to an airport in Pennsylvania.

Harrison said getting into the city was impossible, as was finding a hotel that could accommodate 10 people. As the group waited in the lobby of a hotel, they saw footage of the second tower falling.

“It was just unbelievable.”

* * *

Myers and Jones decided to head toward ground zero to see what was happening. Not many others were heading in their direction.

Though police tried to keep them out, the two women got close and saw hundreds of wounded or panicked people coming toward them.

Myers still had her camera, and she took many shots of rescue workers in action. A decade later, now living in Gray, she flipped through an old issue of Newsweek and stopped on a picture of a woman covered with soot and blood, being treated by a paramedic.

“I (chose not) to take pictures of the people who were hurt or covered in soot,” she said. “I know lots of people did.”

Besides her shots of the towers collapsing, Myers also captured on film the three firefighters who found an early casualty -- possibly the first -- of 9/11. She also took pictures of Trinity Church, where the first victims were taken for treatment.

On Sept. 12, as she and Jones walked the streets of the city, New Yorkers lined the streets to cheer on the rescue workers as they returned to the scene. Myers captured New Yorkers holding signs that read “Thank You” and “NY’s Heroes” as the emergency vehicles drove by.

“It was an impromptu parade,” she said. “People just lined the streets.”

* * *

The worst part for Hughes was the feeling of helplessness, especially as he watched the towers come down after firefighters and police ran inside to aid victims.

At one point, he saw one of the fire trucks he had escorted into the city sitting empty on the street.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a truck from Engine 231,” he said. “I saw them earlier in the day. Then it hit me: Those guys were never coming back.”

Neither were some officers Hughes had known over the years, including John Coughlin, a sergeant nicknamed “Bear” who worked in emergency services.

“It was just the futility of it all after the towers had collapsed,” Hughes said. “There was a huge mound of debris. We knew that there were still people alive underneath it, but we just couldn’t get to them.”

* * *

The worst part for Baskette was not having a cell phone to get in touch with his wife and family.

His plane landed at the Memphis airport, but because all of the gates were blocked with grounded flights, it was stuck in the middle of a field. Passengers had to use emergency slides to exit and walk to the airport.

Baskette doesn’t remember if passengers had gotten the news about the Pentagon or United Flight 93 at that point, but once they reached the airport, for the first time, they finally understood what had happened.

“We couldn’t envision it,” he said. “We didn’t understand the gravity of what had happened.”

Baskette was finally able to call home.

“My wife was beside herself because she hadn’t heard from me,” he said. “It was a lot more serious than I had thought. I called my parents, and they were equally upset.”

Baskette eventually had to rent a car and drive back to Atlanta. And because the Atlanta airport lots were full, he had to leave his rental car on the side of the road and drag his luggage for a long stretch before he reached his own car.

Today, he’s a pharmaceutical representative for a company that makes oncology drugs -- the same ones that helped save his life a decade ago.

* * *

Harrison and her team eventually made it back to Charlotte. In November 2001, she returned to New York for her regular meetings.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” she said. “Everybody was quiet. We were relieved when we touched down” in New York.

Travel had changed considerably over those two months -- and so had the travelers.

“Everyone was aware of what people were doing around them,” said Harrison, who now lives in Macon. “You definitely thought about things. The security was ramped up. I definitely looked at people differently, I hate to say.”

Harrison was in New York City in 2003 during the blackout. She said her 9/11 experience prepared her for that event.

“For everyone who had been there for the Twin Towers, our first thought was that we had been hit again,” she said. “We always had a plan in place for what to do in case there was another emergency.”

* * *

Myers’ husband, John, was able to get her an Amtrak ticket to Greensboro, N.C., two days after the attacks. She had never been on a train before, but she and the other passengers bonded during the 14-hour trip.

Her husband met her in Greensboro, and they drove back to Milledgeville. On the way back, Myers said she asked John how long he thought the war would last. Did he think it would go on so long that their youngest son, Sawyer, then 10, would serve? John Myers told his wife he had no idea.

Today, Spc. Sawyer Myers serves with the 560th Army National Guard unit out of Fort Oglethorpe, in north Georgia. He’ll take part in his first overseas deployment next month when the unit is sent to Iraq.

“He signed up because of the benefits, like paying for college,” Elise Myers said. “He didn’t discuss it with us. He just did it. But how can you say anything negative when someone wants to serve their country? You can’t.”

Myers, who won photography awards at the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Georgia National Fair for her 9/11 submissions, said she and Jones felt some measure of closure when Osama Bin Laden was killed.

“But I’ll never have full closure until our son is safe again,” she said.

* * *

As soon as he reached 20 years with the New York Police Department, Hughes retired. Even though he was doing important work, coordinating with the Drug Enforcement Administration against drug runners in New York City, the work lost some of its luster after 9/11, he said.

He spent months at ground zero, helping with the cleanup. Workers were given special red baggies to use if they came across any human remains. Fires were still burning and the smell was still in the air for many weeks after the attack.

With so many workers getting cancer because of their exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens, Hughes said he gets himself checked every year. So far, he’s been fortunate and is cancer free.

For a while, he was a member of a support group for New York police officers who were trying to deal with the after effects of 9/11. Only recently has he started to watch 9/11-related TV programs.

Hughes retired from the NYPD at age 42 and eventually moved to Twiggs County, where he has a lot of family. He said 9/11 taught him to value each and every day.

“I got my 20 years and retired,” he said. “I needed to enjoy life, because life is short. ... Hopefully, I can live a long life, but you never know.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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