Midstate college students recall 9/11

cgrant@macon.comSeptember 11, 2011 

Leonard Diaz sat in his Brooklyn, N.Y., middle school on Sept. 11, 2001. From his classroom he could see the World Trade Center.

There, planes had flown into the twin towers, sending plumes of thick black smoke billowing into the Tuesday morning sky and eventually crumbling the skyscrapers to the ground, killing thousands in what would become the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The images that millions of Americans watched on their television sets that morning, Diaz saw with his own 11-year-old eyes.

“It was shocking,” said Diaz, now a senior at Mercer University. “We didn’t know what was going on, being as young as we were.”

He was scared then, Diaz said Thursday. He wondered if his school -- separated by only the Brooklyn Bridge from the World Trade Center’s lower Manhattan area -- would be attacked next. He asked his mother why it happened. Her response was simple.

“People do bad things.”

Nearly 900 miles away, in Jesup, fourth-grader Tyler Horne also searched for answers.

“All I knew was ‘attack in New York’ and ‘plane in building,’ said Horne, now a 20-year-old student at Macon State College. “I didn’t know the implications of terrorism. It was just a confusion of, ‘Is this war?’ ‘What does this mean?’ ”

Diaz and Horne, now young adults, are part of a generation in which many were too young to understand the gravity of the event at the time but old enough to vividly remember that day and feel its impact a decade later.

‘Dad’s going to have to leave’

Rebecca Holcomb, then a sixth-grader at Central Fellowship Christian Academy, knew exactly what the attacks meant for her family.

“I guess growing up in the military, the first thought was ‘Oh God, we’re going to have to go to war. ... Dad’s going to have to leave,’ ” said the current Macon State senior.

Her father, then in the Army Reserve, initially was to be deployed to Afghanistan but instead was deployed to Iraq a couple of years after the attack.

“I was used to him being deployed, so it wasn’t too scary. ... (but) I think it made me a little bit more nervous because there was 9/11 in the back of my mind, and as a child, I was thinking they did such horrible things,” Holcomb said.

Edwin Little’s father also was deployed to Iraq years later, but he first was thrust into duty much closer to their upstate New York home.

“When the towers collapsed, my dad ended up having to go there,” said Little, now a freshman at Fort Valley State. “He aided in cleaning up the site.”

All of New York City was stunned, his father told him. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

‘They never really told us what happened’

“It didn’t really hit me until I got home after school,” said Sabuwra Portillo, then an 11-year-old living in Putnam County. “My oldest brother lives in New York. We were trying to get in contact with him and my aunt.”

Eventually, her family spoke with her brother.

“He was still trying to find Uncle Anthony,” she said.

Anthony Portillo, an architect, worked on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower. His wallet was found six blocks away.

“They never really told us what happened,” said Sabuwra Portillo, now a senior at Fort Valley State University. “A couple days later my dad said they were doing a memorial service (in New York), and we could go if we wanted to.”

Each Sept. 11, the family gets together and shares memories and funny stories about their lost loved one. This year will be no different.

“We miss him a lot,” Portillo said.

Half a lifetime ago

“Honestly, I can’t believe that it’s been 10 years. ... Ten years feels like a long time when you say it, at least to me,” said 21-year-old Holcomb.

She, like many young adults today, has lived much of her life in a post-9/11 world.

“For us, it’s definitely opened up our eyes and united us as a country,” said Maya Robinson, a senior at Mercer. “For our generation, it’s something that is just as significant as the day President Kennedy was assassinated was for our parents.”

To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.

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