Kentucky's experience of 9/11

College students remember the day that adults broke down

gkocher1@herald-leader.comSeptember 11, 2011 

For half their lives or more, "homeland security," "Osama bin Laden" and "World Trade Center" have been part of the everyday parlance.

Their memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are as vivid as those who can pinpoint where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked or when President Kennedy was assassinated.

They are in college now, but they were elementary, middle and high school students when they saw jet planes flown as missiles into buildings.

And they, like the rest of us, sometimes struggle with the meaning of 9/11 a decade later. But as they grapple with words, they sometimes get to the heart of the matter.

Listen to Aryn Howland, 22, a Morehead State University student from Northern Kentucky.

"It was like the first moment I didn't feel safe in my country," Howland said on a sunny, clear August morning not unlike that September day. "It was like our innocence was gone. Our innocence was lost. I felt fear, and I'd never felt that before.

"And now, anywhere I go, I always look for exit signs, and I imagine things blowing up, no matter where I'm at."

Or listen to Jacob Lilly, 23, a University of Kentucky grad student from Newburgh, Ind.

"You can't go into an airport without feeling the effects of it," Lilly said. "You can't turn on the news without hearing some domino effect from it."

For some, like Zach Willand, 21, of Jessamine County, the seed of a career path was planted on Sept. 11. Willand has a double major in biology and homeland security at Eastern Kentucky University. There was no such thing as a federal Department of Homeland Security when he was born.

He's not sure where his studies will take him, but Willand said he thinks he'd like to work for the FBI, the CIA or some other intelligence agency that works to prevent another attack.

"It would be terrible to have that happen again, so it would be nice to be on the side that's trying to stop that," he said.

Most students remember where they were when planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the rural Pennsylvania field.

Brandie Preston, Carrie Campbell and Katie Bogie, all 18, were third-graders at Daniel Boone Elementary School in Richmond.

They recalled how their classmates disappeared one by one as panicked parents picked up their children and took them home.

"They were afraid that one of the targets would eventually be the Blue Grass Army Depot," Preston said, referring to the Madison County installation where 523 tons of chemical weapons are stored, plus many more shells and conventional ordnance.

As the day progressed, Preston said the 30-student classroom was empty except for her and two other kids. The cupcakes to celebrate a classmate's birthday went untouched.

"I thought something was going to be happening in Richmond, and I didn't understand," Preston said. "My dad was a firefighter, so I was trying to figure out what was going on with him in Lexington."

Morehead student Monica Turner, 17, was concerned for her own father. Her family lived in Washington, D.C., in 2001, and her father was a Navy officer working at the Pentagon.

"We couldn't get in touch with him for a while," she said. "It was later that evening before we got hold of him. He had to stay and help the victims."

Turner's father doesn't talk about 9/11, she said, because "he lost a lot of friends."

(Among the Pentagon's dead was Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Edward Thomas Earhart of Rowan County, who was the first military casualty identified in the rubble there. At the Pentagon he monitored weather around the globe for ships and planes. His funeral was held at Morehead State's Academic-Athletic Center, and he is buried in rural Rowan County.)

Lilly, the UK grad student, was taking a standardized test in Newburgh when the attacks happened. He said the teachers halted the test and turned on TVs so the students could witness history.

"In eighth grade, I didn't fully grasp the magnitude of what was happening, but I knew it had to have been a big deal because teachers were postponing these important tests," Lilly said.

Although many students remember watching TV coverage from their classrooms, Darrel Herald was not among them. After a moment of silence at Woodland Middle School in Kenton County, fire alarms sounded and the building was evacuated.

"We were in the fly zone for the (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International) airport, and they were grounding all the planes," said Herald, 21, now a student at UK. "That's why we evacuated our building.

"We just sat outside in this giant field for hours, and no one knew what was going on," Herald said.

Part of what made the day so rattling was that adults were in as much a fog about what was happening as the children.

EKU student Erin Smith, 21, of Pikeville, recalled how unsettling it was to see so many adults breaking down into sobs.

"It made me feel unsafe, because when you're in the sixth grade, you just always expect your parents to always be so strong and always know what to do," she said. "And they didn't know what to do. It was like mass panic at our house. Everybody was just really upset."

Morehead student Jordan Perry, 18, of Manchester, Ohio, said his mother wouldn't let him go out of the house to play basketball when he came home from school on 9/11.

"Usually a bunch of people got together to play basketball every day after school, but nobody played that day," he said. "I think everybody kept their kids in."

Others remembered that their parents tried to explain the day's events in terms they could understand. EKU student Jennifer Helmer, 18, remembers her mother turning on the news and talking with her about the horrific events.

"Bad things happen sometimes," Helmer recalled her mother saying.

The students interviewed for this story said they feel relatively safe in the wake of security precautions taken since 9/11.

UK students Daniel Elswick, 24, of Mount Sterling, and Quinton Fryman, 24, of Bedford, said they support full-body scans and pat-downs at airports that some airline passengers say are too intrusive.

"If that's what I have to give up to feel that sense of safety, I'll give it up every time," Fryman said. "I mean, you have to lock your doors at night to feel safe, so it's the same thing."

Elswick said he pays more attention to international news in the wake of 9/11.

"Before that, I'd never heard of Afghanistan. Didn't know where it was," he said. "Now I watch what's going on in Libya, Syria, Iran, all the news on the wars. I keep a lot closer eye on the news."

The students interviewed also said they tend to be more vigilant when traveling or when they are in large crowds.

"When I went to New York last summer, I thought about it more then," said UK student Cole Elder, 18, of Nelson County. "We were on the subway system."

"When I'm on planes, I'm definitely aware of my surroundings," said Nate Payne, 20, of Louisville, who attends UK. "I'm aware of who is around me and who could cause a problem."

Several students said they think the nation should do more to commemorate 9/11, but they aren't sure what that should include.

"Everyone does the moment of silence, but after that you just kind of forget about it," said Tiffany Fisher, 21, a UK student from Northern Kentucky.

Herald, the fellow Northern Kentucky resident whose school was evacuated, said the best way to mark the day is not to live in fear.

"I feel the way to commemorate it the best would be to understand what happened and why, and to rebuild and just keep going."

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