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Teaching 9/11

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IN PICTURES:In 2016,Marion Fire Department Capt. Paul Thompson III describes the scene at Ground Zero as he relates his memories of traveling with other firefighters to New York City to help with cleanup efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
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LIVINGHISTORY:From left, Marion High School JROTC cadets Audrey Dickerson, Eric Asher, Lunden Colley and Kainen Malone describe learning about the 9/11 attacks when they were younger, and how it affected them.

BY Kaitlin Gebby - kgebby@chronicle-tribune.com

Students in the classroom today were born into a post-9/11 world. They have no memory of a nation not at war, of what the United States looked like before international security was tightened, or a Sept. 11 school day without a moment of silence. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, four passenger airliners were hijacked in a coordinated attack by al-Qaeda terrorists. Two were piloted into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The third plane crashed into the west side of the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth passenger plane was originally targeted for Washington, D.C., but was prevented by passengers that attacked the plane’s hijackers, causing it to crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and killing all 44 people on board.

The attacks on the World Trade Center killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 6,000. The death toll continues to climb as civilians and first responders today suffer from respiratory-related illnesses and cancers due to the toxic debris from the collapse.

Each year, Marion High School JROTC students organize a public memorial service to remember those who lost their lives in the deadly terrorist attack.

Cadet leader Audrey Dickerson, a senior at MHS, said she learned about Sept. 11 through documentaries and classroom discussions when she was younger, but didn’t grasp the magnitude of the event until she was older.

“It was something that I knew was bad, but I didn’t really think anything of it until I was in middle school,” she said. “When I was older, I realized how many innocent people died and it hit me then that this was a really big deal.”

Kainen Malone, a sophomore in JROTC, said he was also in middle school when he realized the scope of what took place on Sept. 11.

“The thing that shocked me the most is that the people who hijacked the planes, they killed thousands of people they’d never even met,” he said.

The same detail is what enraged retired Lt. Col. David Farlow. He runs the JROTC program at Marion High School, but he was on base having breakfast the morning of the attack 17 years ago.

“I was eating a bowl of oatmeal watching CNN, like I did most mornings, and they were playing footage of the first plane hitting one of the towers,” he said. “I thought ‘How could you not see something like that flying a plane?’ Then I saw the second plane hit and realized this was no accident. I thought we were at war.”

Farlow likened Sept. 11 to Pearl Harbor, saying it was something he’d never lived through but had to understand the impact of through textbooks and teachings alone. Growing up in the Cold War Era helped him understand the tension of a terrorist attack hanging in the air, but he said he never thought it would happen on American soil.

“They were unarmed civilians just going to work,” he said. “To me, it was cowardly.”

Former Marion Fire Chief Brian Swanner said the department held a scheduled awareness training on terrorist attacks in the early morning on Sept. 11.

“We were sitting in the classroom listening to the instructors from Indiana Department of Homeland Security when someone came in the room and said a plane flew into the World Trade Center,” he said. “Within a minute, pagers from the instructors started buzzing and they went back to Indianapolis. Everyone in government was a potential target.”

Due to the widespread attack, government buildings and museums were evacuated. The Federal Aviation Association ordered an immediate halt to all takeoffs across the nation, and military bases went on lockdown.

Swanner said they were prepared for anything in the following days. Like Farlow, Swanner recalled a tension hanging in the air as they waited for another assault.

Cap. Paul Thompson and other MFD personnel travelled to lower Manhattan in December 2001 to assist with the cleanup. Thompson said he saw 15 acres of steel beams, chunks of cement, and partial walls of the World Trade Center still standing over a sea of office supplies from the collapsed 110-story buildings. The fall of the towers had damaged or destroyed several buildings in the surrounding area, including a subway station below, causing more than $10 billion in damages.

The Ground Zero cleanup was an experience that “stuck” with Thompson, who said so many first responders volunteered to help they started turning people away.

“When I got up there, we weren’t on a recovery mission,” he said. “By that point, it had been three months. We were just trying to identify those who were unaccounted for.”

Uncovering bodies from a terrorist attack never crossed Thompson’s mind when he thought about his duties as a firefighter. Swanner said for over a year after the Sept. 11 attack, funerals for victims were being held.

“I remember going to a wake for a firefighter in Manhattan, “ Swanner said. “His parents were the same age as me and my wife. We had our first grandchild at the time too. Thinking about all those families, it hit me hard.”

In the years since, MFD has held a speech and ceremony to remember victims and first responders at Station No. 1. Since 2016, Thompson said they’ve scaled it back to raising the flag on their ladder truck at Station No. 6 at 8:46 a.m., the time when the south tower was hit. He added that he imagines doing “something big” for the 20th anniversary of the attack, and larger ceremonies every five years.

“Firefighters I work with now were pretty young when 9/11 happened, so I take time each year to sit down and talk with them about what I saw,” Thompson said. “It helps them understand how we can learn from our past. That’s why we have to keep teaching and talking about it, so future generations of firefighters can learn from it because something like it may happen again.”

Swanner said the world changed after Sept. 11. He said it “disrupted our way of life,” and our sense of peace. He said he thinks of the brave 44 passengers who fought back, “saving thousands more lives,” in their sacrifice, and hopes that the same brave spirit continues. 

“Now we don’t worry about people flying planes into buildings, we worry about shootings,” he said. “But we can’t let fear keep us from enjoying our freedoms. Otherwise, they’ve won.”

After the attacks, Farlow spent the next four years on tour through Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring in 2007. He said the War on Terror changed how we view Muslims, changed how we traveled the world and altered our sense of safety. Now, Farlow helps students learn about Sept. 11 so future generations will never forget.

“We have a few students who were cadets here in JROTC serving overseas now … and that really gives you a sense of pride,” he said. “The kids who walk through here and enlist write a blank check to the United States, one that says they’re willing to give anything up to their lives so we can enjoy our freedoms. This ceremony honors them and those who have paid the ultimate price for what they believe in, and it’s a leadership opportunity they can carry with them no matter where they go.”