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September 8, 2011

9-11 Remembered: Where were you when the world stopped turning?

Most Baby Boomers can tell you where they were when President Kennedy was shot, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated or when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. These were defining moments for their generation and the world at large.

Most Baby Boomers can tell you where they were when President Kennedy was shot, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated or when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. These were defining moments for their generation and the world at large.

Then decades came and went seemingly without such wide-reaching, galvanizing specific moments in history until one bright, blue, beautiful, late summer day in 2001 when a new moment would sear its ugly reality into our heads. It was a day when the world's problem with terrorism came home to roost, and became our problem, too.

Anyone older than 16 or so can probably tell you where they were when the towers fell, when the Pentagon was attacked and when the brave passengers of Flight 93 likely saved thousands when they forced a commercial airliner into a Pennsylvania field - and while the specific dates of other historic events may be harder to remember, no one living is likely to forget 9-11. It is a date conveniently, and ironically, attached to the universal number for dialing "emergency."

Where Were You?

Waking up on Sept. 11, 2001, I flipped on the TV in my bedroom, and while channel surfing I stumbled across a foggy image of one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. It was billowing black smoke. I rubbed my eyes, focused and turned up the sound. The late-breaking news had not yet determined how or why, but apparently a commercial jet, an American Airlines Boeing 767, slammed into one of the towers just moments earlier and it was being reported as a horrific accident.

Not too much later that morning we would all find out that it was not an accident, but a carefully crafted plan by suicide terrorists who had one goal in mind - to strike the United States of America so severely and brutally that we would have to engage them in a way even they probably didn't expect. The insanity of the plan was and is still incomprehensible, though sadly it was well executed by extremists who had been planning the attacks for years.

As horrifying as 9-11 was for those of us watching from afar, magnify the terror a thousand times for those who were there. Two now-retired New York City Police Department officers, Brendan O'Connor and Mike Milne, were in New York City on that day, working out of their underground police station near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The pair, friends and colleagues from New York, have both since relocated with their families to the Grand Strand and are a part of the musical duo Band On The Rum. Their duo, along with 11 additional musical acts, are scheduled to participate in the Dead Dog Saloon's 10th annual 9/11 Benefit on Sunday.

Easy going, funny, wisecracking New Yorkers through-and-through, O'Connor, 43, and Milne 55, temper the pain of remembrance with staying busy and moving on with their lives. They both recall all too clearly how that day unfolded.

"I came to work for my regular shift around 6 a.m.," said O'Connor, who, along with Milne, worked in the Transit Division for NYPD. "[Around 8:50] I heard a voice on the radio from an officer, a woman, who was killed later that morning. She was screaming on the radio and said 'a plane just hit the World Trade Center.'"

At 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11, with five hijackers and 87 crew and passengers aboard, impacted the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 466 m.p.h.

"The rumors were at first it was a helicopter," said O'Connor, "and that it was an accident. Once we found out it was a jet, the phones starting lighting up. Somebody wheeled out a TV and we were glued to the set. Those of us that were underground at the station were ordered to stay put."

"Our command was based underground," said Milne. "We didn't lose power like a lot of other stations [in the vicinity]. Once they knew it was a terrorist attack we didn't know if this was the first wave and if more attacks were coming. We worked for 24-hours straight."

For those at the site of the attacks the event was unfolding before their eyes in real time, while the rest of the world looked on in shock and terror from their TVs, and through frantic cell phone calls and text messages, including the then 17-year-old Annie Campbell, daughter of the owners of the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet. "I was a junior in high school at Socastee," recalled Campbell. "I wanted to go home. I had family there [in New York City]. I was panicked, but they wouldn't let me go, so I called my dad."

Tina Atkinson, a surgical assistant with Tom Rollar's oral surgery practice in Conway also remembers the day well. "We were in the middle of surgery when [a family member] called and told me to turn on the TV," said Atkinson. "At first I didn't think it was real. I thought about all the people who were dead and dying and it made me cry, but we had patients so we had to keep working."

For Rollar it became more personal.

"Two or three days later we were watching the coverage on TV at work," said Rollar, "and a woman came on the news. She was the wife of one of my best friends growing up in New Jersey. I was shocked to see her. She was eight months pregnant, pleading that they'd find her husband, my friend Michael LaForte, alive and buried in the rubble." He was not. LaForte worked for the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 employees in the attacks. The firm's offices were located in the floors just above the impact site at One World Trade Center. "I'd been at a cookout at his house a year before with his wife and kids," said Rollar. "He was happy and successful and life was really good for them. That loss still affects me."

Bob Sutton, a local attorney, had a client in mid-2001 that had been a part of a bachelor party visiting from New York. "He got into a little local trouble at Blarney Stones [Pub]," said Sutton, "and I represented him. A few months later the attack occurred and every one of the guys at the bachelor party - they were all a part of investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald - every one of them died in the Trade Center - except my client. He had to find a new job when he returned from Myrtle Beach, and he wasn't in the Trade Center that day."

Heroes of 9-11

The story of 9-11 is most often punctuated by the end results of those four flights; two that hit and destroyed the World Trade Center, a third hitting the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and a fourth being forced onto the ground in western Pennsylvania, presumably headed for the Capitol. All told, more than 3,000 innocents of all faiths, races, and ages were murdered that day, with thousands more injured. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the last ending with the crash at 10:03 a.m. in Pennsylvania, rescue operations began and heroes emerged.

Much is said about the 3,000 dead, and rightfully so, though just as important are the estimated 15,000 who successfully evacuated the World Trade Center towers before their collapse. The evacuation was as successful as it was due in large part to the efforts of the FDNY, NYPD and others who risked and gave their lives, including the 343 firefighters, 60 police officers, and eight EMTs (medical technicians) who perished in New York that day.

"We got down to [Ground Zero] that night," said O'Connor. "Roll call was one of the hardest experiences - you find out your buddies are dead and then you have to stand tall for your 12-hour shift. It was tough, but we still had jobs to do." In the ensuing chaos the world's collective fear was that more attacks were imminent. "We had teams in subway stations not knowing if the train was going to blow up," said O'Connor. "We expected [nuclear] dirty bombs, then came the anthrax."

The evening of Sept. 11, 2001 Milne, O'Connor and fellow NYPD officer Carl Meyer were among many hundreds who were bussed in to help locate survivors and start the gruesome but necessary task of finding human remains. The World Trade Center complex occupied 16 acres and had its own zip code. Within the hundreds of thousands of tons of rubble lay the remains of office workers, those aboard the two planes, and the first responders caught in the collapse of the buildings - once the world's tallest with 110 stories. Twenty-three survivors were pulled from the rubble during the following 27 hours.

"My softball team had advanced to the finals," said Meyer, who has lived in the Myrtle Beach area for two years and is a Horry County Firefighter working from Lake Arrowhead Station 7. "It wasn't until we went to [Ground Zero] that night that it started to sink in. I was friends with a whole bunch of cops and fireman who were killed."

They searched through the rubble.

"We found an entire seatback to an American Airlines plane with a woman's identification," said O'Connor. "But most everything was pulverized," added Milne.

The work would continue through May 2002, but the first few days were particularly taxing for those at Ground Zero.

"Of course their were no tourists in town," said Milne, "so we stayed in the Trump International Hotel - Thank you Donald - we'd work our regular jobs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., then volunteer our time to dig at Ground Zero from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is as long as they'd let you. Then we go back to the hotel and clean up. After digging for four hours you were an emotional wreck. You'd find fingers, scalps, body parts - the FBI would come and bag them and take them away. Most everything had disintegrated. We were all shocked because we were all geared up to find bodies, and one cop made the comment 'Where are all the people?' I said check your clothes - you're wearing them. After we'd clean up we'd go have a few drinks, come back and pass out at the hotel, and do it all over the next day."

It was tedious.

"You'd have 100 guys in row, with five-gallon buckets," said Milne, "just handing them down the line. This went on for a solid month. You'd meet cops and fireman from all over. Then you'd see Derek Jeter handing out McDonald's sandwiches one day - it was surreal."

And they had an audience, of sorts.

"There were whole blocks of people lining the streets," continued Milne, "and when you'd walk out after your shift they'd applaud, hand you things, food, gloves, masks. One woman asked me if I needed anything, and I said 'No, I'm good,' and she said 'You look like you need a hug,' and she hugged me and that's the thing I remember the most from those days just after 9-11. Kids would send cards and they'd get distributed - and I remember I got one from a little girl that said 'Dear Police Officer. I love my cat. Amie.' It was my favorite thing I received."

The work was gruesome, dangerous and took its toll.

"You see a lot of bad stuff," said O'Connor who exhibits symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as physical ailments. "I didn't have any symptoms till maybe six months [after 9-11]," he said. "I started coughing up black stuff. I'm on two inhalers, pills, and have nightmares still. It affects everybody differently. I'll be all right for half a year, and then they'll start showing this stuff on TV and it comes back."

He is not alone, of course.

"Everybody working that day has issues," added Milne. "Brendan has reduced lung capacity, I have heart and lung problems, depression issues."

While the crews in New York and Washington D.C. cleaned up the mess, the U.S. and its allies waged war against Al-Qaeda, a radical militant Islamist faction, whose leader, Osama bin Laden ultimately claimed responsibility and great joy at the suffering. He eluded capture for nearly a decade.

Osama bin Laden

Fast forward nearly 10 years to May 1 and the leader of Al-Qaeda, the one responsible for moving those attacks forward was taken out by an elite U.S. military unit. I remember that night just as clearly as I remember 9-11.

Having my first beer after work at Foster's Café & Bar, a pub in Myrtle Beach, the usually loud conversations were hushed as the bar's TVs were tuned to a special Whitehouse Report. The jukebox was turned off, the TV volume turned up and President Obama confirmed the rumors that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid upon his compound in Pakistan. When the President said the words "Tonight I can report to the American people, and to the world, that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden...justice has been done" Foster's erupted in cheers, and a few men and women cried while we all realized that one chapter of the 9-11 story had closed, even while the threat of terrorism would continue.

"When we got bin Laden I thought 'It's about time,'" said O'Connor, "but there's another one right behind him."

Grand Strand's Grand 9-11 Memorial

As the 10th anniversary of the attacks draws near, a local event commemorating 9-11 also marks its tenth observance on Sunday.

"It was my son Chris' idea," said Charlie Campbell, co-owner of the Dead Dog Saloon, and host of the 10th annual 9-11 benefit held at his Murrells Inlet bar and restaurant. "Chris was living in New York [City] and he called me and said he couldn't believe that he couldn't find a single bar, pub or whatever doing a remembrance on Sept. 11, 2002, and I got to thinking, we should do just that." So Campbell found an opportunity for a collective group remembrance and fundraising event to honor the fallen heroes of 9-11. To date, the benefit has raised more than $120,000 funding, almost entirely, the Georgetown County Sheriff's Office "Shop with Santa" program, which has enabled many hundreds of the area's underprivileged children to enjoy choosing Christmas gifts for themselves and their family members. The benefit has also raised significant funds in support of Horry and Georgetown Counties' Fire & Life Safety Expo. In 2007 funds were raised to benefit the families of the Charleston Nine, who were the nine firefighters killed in the line of duty that summer fighting a furniture store fire in Charleston.

How to respond to a national day of tragedy came with a learning curve, according to Campbell.

"On the night of 9-11 our bartender Sue called and wondered weather we should open," said Campbell, "and I told her 'No' but she called back and said a group of locals were gathering and wanted a place to meet and talk about what was going on. So we decided to open, and I'm glad we did. I learned that day that people need each other's fellowship when there's a tragedy."

The Dead Dog Saloon held its inaugural 9-11 benefit the very next year in 2002. This year's benefit will mark the 10th, with some changes expected for next year's event to be announced Sunday. "It's been 10 years, and we got bin Laden," said Campbell. "It's time to change things up some. We will always do an event of some sort, though."

"The event is very respectful, top notch," said Milne. "This is [Band on the Rum's] third year performing. The Dead Dog does such a great job - the ceremony, the auction, the bands."

"The first year after I moved down I came to the Dead Dog event and couldn't believe how well attended it was," added O'Connor. "Charlie had asked me to wear my uniform, and it was nice."

The event has always featured local musical acts, tributes, a brief formal ceremony (this year at 1 p.m.), free food, raffles, auctions and the joining together of kindred spirits for a great cause. While the event remembers the fallen FDNY and NYPD personnel, and celebrates what is at the core of being American, not everybody waves the flag on 9-11.

Conspiracy theories and real heroes

A simple Google search of "9-11 timeline of events" leads to dozens of 9-11 conspiracy theory Web sites, with the most accusatory examples showing up in the top 10 searches. A Zogby poll from 2008 found that nearly 50 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. government knew in advance that the attacks were coming and that the government may have also been complicit in the attacks. Amazingly many additional and reliable polls support the Zogby results. Incidentally, other polls show that as many as 30 percent of Americans believe man never landed on the moon and that we're all victims of a $30 billion NASA hoax. Come on people.

"We dismiss the [conspiracy theorists]," said Milne. "I've got no time for that. Go sell crazy elsewhere, I'm all full here." O'Connor generally seems to agree but added this regarding the service to the public in the wake of the attacks: "Whether it was a conspiracy or bin Laden it doesn't matter, as it relates to what we did after 9-11. In spite of the trauma, sickness, whatever - you'd go and do it all over again."

Despite being in the trenches at Ground Zero, Milne is still a little bit uncomfortable with being labeled as a hero.

"Our [duo] does about a dozen gigs a month," said Milne, "and people know we're former NYPD and we get all these 'thank yous,' which is great, but it also brings it all right back to the front burner - it's an honor but it's uncomfortable. You don't know what to say when people thank you. The real heroes died on that day."

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