I was a seventh-grader in PE class at Dublin Junior High School the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 when coach Gil Allen gathered us in the gymnasium bleachers and told us both World Trade Center towers in New York had been hit by airplanes in an apparent terrorist attack.

I’ll never forget the look on his face — a mix of shock and anger — probably the same one on millions of other Americans at the time.

The horror was far from over. Some 34 minutes after the second plane hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., reports surfaced of a third plane hitting the Pentagon in Washington. Twenty-six minutes after that, a fourth plane crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. It would later be determined that the plane was heading for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, but that passengers had overpowered the four hijackers on board.

Later, we sat there stunned as we watched both towers collapse.

By that afternoon, I knew the name Osama bin Laden and about the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and the enabling of it by the Taliban in Afghanistan. I remember my honors social studies teacher telling us Afghanistan “wouldn’t be on the map anymore” in the coming days. My class had planned later that school year to fly to Washington and then New York (The trip was later canceled.)

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a defining moment in all of our lives, especially for my generation. It’s one of the truest and most somber and terrifying “where were you” moments in American history.

You can read one of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes accounts of that day every year on Sept. 11 on Ari Fleischer’s Twitter page.

Fleischer, who was President George W. Bush’s press secretary at the time, was with the president at an elementary school in Florida at the time of the attacks. He began taking notes of the day and recounts his experiences almost minute-by-minute through tweets.

When it was all said and done, roughly 3,000 people had been killed and over 6,000 injured. Many others have since died from and continue to struggle with 9/11-related illnesses.

Nearly 16 years after it began, the War in Afghanistan (the longest in American history, now spanning more than half of my life), waged in response to the attacks, has led to the deaths of several thousand U.S. troops and many more civilians. As the 16th anniversary of the attacks arrives Monday, it’s important to reflect back on the day, its impact on all of us, the struggles we continue to face against an enemy motivated by a severe perversion of a religion, and also — equally important in my mind — the heroism it evoked.

As we’ve recently seen in Texas with rescue efforts amid the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, times of natural disasters, tragedies and unspeakable atrocities committed by humans, bring out the better angels in most of us. There were more tales of heroism that emerged from the horror of 9/11 than one could count. One of the most well-known is the story of the passengers on United Flight 93 (the one that was brought down in Pennsylvania) who rushed the cockpit and wrestled away the controls from the hijackers. All 44 passengers on board were killed, but the bravery of that group of people likely saved thousands of other lives.

There’s also the tale of Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader on the 104th floor of the South Tower who helped usher workers to safety and died trying to save others. He has become known as “the man in the red bandana” because he was wearing one to protect against smoke inhalation.

In the coming days, we’ll hear again about these stories and possibly learn of others, all worthy of our admiration and immense gratitude.

I hope everyone who has the chance will take the chance to honor the memories of all of those who died and those who gave their lives in an attempt to prevent more deaths. There will be opportunities to do so here in Barrow County. The Winder Fire Department will hold its annual 9/11 memorial ceremony at 8:30 a.m. at Fire Station 1, 90 North Broad St., in honor of the public safety officials, law enforcement officers and firefighters who gave their lives.

Other events are scheduled at Apalachee High School and Bear Creek Middle School.

All of the victims and the heroes of that day and their sacrifices can never be forgotten. The countless examples of humanity at its best are all the reason that we are best as a nation when we are united, not divided and torn apart.

President Bush said it best that night as he addressed the nation from the Oval Office.

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”

Scott Thompson is the editor of the Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at sthompson@barrownewsjournal.com.

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