The morning of September 11, 2001 stays in my memory for many reasons. Almost a year before the terrorist attacks on that day, my brother was killed in another terrorist attack. Cherone Gunn was one of 17 sailors killed in the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000. That was a day that was incredibly hard to believe. My brother was my best friend, confidant, definitely someone to look up to for anyone. He wanted to serve his country proud by enlisting in the Navy. As hard as the day he died was, the following year was just as trying. Funerals, investigations, etc. We learned that responsible was Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network al Qaeda. There was a transition in our own government going on at that time as well, as President Clinton was leaving office and George Bush was taking over. This was one reason why my family believed that the investigation into who was responsible for the death of our son and brother was stalled at best. This was a feeling that did not sit well with us or any of the other victims’ family members. From the start of the year in 2001 we began to think that nothing was going to be done for justice of our victims and that the terror attack would soon be forgotten. My mother even commented several times throughout the year, something needs to be done now before those who got away with this will strike again. Unfortunately, they did strike again.
September 11, 2001 I was at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va. It was early in the 8am hour. The teacher was a little delayed to come in and us students were getting a bit anxious. She finally came and told us that there was something going on in New York, that one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center was on fire. We had a television set in the classroom that we were able to tune to a local television station to watch the live news feed of what was going on. Commentary said that it was some type of explosion at first, but then information unfolded that said perhaps a plan may have struck the tower. Everyone in the class had their theories on how or why, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. It didn’t take long for any of us to figure out when the second plane hit the other tower. Prior to that, I thought how could a plane get so lost and out of all places it crashed into the tower? It seemed a bit far fetched. Everyone thought that if it was a plane that crashed into the building then it had to have been a small cesna type plane. But when we saw the images of the second airline flying into the building, or worst fears were confirmed. Everyone knew our country was under attack.
Just like the rest of the country I was struck with grief and emotion. My feelings were significantly compounded by my very own situation. After several minutes of watching in horror in the classroom, talking with other classmates of what was going on, I couldn’t take it any more. I left and went out to the parking lot to get some air. Another classmate of mine came down to check on me. I told him of my past and how I felt the pain of thousands of victims of terror that day from my previous experience of terror. I than realized my other responsibilities of that day. I knew my parents and brother were in the Hampton Roads area as well. My father being a former sailor, I felt I needed to reach out to him. With two planes already down into buildings and another report of another two planes that crashed in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. into the Pentagon, I genuinely believed that terrorist were taking planes and crashing them at targets, going down the east coast. An obvious next target has to be the largest military base in the world, Norfolk Naval Base. I was hoping that neither my mother or father were at the base that day. Cell phone lines were dead pretty much that whole day. It was very hard to contact anyone as all lines were jam packed and busy from thousands or possibly millions of telephone calls to loved ones all over the place that morning. I just had to sit and wait to make sure my family was safe.
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, our family learned of other related incidents. One of the lead investigators for the FBI, John O’Neill, was in charge of the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. Even before the Cole and the months following, Mr. O’Neill and his team gathered much information about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. He knew what they were capable of and what they would do. Mr. O’Neill was in constant and consistent contact with my father and our family as we were uniquely invested in the FBI’s investigation. But as previously mentioned, Mr. O’Neill and his investigation into al Qaeda was forced to take a backseat. Political? Who knows, but whatever it was, it pushed Mr. O’Neill out of the FBI and into retirement. A frustrated John O’Neill, who thought just as my mother, ‘if we don’t do something now, the next and immanent attack will be worst,” took a fateful job that summer as head of security at the World Trade Center. An assignment that would be his last. John P. O’Neill was killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Mr. O’Neill’s legacy can be seen in documentaries and films. Feel free to read a letter he addressed to my father from PBS’s Frontline website.
Another legacy that was left was what we remember in the wake of the attack. One month and one day after 9/11 was the one year anniversary of the bombing of the USS Cole. My family and I would go to visit my brother who was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington, being one of the more exclusive places for a final resting place, had dozens of funerals going on that day. The bulk, if not all of them were for those who were killed in the attack on the Pentagon. On that day and months following, the once beautiful view of the Washington, D.C. skyline from Robert E. Lee’s home in Arlington National Cemetery, was marred as the first thing within eyesight was the burnt, gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon.
I want to end this by saying to everyone who reads this. Please take the time to remember all of our victims of terror. Remember the thousands of victims from the World Trade Center. Remember the hundreds of our service men and woman, who served our country and died in the Pentagon that day. Remember those on the frontline of terror in the four hijacked planes. And remember the USS Cole.