It’s been 15 years. It could have been yesterday. A decade and a half since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that took down the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers (and other buildings nearby), that damaged the Pentagon, that left a hole in a Pennsylvania field.
The 9/11 attacks were among those moments seared into our minds: We know where we were when we heard. Like we did when John F. Kennedy was assassinated (if you’re old enough), or when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (if you’re old enough), or when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on liftoff (if you’re old enough).
I was alone in the editorial page office of The Birmingham News that beautiful Tuesday morning. A colleague told me a plane had hit one of the Trade Towers. I turned on the TV. Commentators were talking about some mistake, maybe with air traffic control or something. Then, I watched as the second jet hit the other tower.
I knew then it was a terrible terrorist act. I became dizzy.
Not long after the towers were struck, the Pentagon was hit. Then, over a blue Pennsylvania sky, some brave souls aboard United Airlines Flight 93 attacked their hijackers, and despite their efforts, that passenger jet crashed into a field at Stonycreek Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, just southeast of Pittsburgh.
Fifteen years. We remember it like it was yesterday. But most of us do not remember 9/11 like Roy Williams does.
Williams, a former colleague at The News, lost his brother Maj. Dwayne Williams in the Pentagon attack. What we lost when Dwayne Williams was killed was a hero. Not because he died on 9/11. That’s simply being at the wrong place at a bad time.
No, Dwayne Williams rose to the rank of major by the age of 40. He was an 18-year Army veteran, a former paratrooper and Army Ranger. There is no telling what Maj. Williams did for the United States before those cowards killed him. No telling what he could have done for his country had he lived.
“We’ve been living with this every day for 15 years,” Williams says. “You can’t escape it. You just learn to cope with it and move on.”
But this year, Williams says, he’s been doing a lot more reflection than in other years.
This year, Williams says he’s reflecting more because of the presidential election. And because his son, Royce, was born only three and a half months after Dwayne was murdered.
“He reminds me so much of Dwayne because he has a gentle spirit but also because how big he is,” Roy says.
Dwayne was big—6-foot-2, 230 pounds. Royce, at nearly 15 years old, is 5-foot-9, 182 pounds. And still growing.
Fifteen years old. And the 15th anniversary of 9/11 is this month.
Roy Williams’ reflection this year has a direct relation to Sept. 11, 2001. “We as a nation came together then,” Williams says. “We didn’t look at black or white or Muslim. We were red, white, and blue.”
But, Williams adds: “It’s amazing when you look 15 years later and see how much has changed. Most people (then) put aside Democratic or Republican differences or race, but it seems we’ve gone back in time. We’ve forgotten all about the unity and love we learned on 9/11.”
And then: “It just bothers me to see people like Trump exploit things like 9/11 for political gain,” Williams says. “It bothers me that Trump stereotypes Muslims. I think we, as a nation, have come too far to be going back like that.”
Fifteen years. But it could have been yesterday.
The Roy Williams family is amazing. He and his wife, Patrice, went through seven years of infertility before Patrice became pregnant with their daughter, Naja Kathelyn, who is 17 years old now and is at Ramsay High School. Then, a few months before Dwayne was murdered, Patrice became pregnant with Royce, who is now entering the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate program at Shades Valley.
Royce’s full name is Royce Amani Williams. Amani is a Swahili word for “peace.”
“At first, we were going to name him Royce Dwayne,” Roy Williams says. “Then we named him Royce Amani. A new baby brings peace.”
Oh, if it were so. If we had peace. If we even had civil discourse. Oh, if it were so.
After the unity of 9/11 wore off, Williams says, “the emotion of fear took over. Unfortunately, the emotion of fear is the most powerful emotion out there. When 9/11 happened, it was the emotion of sadness.”
But not anymore. Trump, says Williams, has “tapped into the emotion of fear.”
Williams wrote a book about his family and his brother: 911: God Help Us, a Journalist’s Tale of Faith. It was published on the second anniversary of 9/11, because, Williams admits: “Emotionally I could not handle it. I wrote my book so my kids could get to know Dwayne, get to know their uncle.” The book is available on Amazon, in local libraries, and in some local bookstores.
Roy and Patrice’s anniversary is Sept. 14—three days after the 9/11 attacks.
“We didn’t celebrate our anniversary that year or the next year,” Williams says. “But we’re at peace. Nothing we can do will bring my brother back. My brother died a very public death. We’re reminded of it every Sept. 11, but we think about it every day.”
Every day. It could have been yesterday. But it has been 15 years.
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