Gadsden reflects on 9/11 during memorial

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Gadsden City Councilman Deverick Williams addresses the audience alongside the Gadsden Fire Department Honor Guard at the 20th anniversary memorial of 9/11 in downtown Gadsden. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

September 11, 2021 signifies 20 years since a fateful autumn morning brought America to its knees in shock, devastation and prayer. As the country steadily rose to its feet in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, uplifted and supported by a united pursuit of healing, thousands of citizens banded together to respond to the crisis that rattled their nation – aiding in the first steps toward recovery.

Last Saturday, that same spirit of patriotism and rapport flourished yet again at the corner of South Fourth and Broad street in downtown Gadsden. The Gadsden Beautification Board welcomed visitors to its annual 9/11 memorial, pausing to remember and vowing to never forget.

Members of the Gadsden Fire Department Honor Guard joined public officials and community leaders at the memorial. Tim Cooper led the attendants in the Pledge of Allegiance, while Gadsden City Clerk Iva Nelson sang the National Anthem. Gadsden City Council President Dr. Cynthia Toles delivered a heartfelt invocation, saying, “On this day of solemn remembrance, may we build up what was torn; may we mend what has been broken, and may we live with love and eschew hate to reign.”

Gadsden City Councilman Deverick Williams served as the program’s keynote speaker, reflecting on the 2,977 lives lost during the 9/11 attacks and its aftermath. He commended the courage of strangers, who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the betterment of others, risking their lives for people they never knew. Williams noted that today, in the midst of division and hardship, situational and emotional rifts separate Americans from one another. But now, Williams urged, remains the greatest chance to rewrite wrongs and place differences aside for a purpose grander than oneself. He resolved America’s determination, ideals, faith, love for its fellow man and dedication to the legacy of liberty as characteristics that will forever sustain the nation.

“Today serves as the next opportunity for us to display the steadfast love that God implores us to write on the tablets of our heart,” said Williams. “In each day anew, this opportunity exists. As a nation today we are tired. In the midst of a pandemic, we are depressed and divided. We yell, we criticize, we label; we languish with closed minds and deaf ears, while shouting obscenities at those that think differently, act differently and most definitely are different.”

“But we owe it to those nearly 3,000 souls to walk in the purest of American responsibilities, to crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. Today, the mantle of justice rests on each of us, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that those who died that day did not do so in vain. Carry their memories in your hearts, and through those memories we will preserve our freedoms and the way of life that makes us a beacon light to the rest of the world.”

Williams delivered a proclamation administered by the City of Gadsden and Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton, honoring September 11 as Patriot Day, a national day of service and remembrance.

“Amidst shattered glass, twisted steel and clouds of dust, the spirit of America shone through,” he said. “We remember the sacrifice of strangers and first responders who rushed into darkness to carry others from danger. We remember the unbreakable bonds of unity we felt in the long days that followed, and we recall how Americans joined together to support the survivors in their hour of need, to heal our nation in the years that followed.”

The Gadsden State Community College Show Band sang for audiences congregating on the lawn and sidewalk, while Owen Westman played “Taps,” and Cecil Knowles performed “Amazing Grace,” on the bagpipes. Those in attendance observed a moment of silence and reflection, with the Gadsden Fire Department conducting the ringing of the bell.

Gadsden Beautification Board member Martha Elrod attributes the event’s inception to fellow member Kitty Pate, whose passion to ensure that 9/11 remained in the hearts and minds of citizens despite the time that passed resulted in the annual ceremony. Elrod commended Pate for her efforts, agreeing with her mission.

Elrod served as Gadsden City Clerk on September 11, 2001. While sitting at her desk preparing for the upcoming pre-council meeting, a policeman swung open her office door and exclaimed, “Martha! Turn the TV on – a plane has just gone into the tower!” By the time Elrod rushed to the conference room across the hall and turned on the television, the second plane struck the South Tower of The World Trade Center.

“It was chilling and frightening,” said Elrod. “You wondered what was going to happen to our country.”

Elrod’s son, a U.S. Navy captain and NASA employee, frequently traveled to the Pentagon for meetings. The day of the attacks, he was scheduled to visit the Pentagon, but a slight delay hindered his arrival. His coworker, who was present in the building, crossed the room that morning to reset a malfunctioning clock. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed directly where he sat, just mere moments before. Elrod shared that in years past, the ceremony prompted visitors to consider where they were during the time of the attacks, while continuously recognizing those heroic men and women who responded and sought to help without second thought.

“We were all affected by 9/11,” said Elrod. “It should not be forgotten…this is what we feel like joins us together. We become one. We had so many brave people that faced danger to try to save others – we want to remember their bravery and how it brought our nation together.”

Gadsden Beautification Board Chair Tiffany Parnell commended the board’s diligence year after year to organize the event, sharing that while she inherited the memorial, her fellow members’ commitment and passion never ceases to amaze her. Though the 9/11 attacks took place miles from Gadsden, Parnell recognizes the catastrophic date as a turning point that impacted the nation. As the years pass, the Gadsden community continues to gather on each anniversary, proving that no amount of time can erase the magnitude of that Tuesday morning in 2001, the mission to extend helping hands to one another in the days that followed and the message of hope that arose in the midst of it all.

“We’ve had people who have come to speak who had family members, friends or coworkers [directly affected by 9/11] and in the years past we’ve had people who were personally touched,” said Parnell. “Outside of that, I think the thing that strikes me even more is the people that come to the event and participate that didn’t really have a family member, colleague or friend [affected], but it’s a testament to how that event reshaped our country, how we think about things and the fact that here in the South, whether we have a personal involvement or not, we still feel it. We still want to support those that were affected.”

“We have a new crisis on our shoulders right now, and it’s all the more reason to remember the importance of coming together, focusing on where we can unite, where we can all be one. When we come together for things like this, it reminds us that we’re going to make it through if we come together and find those areas where we all agree.”

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