In their own words: Starkville residents reflect on 9/11

Two beams of light mark where the two World Trade Center towers stood in New York City (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum was in his office in the U.S. Senate Russell Building across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

At the time, Keenum was working as the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi.

“I was in a meeting when a fellow staff member came into my office and asked me to turn on the TV, and I saw the first tower in flames," Keenum said. "My first thought was ‘what a terrible accident.’"

Keenum then watched on television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center and at that point, he realized it was no accident.

Keenum made a call to Cochran immediately at his home, and I urged him to stay at home and then was swept up by the chaos of a day the entire world will remember.

"I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was not safe for him to be at the Capitol," Keenum said. "My plan was to stay in the office, but 30 minutes later the U.S. Capitol Police told me I had to leave. It was the first time the U.S Capitol had been evacuated since the War of 1812.”

When he tried to return to his home, Keenum's route carried him to where he could see across the Potomac River and see the smoke and flames at the Pentagon.

"I remember being very angry about that,” Keenum said. "I lost a dear friend in the attack on the Pentagon. His name was LTC Jerry Dickerson. He was a childhood friend, fellow classmate at MSU. (He had a) distinguished career in the U.S. Army, and his wife, Page was a dear friend of me and my wife, Rhonda."

Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill was in her property's office when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. The attacks resonated with Spruill because, at the time, she was a pilot for Delta Airlines.

Initially Spruill thought the smoke billowing from the first tower was the result of a foolish private pilot.

“When the second one hit that’s when you came to a realization that this is not that," Spruill said. "This is something much more sinister and much more serious.”

As a pilot, Spruill had a number of friends contact her to see if she was in the air or in one of the hijacked planes.

“It was a matter of disbelief as much as anything because none of us anticipated that the airplane was going to be used as a weapon,” Spruill said.

Oktibbeha County Fire Services Coordinator Kirk Rosenhan was in a motel in his hometown of Jefferson City, Missouri, at the time of the attacks.

"I just kind of glanced over to the T.V. in the lobby and watched as the second plane hit the towers," Rosenhan said. "It would be cliché to say that it was a life-changing experience, but obviously it was for 343 firefighters."

Rosenhan had previously spent time in the fire station across the street from the Twin Towers, and with Engine 10 and Truck 10, which responded to the site of the World Trade Center towers after the planes hit.

"I knew several of the guys personally that were not only officers and members, but Deputy Chief Ray Downey who was a deputy chief who ran all of the rescues in the city," Rosenhan said. "He was right in the middle of it."

Rosenhan would later visit New York City two more times following the attacks, including one weekend immediately following the attacks when a service was held near Ground Zero.

"We go in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral – this is on a Sunday Morning – so we all wander in to go in the church," Rosenhan said. "The congregation stood as we went in. It was very emotional. We sat through part of mass. Because we were firefighters, they just honored us."

Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Superintendent Eddie Peasant was teaching at Murrah High School in Jackson, and was in the school's hallway on his morning duty.

“One of our special needs students at Murrah, his name was Micah Miller," Peasant said. "I remember his face vividly. He came in after getting off the bus that morning, and was walking into the gym to wait for the start of school, and he walked up to me and to Sgt. Taylor, one of our JROTC instructors and asked us if we had heard that there was an airplane that had flown into one of the towers. That was the first person I heard it from.”

When the 10th anniversary of the event came around in 2011, Peasant was the principal at Clinton High School and said he came to realize so many of his students were too young to remember an event that sent shockwaves around the world.

"It was just an amazing opportunity to educate them on it, and to get their reactions, which is totally different from adults who had lived through it," Peasant said. "I think it was really important for them to be able to fill that and find some way to experience what our world was like during that event and the times that followed immediately behind it.”

Jeff Donald, co-chair of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership's Military Affairs Committee, was with the Defense Intelligence Agency on Sept. 11. He was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, as the Defense and Army Attaché and the Security Systems Officer and Senior Defense Official from the United States to Ireland.

Donald was on a train back to Dublin following negotiations with the Irish Navy when he received a call from his wife to ask if he had seen what happened.

"The guy with me was responsible for some of the security at the Pentagon and he would have been there," Donald said. "He would have been there."

Donald's reaction was shock and disbelief at the scope of the attacks, but said their group was met with an outpouring of support from Irish officials in the immediate wake of the attacks.

"The president of Ireland invited the ambassador to D.C. and myself over to her house a few days later," Donald said. "The president and her husband gave us condolences and I remember the president of Ireland serving us, herself, tea."

A memory that stands out to Donald came in the form of people from Ireland surrounding the American Embassy so they could sign the condolence book a couple of days after the attack.

"The line stretched it seemed like for miles, down towards and into town," Donald said. "It’s unbelievable, the support."