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Events of 9-11 hit too close to home for Stanly Chamber group 20 years later

The 20th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 brings many people who remember the day back to the moment where they were when planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, many Americans can recall how they received the news of the terrorist attack.

With a small group of Stanly residents, 9-11 was forever seared into their memories because of their proximity to one of those places which was under attack.

An annual event Stanly citizens continue to go to involved members of the local Chamber of Commerce meeting with North Carolina’s members of the House of Representatives. At these events, according to former Chamber director Marianne Bright, members from across North Carolina met with representatives to discuss current issues.

“They have this whole list of speakers they would line up,” Bright said.

The meetings took place in the Cannon House Office Building, located across the street from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

All the state’s representatives were there, including Robin Hayes, who represented the state’s 8th District, which includes Stanly.

The person who took the Stanly contingent outside was one of Robin Hayes’ aides, future congressional representative Richard Hudson.

“At the podium I think they said, ‘Out of an abundance of caution, we’re going to go ahead and have you all evacuate this room because we heard there was a fire at the Pentagon,’ ” Bright said.

Before they left, another person got to the podium to report about the planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York.

As they were being moved out of the building, they tried reaching home with cellphones, but to no avail. It was hours before they could get a message back.

Sherrill Smith, owner of S&D Construction, said he remembered the first person the group could reach was Kathy Valentine at the Bank of Stanly. She used local landlines to get the word out to families that the group was safe.

The Pentagon was a building where the group had just been, not 24 hours before. A general had called Stanly’s group to see if they could move their visit up to the day before 9-11, which she said gave her “the feeling of being blessed by a higher power.”

“We knew we were not meant to be in that building on the 11th.”

Keith Arbuckle, the former CEO for Home Care of the Carolinas, was also with the group the day before. He remembered all tour buses being inspected that day by the State Department “because they were worried about terrorist activity.”

In the middle of the park, Arbuckle remembered a spot called by staffers the “Atomic Hot Dog” stand as a possible meeting place for spies during the Cold War.

Smith also said he remembered seeing planes go over their heads the day before when at the Pentagon. Someone in the group asked the tour guide if the air above the building was restricted airspace.

“They said, ‘No. They fly over it all the time,’ ” Smith said.

One of the members of the group, she said, had his beeper and cellphone with him. However, the battery in the cellphone was dead. This person got a message on his beeper to call his son as they were all listening to someone speak.

The news had already been on television, the way most at the time saw the events of 9-11, but there were no TVs in the 300-seat meeting room in which the Chamber event was taking place.

Security came in and announced the building needed to be evacuated, but this member went out a different door and was separated from the group.

“We go out the other door and I’m counting heads like a kindergarten teacher,” Bright said.

Unable to find this person, whom Bright would not identify, the group made their way down the street to Hayes’ apartment, which was right up the street from the Cannon Building.

It was at his apartment where the group first learned of the attacks as hundreds of people were being evacuated onto the streets.

While still in the streets, Smith said he remembered seeing what looked like agents in coats and ties going into houses to check on people living there.

Marianne’s husband, former Albemarle High School principal and football coach Dave Bright, was on the group’s bus with the driver going for provisions. Marianne said Dave and the bus driver were at a local McDonald’s which had the events on a TV.

“They’d gone to get a biscuit and saw the television was just playing all this news,” Bright said. “That’s how Dave decided he had to find our group.”

As the bus came back to the Cannon Building with many people in the street, one of the taller people in the group, former Norwood town manager John Mullis, got the attention of the driver.

“(John) starts jumping up and down in the middle of the street. He’s waving his hands, and he’s such a big guy,” Bright said about how the bus found them.

Another group from the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce was with the Stanly contingent, she said. Since they had flown in, they did not have immediate transportation.

However, Stanly’s bus, which seated 27, had just enough room for both groups.

The one person they could not find had found their way back to the group’s hotel. They eventually learned from getting a call through to the person’s son.

By the time the group left town around 1:30 p.m., there were no cars going in their direction out of town.

Their route led them past the Pentagon off the interstate, where they could see where the plane hit the building.

“We took a moment of silence and just stared out the window,” she said.

The spot they were looking at? The Atomic Hot Dog Stand.

Arbuckle had left the group on 9-11 to get back to his office in Albemarle. He was driving back past the Pentagon while the rest of the group was at the breakfast event with the state representatives.

As he was going down the elevator, he noticed a TV in it reporting on an accident. He asked a housekeeper in the elevator with him, and she said she thought it was file footage and not current.

So Arbuckle got in his car and drove down I-395 past the Pentagon, and the plane had not hit there yet. He said he was not more than five miles down the road when he saw black SUVs with blue lights head the other direction.

As the group had noticed all the planes previously in the air the night before, suddenly the sky was clear. So he took the next exit and walked into the lobby of a Holiday Inn, where he saw the Pentagon and the footage.

“I had a cold, eerie feeling knowing that I had just gone by the Pentagon right before the plane impacted,” Arbuckle said.

He then called his office to let him know he was OK, but he did not know about the rest of the group.

Arbuckle then called his mother, who was not watching TV at the time and did not know how close he had come to being there when it happened.

“It was in God’s plan that we moved the tour up to Monday. Had we gone ahead and been at the Pentagon at 9:30 or 10, we would have been right there when the plane impacted,” Arbuckle said.

Looking back on the day, Bright recalled the unity throughout the country after 9-11 saying people “were brought together by that event because there were so many lives lost that crossed political boundaries.”

She added she “did not ever want to come that close to history again.”

Smith said it was a sad day, but he also remembers it as a day “that the United States came back together as one and worked together to rebuild and be strong again.”

Having tutored children for the past 14 years, Bright said that 9-11 to many of those kids was another event in the history books because they had not been born yet when it happened.

The event may be taught in the classrooms, but Bright said she would always “have a stronger memory of what (9-11) meant and what happened that day.”

Bright also mentioned the plane crashing in Pennsylvania, which was believed to be headed to the Capitol Building, which was right across the street from them.

“Had it not been for those brave people on that plane that I still can’t comprehend how they dealt with those terrorists, we might have been right there in that building,” Bright said. “Despite whether you had a direct loss in this or not, it felt like (9-11) affected everybody.”

The lesson Smith took away from the event was vigilance.

“Never, never let your guard down…always be prepared (because) something bad could happen.”

Smith added, “As long as terrorists live, I think we will always have a threat of something happening.”

Of the lessons from the day, Arbuckle said, “at that point in time, there was only one race. The human race. People banded together and showed support for each other, especially our first responders.”

 

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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