Stranded travelers at Jackson International Airport watched events unfold on television and stood in line for rental cars and telephones.
In 20 minutes, the physical, political and emotional landscape of the nation changed forever.
Minutes after two planes crashed into the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center, which later collapsed, business in Mississippi — and around the world — came to a halt as a stunned nation absorbed the news. While the majority of Mississippi’s businesspeople, airport personnel, state officials and the general population were not physically close to the terrorist attacks Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, the effects of the violence and destruction have been felt throughout the state.
Sandy Carter, real estate legal assistant at MacNeill & Buffington, PA watched the terror unfold on a television screen in her office’s conference room. Carter’s husband is in the 172nd Airlift Wing of the National Guard. He has been placed on a “high alert” status.
“It might be the start of World War III,” she said, wringing her hands.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Lucien Harvey, president of Harvey Construction in Jackson. “I thought the first two (crashes) were it, but obviously that’s not it. We’ve got more coming apparently. My first reaction is it’s Osama bin Laden and we should get (him). But of course we don’t know for sure who it is yet.”
Saudi Arabian-born Osama bin Laden, one of the CIA’s most wanted men who was connected with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Africa and this year’s attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, is a prime suspect. During his time in hiding, he has called for a holy war against the U.S. and for the killing of Americans and Jews. Before Americans knew about the terrorist attacks, ABC News reported Palestinians were celebrating in the streets of the West Bank.
About 50,000 people worked at the World Trade Center towers. Mississippi businessman William “Billy” Mounger II, chairman and CEO of Tritel Communications Inc., knew several of them.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at Brown & Wood on the 58th floor of One World Trade Center and I don’t know how many people that I know and worked with died there this morning,” said Mounger, who was in San Diego when he heard the news and was shaken.
“Whenever I would go in there, for the last several years, security was amazingly tight because of the bombing in 1993,” he said. “All the times we’ve gone to Washington, New York and other major cities, I’ve often thought that if someone wanted to crash a plane or plant a bomb, or have a coordinated terrorist attack like this, there’s no way to really prevent it.”
Harvey said the terrorism attacks would change the political landscape dramatically.
“This was forecast eight years ago when they tried to bomb the World Trade Center and told the FBI that was their plan,” he said. “The FBI office was right there next door to the World Trade Center in New York. It’s hard for me to believe we weren’t better prepared for something like this. We may just be seeing the start of this thing.”
At the Jackson International Airport, airport police were careful to check all drivers going into the airport’s parking facilities, and still other armed police personnel drove all-terrain vehicles around the airport to insure the safety of stranded passengers and others.
One corporate pilot, who asked that his name not be used, took off the morning of the attacks from Little Rock, Ark., en route to New Orleans. While standing in line for a rental car next to at least 50 others trying to accomplish the same task, he said, “It’s (air traffic) going to be shut down for at least two days.”
In all of the pilot’s 15 years of flying, he said he has never been mandated to land by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It’s pretty serious,” he said.
Ray Ayala, a Continental Airlines flight attendant from Houston, called the situation “shocking,” then quickly said the airlines would not let flight personnel talk about the alleged hijackings.
Other pilots who were approached quickly turned down an opportunity to comment on the situation.
S.G. “Jerry” Keever, director of marketing and economic development at the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, said that the scenario taking place now at airports across the state and across the country has never occurred before. He said he had no idea as to when the FAA would allow flights back in and out.
But Keever said many of the airlines are taking care of passengers by providing bus service to passengers en route to Houston or Memphis. Other passengers are being put in touch with hospitality centers that are assisting in the effort to accommodate stranded passengers.
Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, was leaving for Washington last Tuesday morning for meetings with the state’s congressional delegation when he learned of the attacks. He also had a meeting scheduled at the Pentagon with consultants on military base realignment and closure issues.
“This is going to have a devastating affect on commerce, absolutely,” Olivier said, but “the lives are the most important thing.”
Businesses and industry on the Coast were reported to be at a heightened state of security. Mississippi Power Company, Chevron and Ingalls Shipbuilding tightened access to their facilities. Petrochemical plants in Louisiana also boosted security.
Calandra Davis, daytime receptionist of the University Club, located on the 22nd floor of the AmSouth building in downtown Jackson, said members having breakfast sat in disbelief after they heard the news.
When asked if the mood was tense, she said, “Oh God, yes! Many of the members were sitting around with their coffee when the news came on and their mouths dropped open. Everybody is frantic because they don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
“The phone has been hopping. I haven’t been able to move from here. We’ve had three calls from our central office and several of the clubs are on top of the biggest buildings. They’ve been evacuated and closed down. Our managers just went into an emergency meeting and everybody has run to the dining room. They said they thought they’d put the plan into action and we’re about to close,” Davis said.
Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said business would never be the same because of the attacks.
“Everybody’s stunned,” said Wilson, who fielded nonstop phone calls all morning from some of the chamber’s 700 members. “The American way of life just changed forever. There’s no question about that. Our freedom and our way of life has just completely changed. It shows what a risk we’re at.”
Wilson said that demographically, the events would probably result in a dramatic shift from urban centers to rural.
“The heartland, I believe, will become a key focus for companies because the urban targets are obviously a serious target,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate.”
Dimple S. Mooney, part-time city clerk for the town of Seminary and election commissioner for beat one in Covington County, said she didn’t feel safe.
“Even though this is one of the most rural areas of the state, in one of the most rural states in the nation, I’m concerned about what might happen next,” she said.
Mounger said, “Events like this make you realize that what’s really important in life isn’t business or money. God is in control, and we don’t know if this is the begin
ning of the
end times, or just an event that is part of the continuing war of terrorism. It could have more significance in the history of the world than we could ever realize. My prayers go out to everyone affected, but especially to the families of my friends who may have been killed today.”
At the State Capitol last Tuesday, elected officials were all abuzz with th