Probably no other Mississippi business leader had more connections to the people directly affected by the World Trade Center attack of 9/11 five years ago than Billy Mounger Jr.
Mounger, who was in San Diego, Calif., for a wireless convention on the day of the attack, had worked with attorneys at Brown & Wood law firm, located on floors 55-66 in the World Trade Center.
“They were in the tower that was hit second, but fell first,” he recalled. “After the first plane hit, they headed downstairs and got to the bottom when the second plane hit their building. All of them made it out just before the building collapsed except for one receptionist who had breathing problems and had to stay to rest on the way down on the third floor.”
Mounger discovered later that two Tritel investors were on one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. Another business associate was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
“It was a terrible tragedy in many ways, not only because of how it affected the families of these people we knew, but also the financial markets,” said Mounger. “It created uncertainty and was a factor in some of the venture capitalists and private equity investors deciding to take the bird in the hand and go ahead and buy our company, which turned out good for us but came out of a bad situation.”
Mounger was overseas in mid-August when the terrorist threat was discovered in Great Britain.
“We had to fly back under all those extra precautions,” he said. “Also sometime back, I was in Tanzania visiting our ambassador there, Mike Retzer from Mississippi, and we all remember when Al-Qaeda bombed that embassy. I think it’s inevitable there’s going to be another attack in the U.S. Just like Israel and other countries have had to live with the threat, we have to learn to do it, too, especially when we’re in high-profile cities or at high-profile events. I also think we have to be strong and just realize that when it’s our time to go, it’s our time.”
Shock and horror, fear and panic
Carolyn Shanks, president and CEO of Entergy Mississippi, recalled her reaction to the news on the morning of 9/11 was not only shock and horror, but also fear and panic on a personal level.
“My twin sister, also an Entergy employee, was working at our nuclear headquarters in White Plains, N.Y.,” she said. “Those moments spent worrying about her safety were torturous and certainly brought into perspective for me the pain suffered by the families of the thousands of people who died that day.”
Shanks pointed out that Entergy is well prepared for terrorist attacks. “We maintained an extensive security force as part of our operations prior to 9/11,” she said. “Since that time, security measures have been further enhanced. Entergy’s Grand Gulf nuclear site, like all other nuclear power plants, is among the most fortified facilities in this country.”
Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, admitted that he would be a little nervous if he lived in New York or Washington, D.C.
“I don’t feel so threatened here,” he said. “Overall, I would feel less safe if there wasn’t a sense of heightened effort by the CIA, FBI and all the other agencies. I trust that the game is on with those folks.”
Before 9/11, Wiseman was one of those white-knuckled fliers who worried about mechanical issues.
“Now I picture myself sitting there also worrying about the guy sitting across the aisle and what he’s up to for whatever reason,” he said. “That’s why I ride the train. I drive long distances to places like Duluth and Phoenix for meetings. I get to a meeting somewhere and hear everyone else who gets there by plane talking about being all frazzled and sitting on the runway for two hours and having to transfer their baggage to another plane and I say ‘Well, the train in Tuscaloosa barely slowed down enough for me to toss my bag on it and get on.”
The World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina had a similar effect on Wiseman. “You can watch the news accounts, but until you get amongst the people who lived it, with the tears in their eyes, it’s hard to describe,” he said. “It’s a feeling that climbs up on your shoulder and stays there some part of every day.”
Jack Kyle, who brought four international exhibitions to Jackson through the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange, recalled The Majesty of Spain exhibition had just ended on September 3.
“I’m so grateful for the patience of the Spanish curators because the artworks which were scheduled to be returned to Spain had to be delayed by several months because of the shutdown of the air transportation system,” he recalled. “It meant that we had to provide a secure environment for the art and were therefore out more cost than we had anticipated. That was a major impact to our project.”
Kyle said he senses some trepidation among travelers boarding airplanes for international routes, “but you don’t want to fall into the trap of what the terrorists want, which is to disrupt our normal routine.”
“Being aware of events like what just happened with the discovery by our friends, the British, of the plot to blow up several trans-Atlantic carriers headed to the U.S., gives reason for pause,” he said. “At one time, air travel was such a luxury and it was so convenient and pleasant, but I think the opposite end of that is the public perception now.”
Vickie Greenlee, CEO of For Travelers Only in Jackson, said after 9/11, many travel agencies closed, merged or reduced their staff or office hours.
“But I think we’ve recovered very well now,” she said. “I think people have decided that when things like that happen, they’re not as afraid. We sent off a group of 60 to Europe going on a fly-in to London and a British Isle cruise. Not one person cancelled their trip after the British scare. I think it’s amazing and a sign of the times that people aren’t letting terrorism scare them away from what they want to do.”
Steve G. Rogers, president and CEO of Parkway Properties Inc., said 9/11 affected the office real estate business considerably.
“For the last nine years, we’ve formally surveyed our customers every year on matters that concern them,” he said. “We get back about 1,000 responses each year, so it’s a statistically significant survey. Six years ago, the top concerns mostly on people’s minds were heating and air conditioning, janitorial services and having enough parking. In a recent study we just got back, the three main concerns were safety, security and parking security. Now we plan a lot for security matters when we buy or build a building because there’s a lot of anxiety out there.”
Robert Pendleton Jr., president of Pendleton Security in Jackson, said 9/11 dramatically changed the way his company does business, especially implementing security procedures in various industries mandated through new regulations. “I personally feel more secure, but I’m also more conscious and aware of threats,” he said.
Ron Aldridge, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said small businesses are fertile for lawsuits when security measures are inadequate.
“In spite of our vigilant preparedness, we all remain vulnerable,” he said. “Why? Because we’ve allowed a system and a society whereby criminals feel more secure in not getting caught or found guilty while we feel insecure of being protected from their illegal actions. As wiser elders have always said, ‘If someone wants to break in or destroy, they can and will.’ Where will it end? Here in America where freedom reigns supreme, the law-abiding citizens have become prisoners to the criminals.”
Aldridge said he’s glad to see that, for the most part, small businesses continue to live by higher model standards and represent the backbone of communities and the nation’s economy.
“Their security is based, not on our government officials, but on doing what is right, treating customers and employees like they would want to be treated, getting involved in the community and helping neighbors when they’re in need, believing there are certain high standards we should all live by, personal responsibility, and accountability to a higher authority,” he said. “I’ve noticed many small businesses in Mississippi displaying the Ten Commandments either outside or within their stores. They’re obviously proud of that standard and know the blessings of following them. Feeling or being secure is all about trust. Do we trust our door locks, our security system, our neighbors, our law enforcement and our fellow man? For real national and personal security, it’s time we follow our national motto: ‘In God We Trust.’”
Concerning 9/11, Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson said succinctly: “We lost some of our trust … and some of our innocence. Life changed. But we are smarter and stronger. The American spirit … burns brighter today.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.