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The day the world came to town

There are certain incidents in time that everyone remembers exactly where they were when the event happened.  For someone my age, they might recall where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  I was on the playground at Cottonwood Elementary School when we were called back into our classrooms.

I laid on the linoleum floor at my grandparents’ cottage at Compass Lake with my childhood friend, Jimmy Hughes, watching a small black and white television as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.  Jimmy and I later went down to the dock and looked up at the moon trying to wrap our heads around the fact that someone was on that bright white spot in the sky.

Perhaps the most memorable event to have occurred in the past 25 years was on September 11, 2001.  I was at a meeting in Rocky Mount, North Carolina when we first heard the news about a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  Seventeen minutes later, I watched on television with fellow Hardee’s franchise owners as the South tower was also hit.

I never returned my rental car that day as a friend from Florida and I made our way home through the night.  We never let our car get below half empty and the radio remained on the entire trip.  We arrived at the Atlanta airport to pick up my car only to be met with soldiers holding machine guns at the entrance to the parking deck.  We convinced them to let me retrieve my car and later left the rental car on the road near the Hertz rental car building, along with hundreds of other cars left along the road.

9/11 has become synonymous with the most serious attack ever made on American soil.   Over 3,000 Americans died that day as hijacked planes crashed into both World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and following a heroic struggle by the passengers, in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Two weeks earlier, Mary Lou and I had sent one daughter off to school in Virginia. Two weeks later, we put another daughter on a plane to England where she would remain for the next year.  It was one of the hardest things we have ever done, but we were determined our children should never live in fear.  After our oldest daughter’s plane left Dulles, we parked on a hillside and grieved as we viewed the deadly gash still smoldering at the massive Pentagon.  

Shortly after, we made our way to New York City where we held hands as we viewed the remains of the collapsed Twin Towers.  Those images will remain with us forever.

Mary Lou and I would later return to this site of the Twin Towers each time a new part of the rebuilt site was completed.  First, we came back to visit the National September 11 Memorial, with the name of each victim surrounded by two pools of falling water on the exact footprints of the towers.  It remains one of the most striking memorials I have ever seen.  

Three years later, we returned to the opening of the September 11 Museum, a place that will stir you to your soul no matter how often you visit.  That was followed by another trip to see the opening of the Oculus, Liberty Park, and the Sphere.  

On our last trip we visited the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was situated at the base of the original towers.  We also soared to the top of the aptly named Freedom Tower, with its One World Observatory at the top.  The city spreads out 100 floors below in every direction. 

The final part of the restoration project is the Perlman Performing Arts Center.  Built at the cost of $500 Million, the PAC as it is known is the crowning achievement in the phoenix like recovery from that tragedy a generation ago.  It is being dedicated this week.

Finally, we visited the site of the crash of Flight 35 in the fields of Pennsylvania.  It was powerful in its simplicity and overpowering in the way it captured the last moments of an airliner destined for the US Capitol or White House but for the actions of the heroes on the plane.

Ironically, I just finished reading a wonderful book about the side effects of 9/11 on people around the world.  “The Day the World Came to Town” chronicles the arrival of 38 airliners that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, when the United States closed their airspace following the attack on 9/11.  

It you have not read this book, make it your mission to learn about how a city of 10,000 people welcomed 7,000 stranded strangers.  It will bring smiles to your face, tears to your eyes, and will allow you to find something good about mankind in a time when we seemed lost.   A new play, “Come From Away”, which is based on the book, will be at the Gouge Performing Arts Center later this Fall. 

After making pilgrimages to every site Mary Lou and I could think of to pay our respects and honor those lost, suffering, and simply surviving, we believe that reading this true story of the goodness of man may be one of the best ways you can find the bright light of humanity in the midst of the darkness of those days.


Dan Ponder can be reached at

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