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« 2001 »

The story usually begins with the blue sky. Except for parts of South Carolina and Georgia that were spattered by a trailing arm of Hurricane Erin, across the United States of America the day was as crisp as an apple in a pretty autumn poem.

Sometime after 8 a.m. inside the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newsroom, the white-noise of clicking keyboards dropped oddly away. A little crowd was forming near the city desk. Co-workers stood staring at three TV sets that usually flickered in silence above a bank of filing cabinets. Someone turned up the sound.

The first airliner, American Airlines Flight 11, had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York about 7:46 a.m. CDT. A series of blows followed. When United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower, a black fist of flame and smoke billowed and hung in the air, sparkling, beside the gleaming glass and steel.

Another airliner, AA Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon. Explosions were reported near the State Department and the U.S. Capitol, and the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all planes out of the sky. Just before 9 a.m., the south tower collapsed. At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 nosedived into a field in rural Pennsylvania. And then the north tower dropped at 9:28.

Within hours, the newspaper staff had produced an extra edition, a rare event given the price of newsprint, and circulation employees were handing it out for free in the streets of Little Rock and on city buses. That first headline asked, “Who would do this?”

It was 19 Islamist extremists orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and calling themselves al-Qaeda. Their grievances with U.S. acts in the Middle East ran so deep they wanted to murder and die to destroy symbols of American power.

Next day, Sept. 12, 2001, the headline on Page 1 reflected enormous uncertainties: “How many dead?” The planes held more than 200 people. About 50,000 worked in the two 110-story towers. Hundreds were in the section of the Pentagon. There were no social media “Check-in-safe” pages yet. Thousands were thought to be under rubble, alive or dead.

But already Arkansans numbered among the grieving: the families of 28-year-old Sara Low of Batesville, an attendant on Flight 11; Nehamon Lyons IV of Pine Bluff, a 30-year-old Navy operations specialist second class who was in the Pentagon; Malissa White of Bald Knob, 36, who worked for Marsh & McLennan at the World Trade Center; and Tom Burnett, 38, chief operating officer of medical-device manufacturer Thoratec Corp., who with fellow passengers fought the hijackers on Flight 93.

Today, it is believed that 2,977 victims died in the attacks, but only 60% of remains at the World Trade Center site have been identified.

Today, the first question when 9/11 comes up is, “How many years?”

Eighteen.

— Celia Storey

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