All seemed normal that September morning in 2001 until, at 8:46 a.m., terrorists flew a jet airliner into the north tower of the World Trade Center, one of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers and a global marketplace. By the time the second tower was hit by other terrorists flying another plane at 9:03 a.m., millions of people had tuned their televisions to the morning news programs and were watching the live coverage. About a half-hour later, at 9:37 a.m., a third airplane in the coordinated attacks crashed through a wall of the Pentagon. A fourth jet, nearing Washington, never reached its target, crashing into an open field in rural western Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m.
Counte Pettaway heard the rumble of an airplane about 8:45 a.m.
An account coordinator for the Hartford Life Insurance Co., who graduated from Greensboro College in 2000 with a degree in economics and business administration, the 24-year-old’s office was in 7 World Trade Center in New York.
“We all looked up,’’ said Pettaway, who was on the sidewalk, headed to work, on Sept. 11, 2001, as she later recalled while temporarily staying with friends in Greensboro. “You never hear a plane over Manhattan because it’s not a route, there’s not an airport, and the buildings are too tall. We saw the plane. ... We saw it go right into the building.”
“My mother called me and said, ‘Do you have your TV on?’ ” Pat Waugh remembers of that day.
Waugh, who lives in Climax, turned on her TV, and not long after, cameras trained on one of the smoking World Trade Center towers captured another airplane come into view and hit the second tower.
“Mama said, ‘Where are the girls?’ ” Waugh said.
Daughter Sherri, who worked for United Airlines, was in Amsterdam with her flight crew.
Sandy, the older of them, who also worked for United, should have been en route to Las Vegas.
Then Phil Bradshaw, Sandy’s husband and a then-US Airways pilot, called, asking Waugh to get to their house in Greensboro as soon as possible.
“He said, ‘Sandy’s plane’s been hijacked,’ ” Waugh said.
David Griffin got to the television right after the second plane hit.
“I sat there and just watched (the replays) and couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Griffin said.
He called Donna, his wife, who took their kids out of school.
Griffin was spellbound by what he saw on TV — and by how he saw ordinary Americans quickly take action, donating money, water and blood.
“I said, ‘Maybe I can help with my demolition experience,’ ” Griffin said.
He decided to pack up and go to New York, his hard hat and safety goggles on his back seat.
His wife wouldn’t let him go alone.
They drove up Interstate 95 even as more terrorist attacks were expected.
“From New Jersey, we could see the smoke, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” Griffin said.
They found the World Trade Center had been fenced off blocks away, in all directions, that perimeter patrolled by soldiers toting machine guns.
The 100 people attending an annual weeklong prayer clinic at Wells Memorial Church of God in Christ in Greensboro from places like New York, Florida and Texas were deep in prayer.
Pastor Herman Platt had been in another room showing around a reporter whose cellphone rang.
Platt interrupted to share the news, and people pulled out cellphones to find missed calls and texts.
“I come from a military background,” Platt said, “and I’m thinking this is an attack on America.”
That kept those attending the clinic on their knees in prayer for another hour.
Some among them — those who knew people who worked in the towers or nearby — momentarily broke away to check on them, but they continued to pray.
“For us, it’s like this is your assignment,” Platt said.
It turned out Waugh’s daughter Sandy Bradshaw had traded a trip out of Newark, N.J., with another flight attendant, in hopes of being home for her son Nathan’s first birthday and a class reunion. Instead, she was on Flight 93, with a scheduled arrival in San Francisco.
Sandy called her husband during the hijacking, even asking him what on the airplane they could use for weapons.
The hijackers had gotten into the cockpit. They were about 20 minutes away from Washington.
Sandy told him they were boiling water.
Her heroism came as no great surprise.
She never hung up the phone after talking with her husband.
“He could hear all this noise, and then nothing,” Waugh said. “Phil said, ‘All we can hope for is that there are some survivors.’ He was sure that the plane had gone down.”
It had, at 10:03 a.m.
Officials credited the crew with keeping the hijackers from getting to their target — the White House or possibly the U.S. Capitol.
All that remained of Flight 93 was a hole in the ground, smoke and the strong smell of jet fuel.
In a hard hat and with his D.H. Griffin Wrecking Co. credentials, David Griffin got to ground zero in New York two days after the attacks and got through two checkpoints.
He was turned away at a third, because he didn’t have a pass.
Griffin, whose parents, David Sr. and Marylene, had founded the family demolition business decades before, had come too far to stop.
He was able to evade officers while they removed something from an American Red Cross vehicle.
The normally straight-laced Griffin said he looked at the men, looked at the opening and then looked at the men again before walking past the entry point.
“What I walked into,” Griffin said, “I wasn’t prepared for.”
Even blocks away, just about every other window had been blown out of buildings. Dust covered the streets.
A bright red firetruck stood crumpled like a toy beneath twisted metal and crumbled concrete. An American flag flapped in the background as workers sifted through debris, bucket by bucket, for clues — and possibly human remains.
Griffin stumbled upon a meeting of construction workers, engineers and New York City staffers who were discussing how to take down a 27-story curtain wall that posed a danger to those workers.
He decided to speak up.
Other people from Greensboro got there, too.
As Scott Lineberry, who had training in grief and trauma assistance, neared the Pentagon in his car, the gaping hole there reinforced his need to be there. At “Camp Unity,” in a parking lot of the Pentagon near a hill of hundreds of flowers and memorials left for the dead, he immediately got into his warm-up pants and a T-shirt identifying him as a volunteer .
Around him were men and women of the FBI wearing tiny flags on their lapels, volunteers from as far away as California, and temporary kitchen setups by the N.C. Baptist Men as well as McDonald’s and Outback.
He helped with whatever was needed but also lingered when someone needed to talk.
“It’s like getting hit on the head with a two-by-four ... you can’t feel anything until the numbness goes away and the pain comes,” Lineberry said.
In New York, volunteer and Greensboro psychologist Scott Hinkle felt an overwhelming sense of respect for the dead.
“People are quiet. They are working, but they know that this is a tomb,’’ Hinkle said at the time.
In a Red Cross vest and a photo ID around his neck, Hinkle arrived each day at what had been a large, empty warehouse on the Hudson River before the city took it over. Checkpoints were staffed by the police, FBI and CIA. Away from family entrances facing lower Manhattan, were SWAT teams and military gunners.
Inside was a high-security day care center for the children of the people there for emergency help, to drop off combs and toothbrushes for DNA tests, or to see someone like Hinkle so that they could get a death certificate. Hinkle, who helped with nearly 1,000, would meet them at the end of a long hall — where pictures of thousands of the missing were posted in hopes someone had seen them.
“Up top you might see the father’s picture, with ‘Missing. Please call.’ Then lower, at a child’s reach, ‘Daddy, we love you. Please come home.’ One after another.”
He took part in the police-escorted family visits to a cordoned-off section of the devastated area, where both construction workers and rescuers would pause upon seeing the group and put their hard hats and helmets over their hearts.
“It wasn’t closure,” Hinkle said, “but it helped them move on.’’
But not everyone found solace.
”One guy refused to leave,’’ Hinkle said, remembering the acres and acres of twisted metal and chunks of concrete. “He said ‘I’m staying right here until I find my boy.’ He was just a loving, heartbroken dad from Philadelphia who couldn’t give up.”
New York officials would entrust Griffin with a section of the cleanup, including removal of a curtain wall. CNN broadcast live as Griffin’s team used a 500-ton crane to put workers 250 feet into the air, where they hooked cable to the section and pulled it down.
His father, who was recovering from knee surgery in Greensboro, was often on the other end of the phone line as he worked.
Working with teams of federal, state and local emergency management officials, Griffin’s crew had to make decisions in hours based on past experiences, that they normally would not have made without weeks of planning.
Griffin prayed day and night.
Twenty days into the job, they were still pulling out of the rubble smoldering, cherry-red steel.
Soon, Griffin was entrusted with the entire project.
When he left the day-to-day work at the site about eight months later, the biggest demolition job in the world had been reduced mostly to trucking away debris. Others of his crew worked for another year, with Griffin returning as needed.
Platt, the pastor at Wells Memorial Church in Greensboro, said he continued to get questions:
Why? Why would God allow this to happen?
“I got to the point where I had to say, ‘I don’t have an answer,’ ” he said.
“People wanted an answer, but there was none.”