When the twin towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City, Kimball Payne had been Lynchburg’s city manager for less than a year.
He was in a reception area at the Virginia University of Lynchburg when Ralph Reavis, then president of the university, stepped out of his office and told Payne there was something he needed to see.
The Rev. Carl Hutcherson Jr. was in his first term as mayor and was in City Hall when the first plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Someone set up a television in the room, and he and the staff watched the second plane hit.
Tim Mitchell, now director of Lynchburg Water Resources, was a utility engineer. He had been working for the city for a little more than a year and was sitting at his desk when he got a call from his wife telling him to turn on the news.
"Surreal," he said. Before that, it had been a typical day.
Todd Foreman, now Bedford’s police chief, was in Arlington for a training session on crime prevention when everyone’s pagers suddenly started beeping with word of the attack on the World Trade Center and, whatever was happening, it was not over yet. He remembers the crime prevention instructor commenting this moment would forever change the way police performed their duties.
The stories are familiar. They are told annually at the anniversary, the recitation of where they were when they learned what happened, their reaction, what they saw when they found the nearest television and turned on the news. For many Americans, such stories form a shared experience of a tragedy they will never forget.
“I remember, later on that day, it was surreal to see no jet streams in the sky, no airline contrails. Empty skies," Payne said. “And just a sense of, I don’t know, almost anticipation. Or, like, what’s next? Where are we?"
The morning of Sept. 11, Payne immediately excused himself from his meeting, left VUL and rushed back to City Hall.
Hutcherson said at City Hall, the phones immediately started ringing. People were asking what was going on, and what the city was going to do.
“It was something that really shook everybody to the core, everybody who cares about the nation, who has a conscience," Hutcherson said. Twenty years later, he said, he can remember it almost like it was yesterday.
The city held a press conference. The News & Advance's article in the Sept. 12, 2001, newspaper shows a line of solemn officials curving in front of the bench in council chambers. Chuck Bennett, then chief of the Lynchburg Police Department, stood behind the podium.
Lynchburg city administrators "called for calm" at the Tuesday afternoon conference and assured the public "any threat to the city of Lynchburg is minimal."
"I think we all felt incredibly vulnerable at that point," Payne said. "But trying to assure the public that we could work through it. We need to be patient, see what we can learn and figure out how to move forward."
In the days that followed, as civilians and officials alike still faced plenty of terrifying unknowns, many simply wanted the sense of security felt with having officers present. Bennett said police presence at city schools was widely requested before tapering off in about a week’s time.
The immediate impacts to the city itself, beyond offering comfort and acknowledging fear, initially was unclear. Payne and staff identified areas of regional concern for further attacks — specifically the nuclear-services firm, BWX Technologies; the National D-Day Memorial, which had just been visited by former president George W. Bush two months before; and the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. at Liberty University.
Though Payne said city officials didn't specifically move resources in the days that followed, they directed a "higher level of attention" to areas of possible concern.
In the days and weeks that followed, Hutcherson, a reverend, said people flooded the churches "like it was Easter," turning to worship and faith as uncertainty brewed on a national scale. He and other councilmembers fielded countless calls from those who "just wanted to hear a comforting word."
Over the following year, FEMA and other agencies came up with training sessions for first responders of all stripes, Bennett said, which strengthened preparedness and communication for future emergencies. That included departments many might not think of initially because “it would be all hands on deck,” he said, noting finance personnel would have to handle grants and allocate funding to triage different needs, while school officials and social service workers would be charged with setting up those facilities as shelters.
“Everybody was involved in this and everybody ended up having training in this,” he said. “And we did have a couple of natural disasters where this proved to be very efficient, and that training continues.”
The most substantive changes to city services would come in the following months and years — directed towards the city's water supply, as the department now known as Lynchburg Water Resources hiked security and made lasting changes to water and sewer infrastructure.
“It definitely changed the way we did business," Mitchell said. "From the day before the attacks we were very open ... It’s much more controlled now than it was before that.”
Soon after, Mitchell said, the department "became more vigilant" about making sure facilities were closely watched. Until then, water and sewer facilities largely were public, such as the College Hill Water Filtration Plant, which had public streets running through the property. In the years that followed, the city bought more property around the facility so it could better secure the sprawling infrastructure.
Increased security and restricted access was implemented at all water treatment plants, pump stations and water tanks throughout the city.
Federal legislation added more mandates to water systems, and the city underwent a vulnerabilities assessment to identify weaknesses, ensure redundancies, and look at areas to improve security. Employees underwent additional training related to the risk assessment, according to Mitchell, and developed an emergency plan.
“It definitely wasn’t temporary. It’s the new normal, and even beyond that," Mitchell said.
For members of local law enforcement, the attacks led to a progression of different responses that would bolster public safety practices across the board. Emergency responders nationwide saw the consequences of lacking fully integrated communication systems at ground zero, Bennett said, and while the Lynchburg area already was working on such a system, Sept. 11 hastened that process.
Current Police Chief Ryan Zuidema had been with the Lynchburg Police Department for about four years at the time of the attacks and was part of a group within its tactical team that traveled to New Mexico for a federal training session for law enforcement on response to bombings and other terrorist acts.
With many members of the community on high alert, he said there also was an element of community education to help prevent false alarms — some of which included racist profiling, Bennett said.
Zuidema said the focus of law enforcement has since shifted on multiple levels. Where police were primarily focused on domestic threats before the attacks, local agencies started to function more as intelligence gatherers. Databases and information sharing across the local, state, and federal levels opened up, which he said are of critical use today.
Such training and lines of communication would arm officers with the tools they’d need to be the first on the ground in the event of any local attack to keep people safe while preserving evidence for an investigation before higher-level responders arrive.
Twenty years later, Payne said he's certainly thinking about the attack and the days that followed. He's been to ground zero in New York City since, including within a year of the attacks, when memorabilia still adorned the fence at the site. Humans are fairly adaptable, he said, but there's something out there now, a vulnerability that wasn't there before.
BWXT Chief Administrative Officer Rick Loving was the company's Director for Administration on Sept. 11, 2001 and remembers two things about that day.
One was the immediate response the nuclear company acted on to ensure its plants and government facilities were secure — including Mt. Athos and Lynchburg — and the other was making sure all employees were safe and accounted for across the country. Among other things, BWXT manufactures nuclear components for the U.S. military and manages U.S. government facilities.
“As a government facility at that point in time, we were doing things that were really kind of happening all across the country, and while no one has seen an event like this, you certainly prepare, from a safety and security standpoint, for various types of emergencies,” Loving said.
Loving said about 100 staff members were traveling for work that day and while communication wasn’t what it is today, it was harder to reach those people and find out where they were.
“Everybody immediately just wanted to know, and there was a huge need of understanding what was going on and you're working in a facility, you're only getting bits and pieces of information and trying to communicate to our workforce what was happening,” he said. “That communication aspect became very, very important.”
Loving was at a meeting at a government facility in Ohio and said the overarching questions were: “Where are our employees?” “Are they on a plane somewhere?” “How do we get them home?” and “How do we reach them?”
For the first hour or two after the attacks, no one knew the magnitude of the events, he said.
“I think that was the greatest degree of uncertainty early on, was wondering if it was over, and that really drove you to being extremely cautious and secure in what was happening,” he said. “But there was a decent amount of time there, which no one knew, had this ended or was this the beginning?”
As a government contractor, BWXT continues to work with regulatory agencies and contractors as it has seen the overall security posture evolve.
“There was obviously a tremendous amount of review by the government on what they thought was going to be the appropriate level of security at various facilities,” he said. “What you now take as the norm when you move through an airport or a federal building, a lot of those things used to be a lot more open. We and all the government acknowledged the heightened risks that occurred as a result of those actions and the need to ensure that you're appropriately protected.”
Loving said there also was a renewed sense of mission and pride from the employees at the company.
“You really understood the importance of what you do for the men and women that are in our services, and the products you provide and when something happens, you want to make sure that they have the very best equipment they've got the very best to be able to respond to whatever that is,” he said. “We really had this heightened sense of patriotism and importance in what we do, and in times like this, it really means something and continues to ensure you're doing the very best.”
Andrew LaGala, director of the Lynchburg Regional Airport, was working at the Tampa International Airport that day, and said the events of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed the airline industry.
“All air traffic came to a halt, basically ceased for days until the government figured out how to move forward,” he said. “It was about a week before they started putting planes back in the air.”
Even when planes started flying again, demand for air travel plummeted — in Lynchburg, dropping more than 31% in the first five months.
“The biggest thing is it caused travelers to either reduce or avoid air travel altogether just due to the perceived risk of flying,” he said.
New security protocols were mandated and new restrictions implemented on what was allowed onboard the airplane.
“It wasn’t just the gun that wasn’t allowed on a plane; now anything could be used as a weapon,” he said.
Interim security protocols enacted at the airport included deployment of the National Guard at the passenger check point. The Department of Homeland Security was created out of that day, LaGala said, and passenger screening responsibilities transferred from the airlines to the federal government.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, coupled with the introduction of low-cost carriers, triggered a wave of Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcies throughout the 2000s among the major airlines. Lynchburg's airport benefited with the introduction of competitive, low‐cost airline fares in 2008 by U.S. Airways as a response to loss of passengers to nearby airports.
Twenty years ago, Lynchburg was served by three airlines — U.S. Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. In January 2002, United Express discontinued all service to Dulles International Airport from the Lynchburg airport, which LaGala said was a direct result of the attacks.
Airport security was enhanced with the requirement for local law enforcement officers at checkpoints and, as a result, the airport formed a dedicated Airport Police Department, which exists to this day.
LaGala said Transportation Security Administration funds most of the cost — critical for smaller commercial service airports, such as Lynchburg.
Heightened security requirements were put in place at the checkpoint, as well as additional perimeter fencing and airfield security protocols.
He said enhanced security still is evolving. Lynchburg received new CT-80 baggage screening equipment, installed in the past year to ensure 100% checked baggage screening.
There still are restrictions on what you can take with you through the checkpoint, he added.
“Those remain in place and those are always evolving, depending on the new risks, and the new security threats that evolve,” he said. “It’s ever changing so TSA is always looking at risk assessments and what can go through a checkpoint.”
Bennett, the city’s former police chief, experienced the after effects of Sept. 11, 2001 from a number of different perspectives.
“September 10th, the world was one way; September 11th, the world was another way, and it’s been that way for the last 20 years," he said.
A leader and advisor in public safety and security with a 50-year career in law enforcement, he recalled a moment that highlighted the sudden difference while heading to a previously scheduled seminar for law enforcement in Paris.
Flying out of Dulles International Airport a little more than a week after Sept. 11, following a period when U.S. airspace was largely shut down, he recalled talking to a flight attendant about his job and why he was flying. Shortly after, the attendant handed him an unopened bottle of champagne — not for in-flight libations, but as a potential weapon to use in case the flight was hijacked. The attendant also had “armed” himself and a U.S. serviceman on the plane.
When the planes hit, Bennett was in a staff meeting at the Lynchburg Police Department, which had to respond swiftly to sudden widespread unease and fear in the community. Much of that response was to be a public security presence where he recalled reminding many people that first responders are trained and accustomed to running toward the danger, not away from it.
But soon after the fear came an unprecedented sense of solidarity and devotion, with people in Lynchburg “mobbing” the Red Cross to donate blood, he said.
“I have never known the United States and its citizens to be as united as it was in 2001 and into 2002,” he said.
After 14 years as chief in Lynchburg, Bennett left for more international work in 2008, in large part helping police in Pakistan with training and working with leadership. There, one major goal was to help their forces become more effective at countering overcome terrorism at home, where there’ve been training cells for militant Islamic extremist groups.
“We made some inroads into that, but I can only imagine what it’s like now,” he said.
Now, 20 years since, as Taliban forces have rapidly swept in to control Pakistan's neighbor, Afghanistan, as U.S. troops withdrew from there, he said it’s important to understand the patience such terrorist groups will exercise in exacting revenge.
“People need to understand, we’re in this for the long term,” he said. “I mean this is going to take years and years and years to hopefully deal with successfully.”
Having visited Afghan refugee camps and listened to the basic hopes of security and freedom that Pakistani leaders have for their communities, Bennett said support of those citizens in challenged areas of conflict is vital.
He holds that the lessons from Sept. 11, 2001 stand — that civilians and officials should be vigilant, informed and cautious but not afraid.
“I think the majority of the public has simply forgotten” those lessons, he said. “…We have already a whole generation — or maybe two, when you think about it — that never really understood or were alive when this occurred. So all of the stuff that’s happened in the past 20 years is perfectly normal to them.”