9/11 at 20: Former GC students, others talk about fateful day at school

A plane approaches New York’s World Trade Center moments before it struck the tower at left on Sept. 11, 2001. The City of Baytown is having a remembrance ceremony at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Fallen Firefighter Memorial at Bicentennial Park, 1001 Market St. The public is invited to this free event.

When the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, ultimately bringing down three buildings and leading to 20 years of war in the Middle East, kids of all ages in Baytown sat and watched the events unfold.

Be it elementary, junior or high school, the attacks resonated and still do today with a number of former students who now coach in the Goose Creek district and the coaches of those days can still look back and remember what it all meant then and still feel how it effects them now.

Rachel Duty, Goose Creek Memorial softball coach, was Rachel Smith on that fateful day when she was just a first grader at Stephen F. Austin Elementary when the attacks took place.

“I was in art class, we were told to go into the hallway and hug our knees like for a tornado,” Duty said. “Once we got into the hallway there were a lot of 

parents coming to get other students around me. I had no clue what was going on except that we practiced sitting in the hallway and hugging our knees for tornado drills, but without kids leaving. 

“My mom came and got my brother and I shortly after. She picked us up, couldn’t really explain to us what was going on and mostly just cried.”

Duty ended up at the family business watching the events on television seeing the World Trade Center and Pentagon getting hit by airplanes. 

“I will never forget these images and this experience,” Duty said. “There was so much confusion. At age 6, it’s hard to understand something like that. Gives me the chills and makes me tear up just typing about it.

“I do think about this day often and the impact that it made on America. After this day, America became a more unified and patriotic place to be, we all look at our flag differently.  We still to this day hear of random stories of heroic people who saved others or risked their life. What makes me really remember this day is the fact that it’s my mom’s Birthday, as well.”

Running around as an eighth-grader at Baytown Junior, Candace Southall, Sterling head volleyball coach, was in algebra class when things went amok.

“I remember being my teacher turning on the TV in the classroom,” Southall said. “It seemed as if my classmates and I weren’t  aware that this was happening in real time.  My teacher tried to explain to us that there was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I’m pretty sure during this time I was really just shocked that suicide bombers existed. I think my classmates were just as shocked and some even in tears.

“I don’t really think about the day randomly but I can distinctly remember exactly where I was and the feeling of darkness in the room.”

Cody Love, Sterling assistant tennis coach

Love was a freshman at Robert E. Lee High School and started his day in Mrs. Robin Richards’ English class, who he ultimately would teach side-by-side with her at Sterling years later.

“I was the first one in the room and noticed that the big tube TV mounted on the ceiling was on,” Love said. “I thought I was watching some type of action movie as I saw a plane go through one of the trade center towers. As we began to understand what was happening, Mr. Hall, our fearless leader at the time, came across the announcements to explain to us that America was under attack. He told us that the Pentagon had been hit, a plane in Pennsylvania went down, and that Exxon could be a potential target. Of course, Lee High School is just a stone’s throw from the grounds of Exxon and once word got out to parents the school went wild. 

“Kids were darting for the exits and parents were picking kids up left and right. I vividly remember walking to baseball class to go hit in the batting cages and on my way there I noticed fighter pilots patrolling the area around Exxon.”

Love says the impacts of the day left a lot of he and his peers nervous and wondering just how much worse things could be.

“I don’t think it really sank in for all of us until we came back the next day after watching the never-ending news reels of the towers falling and watching so many lives vanish,” Love said. “I do often think about that day and year because it was like the end of innocence for me and so many of my classmates just starting high school. It gave us a wakeup call that life was not all butterflies and rainbows. 

“Something positive I took away from the attack was how the country came together as one. You could feel the patriotism for years after that.”  

Kevin Jones, athletic director at Baytown Christian

A longtime presence in Baytown spots, Jones was coaching at Cedar Bayou Junior School and was getting ready for the team’s first playoff game against North Shore’s Cunningham Middle.

“When I arrived at school, Coach Bryan Gesford met me in the gym and informed me that a plane hit the tower in New York,” Jones said. “I did not fully understand that it was a commercial flight at first. We then followed the events one by one to our dismay while our students sat in the gym asking many questions. By lunch time, we had cancelled the game and I met with our players to talk about the attack. 

“My voice was trembling thinking about the people in that building and their loved ones watching it unfold. We dedicated the rest of our season to these victims and won all seven games that season left on the schedule.”

The irony was that Jones’ team may have not had the best football players, but they may have had the biggest hearts.

“I did realize that our kids cared deeply about 9/11 and we discussed it on a daily basis,” Jones said. “I do think about this day often and it still breaks my heart. These thoughts are always followed with memories of this team that didn’t play for themselves that year. They actually played for our country.”

Dick Olin, retired, former REL football coach

Olin was in the middle of his time with the Ganders as he was on a run of some success with the program, and it was year nine when the planes hit.

“I walked to the cafeteria – I was on duty – and was told that someone flew a plane into the Twin Towers,” Olin said. “I don’t know how much time had passed when someone else came and said a second plane hit a tower. They started to make announcements, and everyone was in a state of shock. How could these planes hit the towers? No one had any idea that they had been hijacked. We realized when we got back to the office, and we turned on the news and saw what was going on.

“It was an unbelievable experience.”

Olin and the Ganders practiced and went on. He said that if you ask kids today about what’s going on in their country, most wouldn’t have an idea.

“We all live in this little vacuum, and it hasn’t changed: I was like that, you were like that, we didn’t think about the whole world,” Olin said. “Then all of a sudden, this all came about, and everybody is going, ‘wow,’ you don’t think these kind of things would happen here. It was a real shock.

“We just told the kids what had happened, we had no details, and more information would be coming forward when everything was released.”

Olin said the players talked about it and he heard much speculation until more details came to light.

“We went out and we practiced and did what we needed to do,” Olin said. “We talked about it and gave a prayer. I had one player draw a picture – and I still have it – off the towers in smoke and planes going in and a drawing of Christ in the clouds with his arms extended.

“There are bodies that ascending to the skies. I thought ‘this is unbelievable.’ It was incredible for a kid to come up with that.”

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