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Bin Laden’s death triggers memories of Sept. 11 for Halifax County residents

“My heart felt 20 pounds lighter,” said county resident Wallace Hall when he heard of the death of Osama bin Laden over the weekend. “I was so relieved to see that they had gotten him.”

The al-Qaeda leader was shot and killed in a firefight with members of Virginia-based Navy SEAL Team Six on Sunday at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Bin Laden was the mastermind of the suicide attacks by two jet airliners on the World Trade Center and the one that attacked the Pentagon. A fourth airplane bound for an intended target in Washington crashed near Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania when a group of passengers attempted to retake the plane from the hijackers.

Hall, who moved to Halifax County with his wife in September of last year, witnessed the crash first-hand of American Airlines Flight No. 77 into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was a taxicab driver and was on I-95 next to the Pentagon when the plane crashed,” Hall said. “I saw the plane as I came over the 14th Street Bridge.

“I already knew about the attacks on the World Trade Center, and I said to myself, ‘that plane is not in a landing zone, and he is flying too low,’” Hall said. “The plane went around the Pentagon and then flew into it.”

Hall said he believed the hijacker was looking for the White House and couldn’t find it.

“I pulled into an off lane and stopped on I-95,” he said. “I was a volunteer firefighter in Fairfax County, but there was a fence between the Pentagon property and the interstate, and I couldn’t get to it.

“I was about 250 to 300 yards from the Pentagon, and I could feel the heat,” Hall said. “That plane looked like it came to a standstill coming from the south. It then went over the Potomac River, went around and then came back like it was going into a garage.”

“It was the prettiest day I’ve ever seen,” he said, describing the morning before the attacks.

Hall said he had picked up a businessman who was going into D.C.

“The first plane had hit the World Trade Center, and as we were going up the ramp into D.C. the man said, ‘hey driver, wouldn’t it be something if they hit the Pentagon.’

“I said ‘no sir, that could never happen because of the security,’” Hall continued. “The F.B.I. interviewed me on the telephone that day, and I became a witness for the F.B.I. in their investigation.”

About a week after the attacks Hall said he was in his cab when a woman walked up to him and said four suspicious-looking middle-eastern men were sitting under the Wilson Bridge that crosses from Virginia into Maryland, and they had been there for some time.

“We cab drivers had been told to report anything we saw that looked suspicious, so I reported the four men to the Alexandria City Police Department,” he said. “They picked them up, and I never heard anything about it again.”

Hall said Monday he was thrilled with the news that bin Laden had been found and killed.

Sept. 11 in New York

Charles Johnson, a native of Staten Island, New York, was living in Halifax County in 2001, but he happened to be in New York on Sept. 11.

“I had a dental appointment and was staying at my son’s house on Staten Island,” Johnson said. “I saw the report of the first attack on the World Trade Center on television, and I saw the smoke in the sky.”

Johnson said he thought perhaps a drunken pilot had made a mistake.

“No one suspected an attack,” he explained. “But when the second attack was broadcast on TV, I realized it was deliberate.
“I had a feeling of disbelief,” he said. “I could see the smoke in the sky ascending upward.”

Johnson said he could have driven one-half mile after the first plane struck the World Trade Center tower, and he would have witnessed the second plane fly into the other tower from Staten Island.

A former high school industrial arts teacher at Port Richmond High School, Johnson said, “Sixty-seven of my former students died in the attacks on the World Trade Center that day.

“It tore at your heart,” he continued. “So many people were affected by what happened.”

Johnson said he witnessed acts of camaraderie that day that were rarely seen.

“Neighbors who usually did not talk to one another were comforting each other outside their houses,” he explained. “People who hadn’t spoken to their neighbors for years were talking.”

Johnson said he was “delighted” when he heard the news of bin Laden’s death.

“I’m a preacher of peace, but what goes around comes around,” he said. “You reap what you sow.”

Former military officer speaks out

South Boston Mayor Carroll Thackston (Major General, retired) said he didn’t learn of bin Laden’s death until he went to the hospital Monday morning.

“I’m very pleased we finally caught up with him and eliminated him,” said Thackston, former Adjutant General of the Virginia National Guard. “SEAL Team Six is the best in the world. It is among, if not the most, elite of the Navy SEAL teams.”

Thackston said SEAL Team Six, the group that carried out the operation over the weekend, does part of its training at the National Guard’s training center.

“They train at Little Creek at the National Guard Reservation Center,” he said.

Thackston said he is convinced Osama bin Laden was the mastermind of the attacks on 9/11.

“The U.S. and our allies have been searching for him for years,” he said. “It speaks well for the tenacity of the SEAL team.”

The mayor said he believes we can expect some retaliation for the death of bin Laden.

“We need to be ready,” Thackston said. “I hope we will be prepared.”

Remembering Ground Zero

Halifax County Emergency Services Coordinator Kirby Saunders went to New York on Sept. 11, 2001 as part of a student group from the Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke where he was in the paramedic program.

“We thought we would be helping out with health-related duties,” Saunders said. “But we ended up at Ground Zero with debris removal.”

Saunders said he stayed up Sunday night to watch the news reports of bin Laden’s death.

“I’m relieved, and I’m feeling intense patriotism,” he said. “We all felt that way Monday morning. 9/11 is the reason I chose the field I’m in.

“There seems to be a sense of justice for those who lost their lives on 9/11,” he continued. “I am concerned about retaliation, though. We do have to have an air of caution.

“I can’t help but have the feeling that justice has been served, and the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 have some closure,” Saunders said.

Leaders share thoughts

Congressman Robert Hurt said Monday, “The death of Osama bin Laden marks a great victory in the War on Terror and is welcomed news for all Americans. It is my hope that this announcement brings some amount of justice and closure to the families of the victims of Sept. 11 and to those who have lost loved ones throughout the War on Terror.

“As we remain vigilant in our fight against terrorism and continue our efforts to protect our country from those who seek to do us harm, we will be forever grateful to the brave men and women of our military and intelligence community whose hard work, dedication, and sacrifice helped bring Osama bin Laden to justice. I want to commend President Obama, President Bush, and their teams for their resolve in seeing this mission through to its success,” the 5th District congressman added.

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I want to commend our military and intelligence professionals for the coordinated and painstaking work that was responsible for tracking down Osama bin Laden.

“Bin Laden was behind the tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon in Northern Virginia on Sept. 11, 2001, the bombing of the Norfolk-based USS Cole in 2000, and countless other acts of terror that have killed thousands of innocent people.

“His death does not mean that the threat posed by terrorism to our nation has passed.  We must remain vigilant.

“But bin Laden’s death does provide a sense of justice, and hopefully a measure of comfort, for those who have given so much in America’s fight against international terrorism.”