20 years following the September 11th Terrorist Attacks local veterans and public safety officials reflect on their careers

LAWRENCE CO. – For Americans and people watching around the world, September 11, 2001, is a day that will never be forgotten. The 20th anniversary of the terrorist event is Saturday. It is a time to remember and reflect on the attacks the exact time, place, and reactions of that fateful day when terrorists attacked American soil.

In the span of three hours, two planes hit the World Trade Center, one plane hit the Pentagon and one crashed in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 died during the attacks, and many more suffer ongoing conditions from injuries and smoke inhalation.

New York’s tallest buildings were reduced to rubble, and the Pentagon, the nerve center of the American armed forces was burning and partially collapsed. The entire country was in collective shock, still trying to make sense of how a coordinated act of terrorism of that magnitude was allowed to take place on American soil.

Today we will share the experience of three individuals on 9/11.

Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department Major Travis Sanders was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard when terrorists attacked. Retired Sergeant First Class Blake Yeary, was serving at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina, and Bedford Police Officer Robert Looney was in kindergarten and today serves in the National Guard.

We share their stories as we all reflect on this day.

Major Travis Sanders Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department served in the U.S. Coast Guard during September 11, 2001.

Major Sanders has a long family heritage of family members who served. His father Terry Sanders served in the Navy for more than 20 years. His grandfather Paul Sanders served during World War II, and his two children, daughter Ashley and son Caleb serve in the United States Air Force.

Travis served from 1994 until 2014 in the United States Coast Guard.

“9/11 of course happened, but following September 11, 2001, it was probably the most patriotic and proudest time of the American people that I have ever seen. The morale of the country was at an all-time high. I know for us serving, our morale was just as high because we were at the forefront of numerous missions and able to absorb that patriotism that was being demonstrated by the general public,” said Sanders.

“There are still men and women serving in all branches of the military and they need our support and our patriotism. They need to know what they are doing is serving a purpose no matter what branch of service they are in,” Sanders added.

The United States Coast Guard has been involved in every major war this country was involved in. There are still seven U.S. Coast Guard ships in the Persian Gulf.

“I always heard the joke the U.S. Coast Guard was the redheaded stepchild of the branches of the military. And heard that the Coast Guard is not military. However, the U.S. Coast Guard also trains for conflict. U.S. Coast Guard’s mission is accomplished every day. There was a huge demand on the U.S. Coast Guard especially after 9/11.”

Sanders was stationed in Mobile, Alabama on 9/11. He first heard the news like everyone else, on the news. He along with everyone else was in front of the television. There was an eerie silence in his office. Ten minutes later, if that, phones started ringing and never stopped.

“We were responsible for five major ports in the south which included Pensacola, Mobile, Gulf Port, and Pascagoula, and Panama City. Within a 24 hour period, the U.S. Coast Guard closed all five ports. Normally, those ports are not closed unless there is a natural disaster such as a hurricane. That is for the safety of vessels, the safety of the port, and the general public. Closing off those ports meant that commerce stopped. This occurred at ports throughout the United States,” said Sanders.

“When the planes took out the Trade Center, crashing into the Pentagon, and other unknowns there was a probability of waterborne attacks that we had to be prepared for,” He added.

Sanders’ initial reaction was numbness.

“Although we prepare and train for when something happens, at first, it seems like a few minutes pass, but in reality, it’s only seconds and you are making decisions to protect assets, people, and quite frankly your country. We did not miss a beat and did what needed to be done,” he added. “There is always an element of people that want to do harm. Both at home and abroad and it takes men and women who are willing to fight for the cause to protect, defend, and support the freedom, liberty, and well-being of its citizens.”

Retired 1st Sgt. Blake Yeary

Retired Sergeant First Class Blake Yeary, of Bedford, served in the Army from 1981-2008. He served at several bases throughout the United States, He completed his basic training at Jackson, South Carolina, and served at other locations including in Panama, Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, Fort Dix, N.J.. and Ft. Louis, Washington, but most of his time was served at Ft. Benning, in Georgia.

Yeary, a May 1981 graduate of Bedford North Lawrence High School, entered the Army in July 1981 and made the military his career.

Yeary recalls the morning of September 11, 2001. He was running a few errands and he can remember coming in about 8:57 a.m. when the first tower had already been struck. A few minutes later the second tower was struck.

“By then the phone started ringing and people from the church started calling and I guess at that time I was like everyone else, I was in shock and awe that this happened on U.S. soil,” said Yeary.

Yeary was serving at that time as a platoon and drill sergeant preparing soldiers to go to war.

Yeary spent his time making sure that those men were combat-ready, and emphasized to them what was coming. A lot of units had started deploying. Many were aware of what units they were being assigned to and knew they were going to be in potential combat within the next 90 days or six months at the latest.

“A lot of these men within 90-120 days of graduating basic training were linked up to their units and a lot of them were shipped or already overseas, the 11th Bravo was infantry,” said Yeary.

Sergeant First Class Blake Yeary stands between professional athletes Pat and Kevin Tillman.

During 9/11 Sergeant First Class Yeary had two celebrity sports figures enlist and do their part to support the country. Those two were Pat and Kevin Tillman. Pat was a professional football player with the Arizona Cardinals, his brother Kevin played in the minor leagues at the AAA level for the Cleveland Indians when they enlisted.

“This was different, in the Army you do not run into a lot of former professional athletes. Pat just finished his rookie contract about the time 9/11 happened,” said Yeary. “Pat Tillman was drafted in 1998 in seventh-round pick, 226 overall. The scouts did not think Pat had enough speed to play the corner and did not have enough size to be a linebacker so there were doubts about him being able to play at a professional level. However, the Cardinals decided to give him a chance,” Yeary added.

“He did not lack speed, from an Army point of view. We would run circuit drills where a platoon circuit would have a whistle and they would jog the corners of the track which was a quarter of a mile and when they would get to the straightaway the drill sergeant would blow the whistle and they would sprint. When they would sprint, he would just go off and leave everybody. We have this hill right out of the barracks and Pat would also do a fireman’s carry and throw his brother over his shoulder and run up the hill,” Yeary added.

Yeary was instrumental in training the Tillmans from their first day to graduation day.

Both brothers were assigned to the 2nd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment and were sent overseas.

Pat Tillman served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his subsequent death was the subject of national attention when he was killed in action as a result of friendly fire.

“I have no regrets in serving. Making sure men were prepared. I would do it all over again. The most special to me when it is all said and done is the comradery and brotherhood. The trust among military personnel is by far the best, they will do anything for you. The families serve too. My family supported me throughout my career. My wife Teresa supported me and I want to thank her for that,” concluded Yeary.

Bedford Police Officer Robert Looney

Bedford Police Officer Robert Looney was in kindergarten when the September 11th attacks happened. Today he is active in the Indiana National Guard and has served for more than six years and just recently reenlisted for another six more years.

Officer Looney is from Lewisboro, New York, which is an hour away from New York City. He found his way to Bedford in 2015 and decided to stay. When Looney moved to Indiana he met with a recruiter and enlisted with the National Guard.

“I have always admired service,” He added. “Being from New York it was something special, I was very young, and seeing everyone come together from our first responders, and military I admired that.”

Looney’s grandfather served in the Navy.

“I am thankful for what I do with the Guard, it allows me to protect my community, and then if called on I can help protect our country,” Looney continued.

All three men encourage those who might be interested in service to do so. It is important and something they strongly believe in.

Four flights played a central role in what unfolded on September 11, 200. In the early hours, 19 would-be hijackers made their way through security at airports in Boston, Newark, and Washington, DC.

This timeline of events begins just before 8 a.m., as the first plane involved in the attack leaves the tarmac just outside of Boston. 

Sept 11, 2001, 7:59 a.m. – American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 carrying 81 passengers and 11 crew members, departs from Logan International Airport in Boston, bound for Los Angeles International Airport.

8:14 a.m. – United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767, carrying 56 passengers and 9 crew members, departs from Logan International Airport in Boston, bound for Los Angeles International Airport.

8:14 a.m – Flight 11 is hijacked over central Massachusetts. There are five hijackers on board.

8:20 a.m. – American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 with 58 passengers and 6 crew members, departs from Washington Dulles International Airport, for Los Angeles International Airport.

8:42 a.m. – United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 with 37 passengers and 7 crew members, departs from Newark International Airport, bound for San Francisco International Airport.

8:42 a.m. – 8:46 a.m.  – Flight 175 is hijacked above northwest New Jersey. There are five hijackers on board.

8:46 a.m.  – Flight 11 crashes into the north face of the North Tower (1 WTC) of the World Trade Center, between floors 93 and 99. All 92 people on board are killed.

8:50 a.m. – 8:54 a.m.  – Flight 77 is hijacked above southern Ohio. There are five hijackers on board.

9:03 a.m. – Flight 175 crashes into the south face of the South Tower (2 WTC) of the World Trade Center, between floors 77 and 85. All 65 people on board are killed.

9:28 a.m. – Flight 93 is hijacked above northern Ohio. There are four hijackers on board.

9:37 a.m. – Flight 77 crashes into the western side of The Pentagon. All 64 people on board are killed.

9:45 a.m. – United States airspace is shut down; all operating aircraft are ordered to land at the nearest airport.

9:59 a.m. – The South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses, 56 minutes after the impact of Flight 175.

10:03 a.m. – Flight 93 is crashed by its hijackers in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Later reports indicate that passengers had learned about the World Trade Center and Pentagon crashes and were resisting the hijackers. All 44 people on board are killed in the crash.

10:28 a.m. – The North Tower of the World Trade Center collapses, 1 hour and 42 minutes after the impact of Flight 11. The Marriott Hotel at the base of the two towers is also destroyed.

10:50 a.m. – Five stories of the western side of the Pentagon collapse due to the fire.

Two and a half hours after the first plane left Boston, the iconic “Twin Towers” lay in ruins in Lower Manhattan, and brave first responders and military personnel were scrambling to save lives and secure the country.

Life in America was set on a new trajectory.

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