Ceremonies give locals chance to pay respects

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 12, 2011 

Rodger Williamson had forgotten the 12-foot I-beam from the World Trade Center would be in front of the National Infantry Museum.

The massive piece of wreckage from the south tower caught his eye as he and his sons approached the museum on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.

“We were walking up and I said, ‘We’re going here first,’” Williamson said. “It symbolizes the 3,000 who died that day and the more than 4,000 who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The I-beam was part of almost 200,000 tons of steel pulled from the wreckage of the twin towers. On Sunday, visitors to the museum came to pay their respects by signing their names on the beam. Some wrote a message. The words “never forget” stood out among a sea of names.

“I’ve been reflecting a lot over the past few days,” said Tonya Douglass, principal of Downtown Elementary School in Columbus. “It’s never far from us.”

Her father, Ernest Thomas, stood nearby. He lived in New York City in the early 1970s. Though he wasn’t in New York during 9/11, he said the event affected him greatly.

“When it happened, I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I turned on the television. I saw the second plane hit. I thought it was a movie. I couldn’t believe it.”

The yard by the beam was covered in small American flags on Sunday. They flapped lazily in the wind atop miniature poles stuck in the ground.

Trusty Layne looked out on the flags from the shade of the museum. An Army veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Layne said he wanted to honor those who died in 9/11 and show his respect for those who serve in the military.

“We should never forget it,” Layne said. “As time goes on, people forget.”

Another World War II and Korean War veteran, Joe Tolbert, sat next to Layne on a bench. He said he wanted to spend his day remembering those killed on 9/11.

“I was in the war,” Tolbert said. “I thought about it over night and decided to come out here.”

Hours later, as the sun crept toward the west, another group gathered at the Columbus Government Center in remembrance. A different piece from the twin towers’ wreckage sat near flags at half-staff.

Tony Oxford, a reserve deputy with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, is the custodian of the artifact. He went to New York City on Sept. 12, 2001, to help cut the wreckage into pieces.

Oxford, who lived in Macon, Ga., at the time, remembers the drive to New York City. Every underpass he saw had an American flag draped over it or had someone on it holding a flag. When he arrived, he noticed that race, color and political affiliation didn’t matter.

“I think it was an awakening for me to be there and even now,” Oxford said. “I wish we could all go back 10 years ago to a week after 9/11 and remember what it was like.”

Randy Robertson, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and an organizer of the Government Center event, said he wanted New York City’s law enforcement to know that Columbus, Ga., remembered them.

“On 9/11, those officers were doing the pure, absolute job that they were called to do,” Robertson said. “We don’t ever want to let our brothers and sisters down.”

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