‘A glorious day and a terrible day’: 12 years later, one family remembers 9/11

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 10, 2013 

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started as a joyous occasion for Ron and Mary Roberts. Their oldest son, Jon, and his then-wife, Whitney, were expecting their first child. So the family went to The Medical Center at 5 a.m. to await the baby’s arrival.

But later that morning, while sitting in a waiting room, Ron and Mary saw television footage of planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City. Their thoughts immediately turned to another son, Chris, who had just moved to Manhattan as a college student.

“We started trying to call and couldn’t reach him,” Mary said Tuesday. “And that’s when we really started to panic.”

Now the Roberts’ granddaughter, Madelyn, is celebrating her 12th birthday, and their son, Chris, is a web designer at Columbus Regional Hospital. As the nation observes the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the occasion brings back memories of the wide range of emotions the family experienced on that fateful day.

“It was a glorious day and it was a terrible day,” Mary said. “Our emotions were all over the place.”

Ron, 63, is a retired music minister, who worked for various churches in the Chattahoochee Valley. Mary, 63, was a stay-at-home mom when their three children were young. The couple also started a business called R & R Sprinkler Service, which is now owned and managed by their son Jon. And their daughter, Beth Hall, is a Synovus employee and a married mother of two living in Birmingham, Ala.

Their youngest child, Chris, is a 2001 graduate of Jordan High School. He moved to New York after accepting a scholarship from the American Musical Dramatic Academy. He settled in an apartment about 60 blocks from the Twin Towers and enjoyed the big city life.

“I always refer to it as my second home because I loved being there and living in the city,” he said Tuesday.

Mary said she initially had concerns about Chris moving to Manhattan. But she and her husband visited in July 2001 and believed it was safe. “Where he lived and went to school was like a small community,” she said. “Everybody knew everybody. They got out on the streets and walked all the time. I felt really good when I came home, like this was where he was supposed to be.”

That all changed on Sept. 11. Chris received a text message from a friend in Columbus who said he heard about a plane crash and wanted to know whether Chris was OK. Chris said he didn’t think much about the text until he walked down the street and saw people crowded around a radio. He stopped at an electronics store and saw television images of the planes crashing into the buildings.

He and other students then went to the school’s administrative building to find out more information. On the way there, they heard a crash and felt a tremor from one of the towers falling. School officials told them to go home and not come out. He and his friends had acquaintances who worked at the World Trade Center, and they didn’t know if they were dead or alive.

“There was just a lot of emotional chaos, not knowing what was happening and just being upset that somebody would do this,” Chris said. “We were very young and very angry.”

Chris and some of his friends decided to do what they could to help. They walked a few blocks to the Red Cross station and helped distribute water and supplies.

Throughout the whole ordeal, Chris tried calling his parents but there was no phone signal. He finally reached one of his friends in Columbus and his former drama teacher at Jordan High school. And they agreed to contact his family.

Chris said he didn’t realize at the time that his parents were at The Medical Center waiting for his niece to be born.

The new baby

Back in Columbus, Chris’ brother, Jon, said he and Whitney were in the delivery room waiting for the doctor to induce labor. They found out about the terrorist attacks when his wife turned on the TV.

“She was getting bored flipping through channels and that’s when we saw the towers getting hit and all that,” said Jon, a resident of Smiths Station, Ala. “And with my little brother living in New York, of course, that doesn’t help because now she’s worrying about him. We can’t find him. We can’t get a hold of him.”

Jon, 33, said he and Whitney had taken a road trip to New York three months earlier. They had seen the Twin Towers and his brother’s school. “So, it was just kind of a wake-up call,” he said. “Everybody was worried about my brother; at the same time we were worried about Whitney and about everything going OK with her having the baby.”

He said the delivery went smoothly. His daughter, Madelyn, was born at 8:33 p.m.

“When I saw her for the first time everything else sort of disappeared for me,” Jon said. “I wasn’t thinking about the rest of the world and all the tragedy. I was thinking, ‘I got a child now. I got a responsibility to help raise somebody and to teach them right from wrong and that hatred is not a good thing.’”

Mary and Ron were just as excited about the birth of their first granddaughter, even as they worried about their son. When the couple went home that evening, they found phone messages saying Chris was OK. They talked to him later that night.

“We were relieved,” Mary said. “But we were still concerned about his safety.”

Life after 9/11

In November 2001, Chris decided he wanted to come back to Columbus. He said it could have had something to do with 9/11, but he also thinks he was just homesick. “I was 19. I was young. I missed home,” said the 31-year-old.

Mary and Ron said the family cannot completely forget the tragedy, but it gets easier every year.

“The first few years, it was difficult, yes,” Mary said, “but not so much anymore.”

Jon and Whitney have since divorced and both remarried, and their daughter has two families that “spoil her rotten,” Jon said.

She’ll have a birthday celebration at his house today and with his parents on Thursday. They will also celebrate Chris’s birthday, which was Sept. 2.

“She knows that she was born on a hard day for America,” Jon said. “But she never really talks about that. She just lives life and enjoys it to the fullest.”

Mary said 9/11 was a difficult time. But now she’s just glad to have her granddaughter and her son back home. “It wasn’t a good day, but when the baby came, she made it better,” Mary said. “We don’t dwell on it anymore on 9/11. It’s all about her.”

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9/11 responders far from NYC seek compensation

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