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Attacks rocked Gwinnett at all levels

Sports headlines in Gwinnett County the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 read like a harbinger of simpler, more copacetic times.

The Atlanta Braves, in pursuit of their ninth straight division title, were set to trot out the vaunted Big Three starters -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Burkett -- in the "series of the year" against rival Philadelphia. Falcons coach Dan Reeves was scratching his head over a first-game loss at Terrell Owens-led San Francisco. In Chicago, a sneering Micheal Jordan was all but confirming his return to the NBA -- albeit in a gold, black and slate-blue uniform.

Then, in an instant, none of that really mattered.

Much like workaday stressors and traffic headaches, sports were suddenly trivialized for Gwinnettians that morning by televised mass death and tidbits of the unthinkable streaming across dial-up Internet connections and car radios.

Like billions of others around the world, and hundreds of thousands in Gwinnett, Duluth resident Patrick Gould was stopped in his tracks by news of terrorists employing airliners in kamikaze-style attacks on downtown Manhattan and Washington, D.C.

Gould's mother, he knew, was on a Florida-bound plane that morning. As the world would know in a matter of hours, the weaponized planes had other destinations. His mother, he sighed, was OK.

More than 600 miles from the nearest downed plane, Gwinnett County nonetheless reverberated with the psychological shockwave that was Sept. 11. Church doors flung open across the county, school children sat glued to news coverage (lesson plans ditched), sports gatherings were axed, large-scale businesses locked doors and emergency officials activated disaster plans designed for tornadoes and freak ice storms. The news shattered an idyllic, mid-80s, mostly sunny day that Atlanta forecasters were calling a little touch of autumn.

At Gwinnett police headquarters in Lawrenceville, someone burst in the office of acting Gwinnett police Chief Charles Walters, reporting a plane had struck one of Manhattan's famed Twin Towers.

"Like everybody else," Walters recalled this week, "I thought it was one of those sightseeing planes."

With the second-largest Fire Department in metro Atlanta, Gwinnett fire brass immediately shifted their ranks to standby mode for their brethren in Atlanta, should the hijackers turn on Georgia's capital city. Fire houses across Gwinnett were locked down and put on alert.

"I remember (an Atlanta Fire Department spokeswoman) telling me that Gwinnett would be one of the first departments called if they needed help," recalled Gwinnett's Assistant Chief David Dusik, then serving as the department's spokesman.

Gwinnett Place Mall and the Mall of Georgia were closed, sans holiday. Major colleges in the area closed for the afternoon; Gwinnett Public Schools remained open for a full day that was punctuated, in most cases, by televised atrocities.

Current Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith, at the time a University of Georgia business administration student, was driving to work at Circuit City when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower. It was 8:46 a.m.

The day, he recalls now, would be one of dazed non-productivity.

"We all sat in front of the big screen section all day with the TVs turned to different news stations," Smith said. "Customers, too."

Fire Department Chief Bill Myers, then a deputy chief, raced from a meeting to a conference room at the old Fire Headquarters and, minutes later, saw the second plane strike the South Tower.

"My heart just sank," Myers said this week. "I remember wondering what would be next. The atmosphere in most every fire station was one of pall. The whole situation seemed surreal, like a bad dream."

Ironically, in a government class at Atlanta Christian School, teacher Beverly Dowdy spent the early hours of Sept. 11 squelching student complaints that "nothing was going on" in current events.

By 9 a.m., those gripes had ceased, and they could not be reasonably revived for the next decade.

"Do you think we'll go to war?" one student queried.

Chimed another: "Do you think this is bigger than Pearl Harbor?"

Shortly after the last of four planes crashed at 10:03 a.m., Walters called every supervisor from lieutenants up into a makeshift command post in the chief's conference room at headquarters. The room was crowded but silent. They set out pinpointing and deploying officers to all high-risk targets in Gwinnett -- malls, water plants, Buford Dam.

"Everybody was just dumbfounded," the chief said. "It was like any other place in law enforcement -- we'd never had to face this before."

Around 10:30 a.m., Gwinnett and Lawrenceville police were shutting down Briscoe Field at the behest of the Federal Aviation Administration. Officers inspected the trunks of cars, checked identification cards, secured the jet propulsion and fuel areas -- a level of alert on par with the 1996 Olympics. One retired Air Force pilot, en route to his uncle's funeral in Texas, was ordered to turn around.

At the county's governmental nucleus, the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, all deliveries were immediately halted, but the doors remained open. Groups periodically gathered in the lobby, craning their necks toward televisions that buzzed with hysteria, confusion and outrage.

Morbid pranksters found opportunity in the malaise.

A Safeco Insurance branch on Satellite Boulevard was evacuated when a suspicious package turned up brandishing an envelope that read, "Boom! Safeco is next." Police ruled there was no bomb. It wouldn't be the last false threat in Gwinnett that week.

Most Gwinnett County public schools went about their scheduled sports practice and game routines, the logic being that parents weren't expected to pick up students until much later. (During a scrimmage that evening, Collins Hill freshman Keaston White broke his neck trying to make a tackle, rendering him a quadriplegic; his celebrated recovery would entail acing high school and graduating Emory University en route to law school). In the pro baseball ranks, stadiums including Turner Field sat empty in the thick of pennant races. "There's no competitive spirit in anybody," Chipper Jones told Morris News Services. "I think everybody just wants to pull for each other right now."

All day long at Grayson High School, in veteran history teacher Paul Waters' class, the television remained on, and with rapt attention students watched realtime history unfurl.

"This is going to be the thing your kids and grandkids come and ask you what you remember about it," Waters told his pupils that day. "You're going to remember this for the rest of your life."

Then classroom televisions flashed with Palestinians cheering the attacks, firing celebratory gunshots into the sky. Knee-jerk reactions by some students went that we should bomb as many of those people as we could, Waters told the Daily Post that year.

Prayer abounded. Congregants huddled. From Dacula to Norcross, church doors opened to the public well into the night."When we're made to feel vulnerable, we feel alone. And in our aloneness, we feel powerless," the Rev. Richard Long, executive pastor of Snellville First United Methodist, told this newspaper, prior to a special evening prayer service. "As we gather together, we comfort each other."

About 8 p.m., the makeshift command center at Gwinnett police headquarters finally disassembled for the night, though the department's philosophy was indefinitely altered. Meat-and-potatoes street policing would henceforth be wed with anti-terrorism awareness.

"It was ongoing," recalled Walters, the police chief, "because we'd never had to think this way before."

On Wednesday morning, Gwinnett police would handle five bomb call threats -- three at businesses, one at Centerville Elementary School, another at a daycare -- that all turned out to be sick jokes.

On a more benevolent front, a line of 65 blood donors had formed at the Atlanta Red Cross office by 6:30 a.m., a half hour before the office opened. The Gwinnett County Fair, touted by leaders as a respite from the national anguish, was still opening at 4 p.m., with expectations of a 200,000-plus crowd.

On the football front, Gwinnett public schools announced Sept. 12 that all games under Friday night lights would be played as scheduled (those plans were later axed, all games canceled). ACC officials postponed a Georgia Tech showdown with Florida State, but all SEC match-ups were declared a go.

Vince Dooley, then UGA's athletic director, told a Daily Post writer the decision to barrel forward with games would disallow the terrorists from changing our way of life, from restricting our freedom.

On a front porch in Lilburn, about 24 hours after the towers so violently dropped, then-Gwinnett County Commissioner John Dunn, a Coast Guard Port Security Unit member, was bidding adieu to his 16-month-old son, Ethan.

Dunn was bound for ports undisclosed, likely somewhere in the Northeast.

"The events of (Sept. 11) have stirred every emotion in me -- the strongest of which is rage," Dunn told the Daily Post then. "I think we are in for a long, protracted conflict."