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Gwinnettians remember victims of 9/11 terrorist attacks on 20th anniversary

For Gwinnett County Commissioner Jasper Watkins, the attack at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, was not something he saw unfold live on TV.

Watkins was heading into the Pentagon when one of the highjacked planes crashed into it. He was a member of the medical branch of the personnel command that was heading to the Pentagon for a daily morning briefing.

“Like we did every morning at that time, we were on the yellow line waiting to go into the Pentagon and from the left, it’s vivid, but from the left, before we were going down, one of the members of the party said, ‘Hey, this is not the flight path, you know, this plane is not in the flight path,’” Watkins said.

“And, then we went down and the train abruptly stopped kind of mid-way and then scooted up, and that’s when we knew that the Pentagon was hit.”

Watkins shared his recollections during Gwinnett county’s annual 9/11 memorial at the Fallen Heroes Memorial, which is located at the Gwinnett Justice Administration Center in Lawrenceville, on Saturday. It was one of several events that took place around the county to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Remembrance events were also held at the Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth, Suwanee Town Center Park, Betty Mauldin Park in Norcross and Lilburn City Park.

Each event offered a unique way to mark the anniversary.

Lilburn officials unveiled a temporary art exhibit created by Gwinnett county Public Schools bus driver Daniele Roberts.

Roberts and her family created 2,977 paper cranes — one for every person killed on the highjacked planes, in the Twin Towers in New York City and at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia and forced schools into digital learning in March 2020, Roberts decided to begin working on an idea she’d had about a way to honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“It’s a small memorial (but) it’s a personal memorial, but each person has been memorialized in one way or another,” Roberts said.

With some time on her hands since students were learning from home, Roberts began folding pieces of blue paper, origami style, into small paper cranes.

It took her awhile since she could only work on the project when she had time available, and she had another job as well, but eventually, she and her family made 2,977 paper cranes — one for every person who died as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

“It kind of came to me as an idea to put together something that I could personalize and hold onto and meditate upon each and every one of them,” Roberts said. “And, I thought, ‘What would I do with it once I created all of these origami cranes, which are really very therapeutic.

“I put it all together and the town of Lilburn was very open to the idea to string from this tree.”

The paper cranes were hung from an oak tree at Lilburn City Park and Mayor Tim Dunn said they will remain there until at least Monday. Each crane has the name of a victim of the terrorist attacks written on the underside of one of the paper bird’s wings.

“I hardly know what to call it, it’s so full of emotion,” Dunn said during a brief ceremony.

The events held on Saturday offered Gwinnettians a chance to recall memories of where they were two decades ago when the attacks happened.

Watkins said he and the other command members thought they were prepared for anything, but 9/11 proved to be something they had not anticipated.

It was attack on the heart of the U.S. military, on U.S. soil. As part of the medical command, he had to focus on the 106 people who were wounded and needed medical treatment at the scene of the Pentagon attack.

“That number will always stick in my mind because those are the people I was responsible for in personnel command,” Watkins said. “What I had to do was make sure that we found everybody who was taken away, and you ask, ‘Well why was that important?’

“You’ve got to understand, clandestine operations happen all the time and there were reports of EMS services that had the word ‘Emergency’ spelled wrong and some reports that some of the emergency vehicles had the word ‘Emergency’ right side up as opposed to backwards. So, the thought was all of us that had security clearance, if you were taken and put under, you could give out vital information.”

Meanwhile, Lawrenceville resident Marlene Taylor Crawford, who is a native of New York, said she had already moved to Georgia before the attacks occurred, but she recalled worrying about her father’s safety. He worked in downtown Manhattan, a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.

“You couldn’t get through on the phone so you didn’t know what was going on,” Crawford said. “It was terrifying because you’re also thinking, ‘What’s next? What else is going to happen?’”

Gwinnett County, Piedmont Eastside offering rare public-private health partnership to provide COVID vaccination clinic

With its emergency and ICU beds filling up because of a new surge in COVID patients, Piedmont Hospital-Eastside has formed a unique partnership with Gwinnett County government to provide access to vaccines to people in the southern part of the county.

The county has been working with the hospital in a public-private partnership since June to provide a vaccination clinic at Eastside’s campus in Snellville. It is currently the only hospital that Gwinnett County government has a partnership with to operate a vaccination clinic.

“We started these conversations earlier this year,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said. “We got our site (with the county health department) launched in Duluth, at the (former) Sears location, but we wanted to make sure we had coverage in the southeastern portion of the county because that’s where we were seeing, I would say, disparities in terms of access to vaccines at the time.

“So, I reached out to my friend here (Piedmont Eastside CEO Trent Lind) and just said ‘Hey,’ and started the conversation.”

Hendrickson and Lind said the partnership between Eastside and the county government is rare. The chairwoman said she’s talked to colleagues in other counties in the metro Atlanta area and couldn’t find a similar partnership.

“We’re really leading the way because other governments are working with the health departments or working independently but having a hospital like Piedmont Eastside is very valuable in our community and having that relationship allowed us to form this partnership,” she said.

“And, I haven’t seen anything like this in other jurisdictions. When I talk to my peers in other counties, they don’t have similar partnerships — so we really are leading the way.”

Lind added, “We’re not sure how many public-private partnerships like this there are” in Georgia or across the nation.

The county is providing Eastside with money it received through the CARES Acts last year to support the clinic. Hendrickson said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux also worked on ways to get congressional appropriation funding from FEMA to help support the clinic.

The county and Eastside then worked with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to set up a memorandum of understanding to get the clinic up and running.

There have been 750 vaccine shots administered at the clinic at Eastside since June 12. The clinic is staffed by contracted personnel so Eastside’s staff won’t be deterred from treating patients who are coming into the hospital during the latest surge in COVID-related hospitalizations.

Cathy Philpott, a nurse from Florida who is working as the clinic’s site administrator, said vaccinations began to pick up steadily as the Delta variant began to spread and the start of the school year approached. Students ages 12 and older can get vaccinated against COVID.

More school-age children who are old enough to get the vaccine are showing up now at the clinic, Philpott added.

“We average 10 minors a day,” she said. “Last week, two sets of parents brought their kids on their birthday, so as soon as they were eligible, we were kind of celebrating with them.”

Eastside, like other hospitals around the country, has seen an uptick in hospitalizations during the “fourth wave” of COVID-19 that is being driven by the Delta variant.

Lind said the hospital is being pushed to its limits by the latest surge in COVID-related hospitalizations.

“We’re at capacity and we’ve been at capacity here at Eastside really just throughout this surge,” Lind said. “The one part that maybe the public does understand is you hear a bit about the compression challenges that are put on the hospitals across our country, and it’s real and it’s a combination of COVID patients as well as ... care that needs to be delivered (to non COVID patients).”

One common theme that Eastside, as well as other hospitals are seeing is that many of their COVID patients in emergency room and ICU beds are people who are not vaccinated. Lind said more than 90% of COVID patients at the hospital — including every COVID patient who is being treated in Eastside’s ICU — are not vaccinated against the disease.

Still, Lind said that Gwinnett is doing better than other counties in Georgia because it has a higher vaccination rate. The Georgia Department of Public Health says 50% of all Gwinnettians are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 56% of the county’s residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

“If you look at positivity rates as well as hospitalizations as a result across the state of Georgia, we’re at 50% of what the state averages right now,” Lind said.

While Eastside is the only hospital that Gwinnett County is working with, it is not the only health outlet the county has partnered with to make vaccinations available to the public.

It teamed up with the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health District earlier this year to launch a mass vaccination site at the former Sears location at Gwinnett Place Mall. That site is still in operation.

“We just wanted to make sure we had coverage out in this area,” Hendrickson said of the desire to have a vaccination clinic in south Gwinnett. “That was really the end goal in ensuring that our folks on this side of the county had access to vaccines, and that they were accessible to the folks that needed it the most.

“We have a high African-American population on this side of the county and we wanted to make sure that we were not creating any vaccine deserts per se by launching sites in central Gwinnett so this was a great partnership.”

The clinic is offered on Tuesdays and Fridays, starting at 8 a.m. each day. The vaccinations are offered — walk-ins are accepted without a reservation — until 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, but the clinic stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays.

The reason why the clinic is open later on Fridays is because it switches from a walk-in set up to a drive thru set up from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.

The clinic is offered at Piedmont Eastside’s Medical Plaza 2 building, which is located at 1800 Tree Lane, Suite 250, in Snellville.

GBI investigating deaths of two murder suspects at Gwinnett jail

Two suspects in unrelated murders who were being held at the Gwinnett County Jail died on Monday. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is trying to figure out how that happened — and one part of the investigation is focusing on identifying a substance that was found in the inmates’ cell.

The Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office called in the GBI to investigate the deaths of Stone Mountain resident Ian Longshore, 36, and Decatur resident Corey Bryant, 22, after the pair were discovered unresponsive on Monday. Longshore died at the jail while Bryant died after he was taken to a nearby hospital.

“We are deeply concerned over the unexpected deaths of these two individuals,” Sheriff Keybo Taylor said. “We are fully cooperating with the GBI’s investigation.”

Deputies found Longshore and Bryant unconscious in their cell while responding to a medical emergency. The Sheriff’s Office said jail staff performed life-saving measures on the pair while they waited for emergency medical service officials to arrive.

GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said a white powdery substance was found in Longshore and Bryant’s cell. The substance has not been identified.

“The substance has been sent to the GBI crime lab for testing, and the testing is in progress,” Miles said.

While the GBI awaits the results of the tests on the substance, it is continuing its investigation into what happened in the cell. Miles said the agency will send its results to District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson for review once the investigation is completed.

Jail records show Longshore was booked into the jail on March 12 on felony murder and armed robbery charges. Bryant was also in the jail on murder and armed robbery charges and had been there since he was booked in March 2017.

Longshore’s charges were in connection to the October 2019 death of Sukkee Hong in Buford. He was one of three suspects arrested in connection with Hong’s death.

Bryant was facing charges related to the March 2017 death of Jacquorrius Madison on Grove Lake Street in unincorporated Loganville. He was one of three individuals arrested in connection with Madison’s death.