9-11-01: Remembering the day America changed

by Sonja J. Keith

A service to honor those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, will be held 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, at the James H. Clark Public Schools Auditorium in Conway.

Fire Chief Bart Castleberry is coordinating the ceremony, which will include the Conway High School stage band and a multi-media presentation.

Groups involved in the planning include the Conway fire and police departments, the Arkansas Crisis Response Team, the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA) and 501 LIFE. For additional information, please contact the fire department at 501.450.6143.

Like others in the 501, it’s difficult for Conway Fire Chief Bart Castleberry to believe it’s been 10 years since the United States came under attack.

Some akin the question “Where were you on Sept. 11 when you heard” to early generations who recounted when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor or when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2011, Castleberry was on his way to work when his wife, Melissa, called and said, “Something is going on in New York.” She was listening to radio reports that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

“I knew if there was any department in the world that could handle it, it’s New York,” Bart said.

Later, Castleberry was collecting the fire department’s mail at city hall and noticed employees watching news reports. “I remember Mike Garrett said, ‘Did you see that? Another plane hit the other tower.’ Then it clicked. This is intentional.”

His wife called again and asked his thoughts on what was happening. “I told her I think some New York firemen are going to die.”

While the likelihood was slim that terror would make its way that day to Central Arkansas, precautions were taken locally. Police and firefighters were instructed to report anything suspicious. “We didn’t think we were a target, but no one knew. Then the Pentagon got hit.”

His wife called again, this time when the towers fell. “I told her a large number of people and a large number of firemen died because I knew where they would be.”

Like the firefighters in New York, Castleberry and other Conway firefighters understand the risk and danger involved in their profession. When others are trying to get away from an emergency, firefighters are rushing to get there to help. Still, it was a sobering moment. “I thought about the firemen, their families, their sons and their daughters and the people who worked in the buildings. It was a sad time.”

In describing the mood at the fire department on Sept. 11, the chief said, “They realized that America was under attack. The feeling was, ‘You can’t do this to America and get away with it.’”

The Conway community was so moved by the acts of terrorism that flowers began appearing and covering up the memorial at the fire department. Within a week of the attacks, a large number turned out for a memorial service at Simon Park. Organized by the Conway Fire Department, it was meant to honor the FDNY (Fire Department of New York). “Because they were firemen and they made the choice to go in,” Castleberry said. “They went in knowing some of them wouldn’t come back.”

On Sept. 11, 343 firefighters perished. “That’s a huge number,” the chief said. “It was their choice. I don’t think you could’ve kept those guys out of the building.”

Every year since then, a memorial service has been held to remember those who perished and honor their sacrifice. “We just don’t want folks to forget, and I don’t think we will forget.”


Within three weeks of the attacks, Castleberry and Jack Bell (now an assistant to the mayor) were in a group of Arkansans who traveled to New York City to help at a family intake center. While technically still in “recovery” mode, it was considered unlikely that anyone alive would be found among the smoldering debris at Ground Zero.

At the center, each family member was paired with someone to help them as they visited with different agencies. Included was a station where DNA samples were collected. At the last station, death certificates were issued.

Castleberry relied on the intake center experience and model when setting up a similar family intake center when evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were brought to Conway. “It worked quite well.”

While it has been nearly 10 years since the experience, Castleberry still remembers the families he met and assisted.

“I’ll never forget the day we went in (to Ground Zero) with the family,” he said, explaining that soldiers immediately “cracked to attention” and saluted. “They shut down the machinery and everything was quiet. Thousands of workers stopped . . . A tremendous amount of respect was shown to the victims’ families.”

At the center, families were given an opportunity to write on “The Wall,” a meaningful way to write their goodbyes.

One man Castleberry assisted was missing his wife. He was retired military, and his wife had been working at the WTC on Sept. 11. He remained strong throughout the process until he was asked if he had his wife’s driver’s license. Handing it over, he stopped and said, “She’s not coming back, is she?” His loss had become real.


Ten years ago, the attacks stirred a stronger sense of patriotism, Castleberry remembered. Unfortunately, Castleberry fears that Americans have become distracted. “We’ve gotten busy with life. We’re worried about our 401(k) and worried about what the Democrats think and what the Republicans think. We’ve taken God out of our lives and out of our country. A lot of things have changed in the last 10 years and not for the better.”

Castleberry has one wish for those who attend the Conway ceremony – to remember. “Look at how much has changed. Ten years ago, you were neither Democrat or Republican but an American. Churches were full of people on their knees before God. How soon we have forgotten. That’s what I wish people would remember and the sacrifice made by police and firemen and those who were just showing up to work.

“America changed on Sept. 11. The world changed. It is my personal belief it’s not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen again but ‘when.’”


Words from ‘The Wall’

Family members who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 had an opportunity to write their goodbyes on “The Wall” at a family intake center. Following are some of the messages:

I will miss you forever dad.
Love, John your son

My Dearest Frank,
I will forever love you,
I promise to carry out the dreams we had as best I can.
I thank you for the 12 years we have had and all that you have taught me.
Most importantly, I thank you for the most precious gift of all, our daughter Lena.
Please watch over and protect her.
I love you, Julie.

We love you and will miss you.
You will always be in our hearts.
Love, Mom and Dad

Happy birthday Dad.
I love you, Haley

My love,
I love you with all my heart and always will.
You are my life, my breath, and my hero.
I look forward to the day when I will see you again.
Thank you for the life we had together, for the children we shared,
and for loving me so much!
You are always with me.
Love you, Me

Mommy and Daddy loves you Tootie