UPDATED: 8:00 a.m. ET, Sept. 11, 2023
The nation forever changed 22 years ago when 3,000 people were killed in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a field in rural Pennsylvania in terror attacks orchestrated by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ever since then, the horror of it all replays like a bad movie on the anniversary and fresh wounds are reopened. Here, NewsOne remembers some of the unsung heroes of color who stood on the front lines during and following the devastating attacks on 9/11.
NYPD Sgt. Rodney Gillis was killed in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center while he was saving people.
“That was what Rodney would do,” former NYPD detective Madeline Lawrence recalled in an interview with USA Today. Lawrence said Gillis always put others first, as evidenced by how he jumped to action even though he wasn’t on duty that day.
“He was our sergeant, and he looked out for us,” Lawrence added. “He appreciated the magnitude of those buildings.”
The stories of a group of African American firefighters — Vernon Cherry, Tarel Coleman, Andre Fletcher, Keith Glascoe, Ronnie L. Henderson, William L. Henry Jr., Gerard Jean Baptiste, Karl Joseph, Keithroy Maynard, Shawn E. Powell, Vernon Richard and Leon W. Smith Jr. — who gave their lives at the World Trade Center site to save others on 9/11 have gone largely untold. Craig Kelly, a former firefighter and a grief counselor who worked with the fallen heroes’ families, was compelled to chronicle the aftermath of their deaths and made his research into a documentary, All Our Sons–Fallen Heroes of 9/11, which was released in 2004. The tribute memorializes the fateful day’s heroic lives and what they meant to their communities.
Regina Wilson was also working as a second-year FDNY firefighter during the 9/11 terror attacks.
“We had to draft water from the river in order to put fires out,” Wilson told the AFRO News. “We spent most of the time trying to collect it and hook up with the marine units so that we could draft water to put out some of these building fires and car fires all over the place. You just didn’t even know where to start.”
Wilson said the aforementioned Black firefighters will never be forgotten.
“Every year we go and pay our respects and pay homage to those Black members that passed away because the media doesn’t recognize their lives and their purpose,” Wilson added.
U.S. Marine Jason Thomas, who was 32 at the time, ran “toward Ground Zero” at the World Trade Center with only a flashlight and a shovel and made the decision to help as many people as he could. He ended up unearthing a pair of police officers buried beneath 20 feet of debris. But then Thomas disappeared. No one knew of his identity until he was finally unmasked four years later.
Despite his heroics, Thomas was portrayed as a white man in the 2006 film World Trade because, well, systemic racism.
The filmmakers later apologized for their inaccuracy, but Thomas, ever the patriot, just laughed it off and said he didn’t want to “shed any negativity on what they were trying to show.”
Children aboard Flight 77
Way too young to understand the evils of the world, three bright lights were permanently dimmed on 9/11: Asia Cottom, Rodney Dickens and Bernard Curtis Brown II. All age 11, the children were aboard the fateful Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. The precocious youths had been handpicked to represent three middle schools in the Washington, D.C., area and travel to the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary near Santa Barbara, California, to participate in a National Geographic Society research project called “Sustainable Seas Expedition.” The children were accompanied by a teacher and two National Geographic representatives. Sadly, all of the passengers on Flight 77 were killed. The children and their chaperones’ memories were honored when the then-mayor of Washington, D.C.— in conjunction with D.C. public schools, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the National Geographic Society, the Anacostia Watershed Society and the Earth Conservation Corp. — turned the islands of Kingman and Heritage into sanctuaries.
LeRoy Homer, Jr.
LeRoy Homer, Jr., grew up in Long Island and always dreamed of becoming a pilot. So when he began flying for United Airlines in 1995, his dream was finally realized. On Sept. 11, 2001, Homer, 36, was assigned to Flight 93 from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco. Four al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked his plane, but after learning about the other crashes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Homer — along with some of his crew and a few passengers — organized a takeover. During the struggle with the terrorists, the plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Homer, a hero indeed, was gone way too soon.
Chief Technician in the gross anatomy lab at the City College of New York and scientist Darryl Warner is a special hero who had a unique job: He was the country’s only African American diener, making him responsible for locating donor bodies to be utilized by medical school students. When 9/11 took place, Warner did not think of himself or his health and gave thought to the thousands of victims who fell at the hands of terrorists and needed to be identified and brought back home to their loved ones. Therefore, Warner traveled every day to Ground Zero to volunteer and help identify the remains of the deceased for the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. Warner is truly the epitome of a hero who has continued to dedicate his life to science.
And who could forget Marcy Borders? The dramatic image of her covered in soot from the fallen towers defined the 9/11 attacks. She died of stomach cancer in 2016, an illness that may have been brought on by the toxic fumes emitted from the terror attacks. The illness is believed to be the blame for similar deaths in other survivors from that day including hundreds of NYPD officers.
The Bayonne, New Jersey, native worked at Bank of America on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers, where she worked on the 81st floor of Tower One. She managed to escape just minutes after the buildings collapsed, emerging covered in dust and powdered concrete. She was brought to safety in a lobby nearby. Agence France-Presse photographer Stan Honda managed to snap a photo of Borders, who became known as “The Dust Lady” before her true identity was confirmed. Her image served as a stark reminder of a day that shifted the trajectory of an entire country.
Veteran journalist Richard Prince compiled a number of attestations from his fellow Black journalists who were working on the morning when the Twin Towers were struck by terrorist-steered airliners 22 years ago.
From heralded newsrooms like CNN, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and others, Sept. 11 was a day “in which Black journalists were tested as never before,” Prince remembered in 2001. In a series of vignettes written by or about Black journalists who were covering the terror attacks, it became clear how much their race factored.
“I was the only Black producer for any of the news networks,” Jennifer Thomas recalled in 2021 about working at CNN on 9/11. “You don’t think of the enormity of that. . . but you know that you bear a great responsibility. I don’t have a choice. I don’t have an opportunity to mess up. When they’re going around doing specials, no one’s coming to me, to ask me . . . I was there, but no one’s necessarily coming to me. . . but you’re doing your job and you’re doing it well, and then you recognize the significance of it later…”
Please let us know in the comments the names of other heroes. Never forget.
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