SMYRNA — William Thompson had been on the New York City Police force for 15 years when he and seven others from his precinct got the call to respond to the World Trade Center just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Thompson, 60, retired from the force in 2006 and now lives in Smyrna. He was among those who gathered as police and fire personnel, as well as city leaders, put on a memorial service at the Twentieth Century Veterans Memorial near city hall Wednesday morning.
“It’s something you never forget. It’s something that’s fresh in my memory every year,” Thompson said of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
Thompson said just after the first plane hit the north tower, every police precinct in New York City emptied, and the streets opened for emergency vehicles racing toward the towers. He said his team arrived after both towers had been hit.
As he and the other officers prepared to receive their orders, Thompson said the ground began to shake.
“Next thing you know, they said, ‘The building’s coming down,’” he said. “We thought it was a jet. That’s how loud it was.”
Dust fell like snow, leaving a thick blanket on the street, Thompson said. After the second tower’s collapse, there was nothing but black smoke and an eerie silence, he said.
As search-and-rescue operations dragged on, first responders turned on the flood lights of the emergency vehicles parked all over the street. The glare revealed human remains lying near ground zero, Thompson said, his voice choking.
“We were there. A lot of people don’t know what happened. They didn’t see the horrors that happened,” he said.
Thompson keeps a collection of pictures and videos from news organizations and other first responders on his phone. He scrolls through them as he talks, pointing out fellow NYPD cops and New York firefighters who died saving people from the towers.
He points to the head shot of a friend of his on the force, who he said died years later from the long-term health impacts of responding to the 9/11 attacks. Thompson said he gets annual checkups to make sure he hasn’t developed any serious lung conditions or cancers. So far, it’s just acid reflux and asthma, he said.
Tyger Vollrath also attended the Smyrna ceremony. Vollrath, a volunteer firefighter in Fannin County, was in New York City on business heading to the airport when the first plane hit. Vollrath said he immediately began directing traffic to help the firetrucks get through. When he offered more help, a firefighter told him to hop on the truck bound for ground zero.
“The stories of awe are not even comparable to what we saw,” Vollrath said. “It was just completely white. Ghost white.”
Vollgrath said he spent the next five days helping with search and rescue.
Smyrna Fire Chief Roy Acree, Police Chief David Lee and Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Derek Norton spoke during the city’s memorial, as a massive American Flag hung from firetruck ladders in the background.
Council member Maryline Blackburn sang the national anthem, as a color guard comprising police officers and firefighters presented the nation’s colors.
Acree said he remembered being “horrified” when he heard of the attacks.
“But there’s something else that I kind of want to focus on that I remember all of us experiencing in the immediate days, weeks and months after,” he said. “That was a sense of pride. Pride in our nation. Pride in the fact that no matter what issues of the day separated us, we were able to lay those aside instantly and become one people — become Americans.”
Like Acree, Lee encouraged everyone to remember the citizens and first responders who died on Sept. 11, but he also reminded them that people are still dying from the fallout.
“Just a few weeks ago, Stephen McCloud who was undersheriff in the state of New York, died as a result of 9/11,” he said. “In some ways, the battle is still not over.”
As memorial attendees left and city staff stacked chairs, Thompson and Vollgrath talked about their experiences following the terrorist attacks. They reflected on the fine dust that lined the inside of their mouths, breaking through windows of nearby cafes or hardware stores to find food or supplies during the hours of search-and-rescue and evacuating building seven at the Trade Center, which caught fire in the attacks.
Memorial attendees stopped as they left to shake the two men’s hands.
Having others to talk to who truly understand being at ground zero that day is therapeutic, Williams said. And though most don’t understand that experience, he said, being surrounded by people every year simply remembering and reflecting on the day is important.
But, Williams added, the heartbreak never fades.
“It’s hard each year,” he said. “It’s still hard.”