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Sept. 12, 2001: Area shocked by nightmare that unfolded

Boyce Cauthen holds a heart-shaped potato he bought at a grocery store.
Boyce Cauthen holds a heart-shaped potato he bought at a grocery store. Melissa Cherry

Rock Hill native Jeff Dodge stood in his office six blocks from the World Trade Center and saw the two World Trade Center towers burning. As he ran to a phone to try to call a friend who worked there, he heard the huge explosion and crash, then turned around and the skyscraper wasn't even there.

"It was just an unfolding nightmare," said Dodge, an investment banker who works in New York's financial district. "I could stand at my window and watch it. All of New York is in a state of shock."

Dodge has plenty of friends who work at the World Trade Center buildings, and he's still unsure if all of them survived. He had to walk blocks through dust and debris to finally catch a subway train home in midtown Manhattan, where his wife, Neely, also a Rock Hill native, waited to hear news that he was all right.

"Now I'm watching it on television like everybody else, trying to make sense of it all," Dodge said. "What I saw today is almost indescribable. The debris, the damage, the lives lost. I can't believe what happened, but I saw it with my own eyes. I walked through it."

York, Chester, and Lancaster counties froze in time after 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, shocked like the rest of America as hijacked planes turned New York's skyline, the Pentagon and the nation's airspace into swirling maelstroms of death and fear.

Stores and offices stopped cold. Crowds cried and stood open-jawed in front of television sets at restaurants and schools and offices.

The Herald staff scrambled to let its readers know what was going on, putting out the first special edition in recent memory.

But Tuesday's attack wasn't about governments or companies; it was about people and the world they believe in. A world that seemed so safe, a world now tinged with tragedy and fear, pain and suffering and death.

A world with an enemy within that nobody yet knows.

As Asbury Hoke of Rock Hill stared at his television set Tuesday morning, his mind flashed back to Pearl Harbor. A survivor of the attack in 1941, Hoke knows the chaos of surprise attack, the smell of burning flesh, the frantic despair, the explosions and the unheard screams that tens of thousands of American families watched on their television screens Tuesday as terrorism ripped New York and Washington and terrified the world.

"At least then we thought we knew who the enemy was and we grabbed for something to fight with," Hoke said. "But this, there is no fighting back. There is no enemy in the air. The enemy is a shadow and these thousands of people in those buildings and on those planes just were fighting to survive."

Students wondered: Who could do such a thing? And why? Why kill what will eventually be thousands? Many people talked openly of revenge and retribution for the worst attack to hit America since Pearl Harbor.

At Winthrop University, the American flag outside Tillman Hall flew at half-staff as students inside Dinkins Student Center watched a big-screen TV in silence. Some skipped classes to watch the events that will one day be in history books. A few wiped tears from their eyes while others expressed outrage.

"This makes me mad. Who do they think they are doing this to us?" said sophomore Bobby Ravenscraft.

Many cried while others waited in line for the phone to call family and friends in New York and Washington. Some said they feared the assaults could move south.

"I feel like I want to go home and bury myself in a hole," said Kristine Wood. "It started in New York and then Washington then Pittsburgh. I don't trust anybody."

In schools throughout York, Chester and Lancaster counties, administrators tried to keep everything calm. Many older students watched news coverage. Whether younger students were allowed to watch was up to each school's principal. Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York and Clover canceled after-school events.

Officials, utilities respond

"We are all in a state of shock here. Casualties may run into the thousands — I hope not — given the number of people who work in the World Trade Center," said U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., from his Washington residence. Spratt was tracking events from his home and was in contact with other Congressional and executive branch leaders. Spratt said he and other Congressional leaders will meet with President George W. Bush to show a unified political front in the face of terrorism to the American people.

"Washington is as stunned as the rest of the country," Spratt said. "This goes to the jugular of our free society. It exposes a vulnerability we knew was there."

After the news of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, York County Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell quickly pulled his staff together and called in local leaders, including representatives of the county manager's office, the sheriff's Office, the Rock Hill Police Department, the Fire Marshal's Office, Piedmont Medical Center and the local FBI office. As they gathered in the emergency operations room in the basement of City Hall around 10:30 a.m., Howell briefed the somber crowd.

"We have no reason to think there's a local threat," Howell said.

York County's main terrorist target would be Duke Energy's Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie, which was put on a heightened level of security, Howell said. Other area businesses also were put on alert. The biggest nearby threat would be Charlotte's financial center, Howell said.

"The paranoia's going to be our biggest thing, I'm afraid," he added. "Nerves are on end — something like this can spark anxiety."

The county's emergency team monitored the situation throughout the day on Tuesday, but no local terrorist activities were reported.

Duke Energy's three nuclear power plants were on heightened alert status, imposed first by the company and later mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Randy Wheeless, spokesman.

The company is taking extra precautions and is prohibiting public access, including the nature trail at the Catawba Nuclear Power Station, Wheeless said. The company has beefed up security around its three facilities on Lake Wylie, at McGuire in north Charlotte and at Oconee in Seneca.

Managers at the Charlotte headquarters, where about 5,000 people are employed, were told earlier today they could dismiss non-essential employees. The company anticipates normal operations Wednesday, Wheeless said.

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said he wanted the city to be alert and to offer their prayers.

"What we can do as a city and as a community is be there for one another," Echols said. "Now is the time for our community to be with their families and to stand united with people world-wide in denouncing these horrific acts against mankind."

Chester County reacts

Chester County schools will still meet today, as district officials stressed the need for stability. Chester County Supervisor John Weir said all offices are scheduled to remain open today with emergency services on alert and law enforcement across the county patrolling government buildings.

The Chester Wal-Mart had a moment of silence as shoppers stopped to pray for victims. Over the intercom, music had been replaced with radio news and all television sets in the electronic department were set to CNN.

Employee Doris Oliver, 57, said the New York and Washington chaos was the only thing customers have been talking about — as they came in, and as they left, even as they walked around the store.

"You don't expect it to happen to us," Oliver said. "It's usually somewhere else. Now, you just don't know."

At local restaurant Russell & Co. on Tuesday, the county's Rotary Club met as a TV set broadcast updates during lunch.

"I've had chills all day," said owner Russ White. "It's just unbelievable."

Across town at the Summit Food & Spirits, bartender Melissa Houston said the afternoon crowd watched the reports on television while a constant chatter of the day's events filled the restaurant.

"This is crazy, just crazy. It's like watching something in a movie," Houston, 20, said as she shook her head.

In a work room at the Chester County Sheriff's Office, a constant stream of city and county officers came in an out, trying to get the latest news from TV.

"Watching this just makes you want to cry," said Magistrate Dianne Moore.

More shock around the area

Officials with Springs Industries checked on 40 employees in their New York office at West 40th Street, about 30 blocks from the World Trade Center.

"One of our building managers was on the roof when he saw the second tower collapse," said Ted Matthews, a Springs spokesman in Fort Mill. "They're very upset. One of our associates has a husband who works in the financial district. We did confirm that he is fine."

Many were going to have to spend the night in the city either with friends or at the office because the transit system is closed.

In Fort Mill and at other Springs plants in the three counties, flags will fly at half staff today and through the week, Matthews said. "This is our Pearl Harbor."

Yet Pearl Harbor may not compare with the ultimate tally of death and destruction that stunned America on Tuesday. And many people want answers about how it happened.

"We seem to have been completely unprepared," said former Rock Hill Mayor John Hardin. "This could paralyze the country like nothing since Pearl Harbor."