DJJ officer shares 9/11 story with those too young to remember

Members of the Birchwood High School Junior ROTC detachment at DJJ salute after lowering the American Flag to half staff during a program in remembrance 9/11.
Members of the Birchwood High School Junior ROTC detachment at DJJ salute after lowering the American Flag to half staff during a program in remembrance 9/11. tglantz@thestate.com

What does 9/11 mean to those who are too young to remember it?

That was one motivation for Rose King to share her personal story with the young people she oversees and mentors at the Broad River Road complex of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.

King, a 53-year-old correctional officer, spoke about her experience in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, at a memorial service held Friday at the campus’s Birchwood High School. She described the terror she felt that day to teenagers for whom 9/11 is something in a history book.

“It’s therapeutic,” King said of recalling indelible memories 15 years later. “The scars don’t go away easily.”

King, was a 38-year-old native New Yorker taking the train to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan when she got her first news of the terrorist attack from an unusual source.

“A homeless man entered the train shouting, ‘We’re under attack! We’re under attack!’ ” she told the teenage inmates and guests gathered around the Birchwood flag pole. “And like everyone else in that train car that morning, I ignored him.”

Soon every cellphone on the train was ringing with news that a plane had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

King admits now to being troubled by her initial reaction to the news: She wondered how much it would affect traffic.

The gravity of what had happened only hit King once she walked up the subway steps onto a street full of people staring at the towers.

“I assumed they were looking at what had already happened,” she said. “That’s when the second plane hit (the south tower).”

She went to her office at the New York health department, where workers found themselves stranded as lower Manhattan became increasingly locked down and cellphone service was shut off. The lobby was converted into a temporary medical clinic.

The most disturbing thing she saw was a woman covered in ash, motioning for one of the nurses to bring her some water.

“I thought she was going to drink it, and instead she poured it up her nose, and all this black sludge came out,” King said, reading from her text.

The trauma landed King in bed for three days after the attack. Within a year, she decided to leave her birthplace for her family’s home state.

King’s story gave the young people at DJJ the closest they will get to a firsthand experience of a day that stunned the nation.

“I wasn’t old enough to see it firsthand,” said 15-year-old Gabriell, whom The State newspaper is not identifying by her full name because she’s in juvenile detention. “Before it was, not unrealistic, but like it was something that didn’t really happen.”

Like the other teenagers at Friday’s ceremony, Gabriell is a cadet in Birchwood’s Junior ROTC program. The color guard raised a flag to half-staff, and then laid a wreath and a piece of the rubble from the towers at the base of the pole.

The teenager already was planning to go into the military, but King’s account fortified how she felt about that decision.

“It makes me proud of my American citizenship, and encourages me to fight for the country,” Gabriell said.

Joe’l, another cadet who lived in New York for a while when he was younger, remembers hearing older people there talk about that day. But the 17-year-old also came away from Friday’s event with a deeper appreciation for what people like King endured.

“It helped me understand how important it was,” Joe’l said, “that these people died, and what all the country had to go through.”