In 2001, while sipping a fresh cup of coffee and watching “Squawk Box” on CNBC, Gray Edmondson was shocked to hear a news anchor say a plane had just hit the World Trade Center in New York City near his home.
Now, Edmondson is a practicing attorney with Barnes Law Firm, P.A. in Oxford and lives with his wife, Macey Edmondson, the dean of admissions at the Ole Miss School of Law, and their two sons. But he still remembers the day the towers went down.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 Al-Qaeda militants, an Islamic extremist group, overtook four airplanes and flew two into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and one into The Pentagon. The remaining plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York City, Washington, D.C. and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, according to CNN.
Edmondson, a recent Ole Miss graduate at the time, was studying tax law at New York University.
“When the plane first hit, even though it was a clear day, the assumption among most people around me was that it must have been a small private plane doing something stupid,” Edmondson said. “Then, after the second plane hit and news came out about the Pentagon plane, it became clear that it was a terrorist attack.”
Macey Edmondson was back home in Biloxi planning their wedding when she received a call from him following the first plane crash.
“I immediately called my wife, then-fiancé, and told her what was going on and that I was going to walk to the World Trade Center to see what was happening,” Edmondson said. “I was walking up to the building, and was pretty much next to it when the second plane hit.”
Chaos followed the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. Thick black smoke quickly engulfed crowds of people running, fearing for their lives. Edmondson said this moment was extremely frightening.
“When the building first fell, everyone started screaming and running,” Edmondson said. “While running, I could see over my shoulder what appeared to be a large amount of thick smoke overtaking people running as fast as they could.”
Edmondson was relieved to find out that the “smoke” was actually ash. Inhalation of smoke could have caused Edmondson and others with him to die.
“I took off my shirt and breathed through it,” Edmondson said. “The feeling that we could all be about to die from inhaling that much smoke was pretty scary.”
Panic, confusion and fear swept through the lower Manhattan area following the two crashes. Blinded by the thickening ash, a pandemonium quickly spread throughout the rest of the city.
“The sound of jets flying what sounded like close overhead could be heard, but we could not see much of anything through the ash,” Edmondson said. “People were screaming and jumping to the ground. It seemed as though New York City could have been under attack with even more planes crashing to the ground.”
Edmondson couldn’t get in contact with his wife again until hours after the attacks. His home was completely closed off by officials because of its close proximity to the World Trade Center. This caused Edmondson to relocate to a friend’s place for a few nights, and then a hotel for two weeks, until he was able to move back into his apartment.
Edmondson said the days after Sept. 11 were eerie. Lower Manhattan was a ghost town with no sign of human life.
“Walking in Lower Manhattan with no other people around, everything closed, smelling the burning building, seeing ash covered cars, seeing abandoned street vendor carts, was very strange,” Edmondson said. “When we got close to our building, we saw an army tank driving down the street.”
Police and military officials strictly controlled the New York City area. They broke crowds down block by block, building by building.
“The whole scene looked like something out of an apocalypse movie,” Edmondson said.
Edmondson said his building had yet to be confirmed that its structure was safe, so officials monitored it closely.
“The army only allowed three people in at the same time and gave them 15 minutes,” Edmondson said. “I was given a flashlight and 15 minutes to run up 21 flights of stairs, pack my belongings and run back down 21 flights of stairs with whatever I had packed.”
Edmondson couldn’t reunite with his fiancé until Nov. 21, three days before their wedding.
Edmondson said the events he experienced that day were scary, but he currently does not believe his life was ever at risk.
“Those few events were the only times I thought I could be in a near-death situation,” Edmondson said. “However, in actuality, I do not think I was ever in any real danger.”