When Cheryl Oliver heard about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, she was working at what was then AT&T’s world headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J., about 35 miles south of New York City.
Because of their proximity to the attack on the World Trade Center and to AT&T’s network-operations center – a likely target for terrorists looking to disrupt that nation’s communications – company executives told Oliver and her coworkers to go home.
As she drove home, Oliver was able to see smoke billowing in the air from the intense fire in Lower Manhattan.
“For the first time, I understood the frailty of our nation,” she said. “For the remainder of that day and the ensuing days, I also better understood the bravery and selflessness of our first responders and citizens.”
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Oliver, now mayor of Selma, was among the speakers for a 9-11 memorial service held this past Thursday morning at Smithfield-Selma High School. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and military personnel joined Junior ROTC cadets, other students, teachers and administrators to mark the tragedy and the nearly 3,000 lives lost that day.
Kenneth E. Sumler, an assistant principal at SSS, led the invocation. Calling to mind other national tragedies, including the Pearl Harbor attacks, the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Sumler reminded his listeners that even in the darkest of times, God is present.
“Through all the tears ... from the airline passengers, the firefighters, police officers and military servicemen and women at the Pentagon, you were there,” Sumler prayed. “In the stillness of the aftermath that came over our nation, God, you made it clear that your love had never stopped, will not stop and that your enduring love is forever. We ask that you bless this new generation, this day, as these Navy Junior ROTC cadets honor those fallen heroes, lives and loved ones.”
Macy McRory is a senior at SSS, where she is commanding officer of the Navy Junior ROTC. In her speech, she called for tolerance and forgiveness, even in times of murderous tragedy.
“As America continues to pursue justice, let history remember the lessons we gleaned from this tragedy that we may improve the human experience for the next generation,” she said. “Let history recite about us in an altered course, in which we replace anger with reason, force with compassion and vengeance with forgiveness. Let them say, through this unimaginable tragedy, through a tolerant world of peace, justice and opportunity for all, ‘God bless America.’ ”
Junior ROTC cadets performed the presentation of the colors, hoisting a U.S. Flag to half-staff to commemorate a nation in mourning. The school’s chorus sang the National Anthem, and Bruce Wright of Durham played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.
In her speech, Oliver commended the bravery of first responders and the everyday citizens who ran toward the danger, not away from it, in the spirit of helping others.
“[These people] believe in the sanctity of human life and that they are their brother’s keeper,” Oliver said. “The strength of our country is born of the bonds that we have with each other and our belief that every individual has worth.”
She added: “On this national day of service and remembrance, may each of us pause to give thanks for all those who have given and are giving the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and increase our resolve to defend and preserve our United States of America and the values that have made it a great nation.”