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Solemn ceremony marks 9/11 attacks
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The scene just outside City Hall on Friday morning was of remembrance a day in advance of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

During the gathering, Mayor Sandy Roberson, Fire Chief Corey Mercer and Police Chief Robert Hassell spoke.

Hassell reflected on the news that was breaking about the attacks nearly two decades ago and also on the aftermath.

Hijackers used airliners to damage and eventually cause the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and to damage the Pentagon.

Hijackers also tried to use an airliner to cause damage before that airliner crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after passengers stormed the cockpit.

“Today, we look back in reverence and humility as we remember and honor the nearly 3,000 men and women who died,” Hassell said. “On that horrific day, every one of those first responders placed themselves in harm’s way and over 400 paid the ultimate sacrifice.

“America has forever been changed, but through the anger, sadness and despair and emptiness placed in the hearts of the families and friends of those who lost a loved one, our country has grown stronger in our resolve to be a beacon of prosperity, democracy and strength,” Hassell said.

Hassell went on to emphasize that in Rocky Mount “we enjoy great support from our community for our firefighters, medical responders and our police officers.”

“Each of the firemen, police officers and first responders in our country and in our community wear the badge of service. But this badge comes with so many sacrifices, many times more than the average citizen knows,” he said. “But we still put on our boots and don our shirts with the regalia of our profession. And we push on, each and every day, to make a difference in our community.”

He asked the attendees to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11 by thanking the first responders, not only today but each and every day as they serve the community with pride.

Hassell also quoted the part of the Bible that says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

“I pray to God that he will watch over our servicemen serving at home and abroad,” he said. “I pray to the Lord to continue to bless and place his protecting hands around each of our first responders. And may he who sits above continue to bless each of us, our city and our country.”

Mercer told of on Sept. 11, 2001, watching the news on television about the first of the Twin Towers having been struck.

“It appeared to be a movie that just looked real,” Mercer said. “In fact, it was real. As a young aspiring fire officer, I knew the first instinct of any fire service member was rescue.”

Mercer said his first thoughts were, “How do we rescue these people from this event? The strategies and tactics in my head immediately was to sound the alarm for more units and start saving people.

“All fire officers would have planned the same thing,” he said. “This event could have happened Anywhere, USA, and the lives lost could have been Anyone, United States. The fire service has changed so much from lessons learned from this incident and we are better prepared to respond to these incidents as well.”

Roberson recalled having been in a class at a conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 11, 2001, and of the conference being dismissed after the first of the Twin Towers was struck.

“And by the time I went to my hotel room to check out, barricades were being set up all around Washington and traffic was being routed all around town,” he said. “And it was at that moment that I realized that really we are always in a constant battle for our way of life and a constant battle for who we are as Americans.”

Roberson said he saw the remembrance on Friday as an opportunity to talk about being one and to cherish differences but at the same time unite in that opportunity to be able to share those differences.

“I also thought how appropriate that this is to honor those who literally put their lives on the line for us every day — our police officers, our fire department, many others who respond to that 911 call when we’re in trouble and in distress,” he said.

To the firefighters and the police officers who gathered on Friday for the remembrance, he said, “Thank you very much for your job. I know it’s very difficult. I know that you’re willing to put the ultimate sacrifice on the line — and I am personally grateful for that.”

Among those in attendance on Friday were William O’Keeffe and his wife, Delores, both formerly of New Jersey.

On Sept. 11, 2001, William O’Keeffe was a lineman for New York Telephone. He could not get to work because the bridges were closed, but days later he ended up in Manhattan because the telephone company location was mostly destroyed as a result of the Twin Towers having collapsed.

William O’Keeffe told of himself and other personnel going to be outfitted in hazardous materials gear to reclaim the telephone company location.

Tears began welling up in his eyes as he spoke.

“It breaks me up,” he said of what he encountered. “It just was terrible.”

Delores O’Keeffe told of being home along the New Jersey shoreline on Sept. 11, 2001, before she was supposed to go to her job.

She said she could take 10 steps out the front door and see smoke billowing. She also said she watched the news on television about the damage to the Twin Towers.

Delores O’Keeffe also told of a brother of hers who two decades ago was a New York city firefighter who was out on restricted duty and consequently was not at the scene of the Twin Towers after the attacks.

She spoke of his feeling survivor’s guilt.

“If he wasn’t out, the fellow that had his job would still be here,” she said.

Area woman's memoir chronicles aftermath of terrorist attacks

Twenty years ago today, Inez Ribustello should have been at work on her job as beverage director for Windows on the World, the restaurant located on the 107th floor in the World Trade Center’s north tower in New York City.

But Ribustello, who said she normally arrived at work by 8:15 a.m. at the latest, was in bed in North Carolina after coming home to Tarboro for her sister’s wedding three days earlier. After a trip to the mountains with her family, she had planned to return to New York on Sept. 12.

The wedding trip most likely saved her life, because it was at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorists from the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda flew the first of two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, striking the north tower at about the 80th floor.

At 9:03 a.m., the second plane hit the south tower, and at 9:37, a third plane was flown into the Pentagon while a group of passengers overran the terrorists over the skies of Pennsylvania and crashed a fourth plane into an empty field outside Shanksville, Penn.

She and her then-fiance, now husband, Stephen, who also worked at Windows on the World, lost 80 of their co-workers that morning.

“I’ve never wanted to trivialize 9/11 — but at the same time, it was so life-changing,” Ribustello said. “Such a wide range of emotions … pain, heartache, grief, loss.”

Those emotions are among the myriad storylines included in Ribustello’s self-published memoir titled “Life After Windows.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “It includes 20 years of writing. I was fearful about it because it is so personal.”

Ribustello said she had maintained journals all of her life. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, she said the period chronicled in the book begins when she leaves Tarboro for New York City up through this past year’s racial and social unrest.

It includes her landing her position at Windows on the World, her return to Tarboro with Stephen and an 18-month period when she worked as wine director at Borgata in Atlantic City to keep her young family afloat as the couple launched their On the Square restaurant in Tarboro.

“There will be some chapters in there that will be painful for some in Tarboro,” she said. “I write about Black Lives Matter and the reaction we got when we put that in our window (at Tarboro Brewing Company). I’m sure some won’t buy the book because of some of those things.”

Ribustello said writing the book was therapeutic.

“It was really transformational … to see how the world has changed and yet stayed the same over the last 20 years,” she said.

She said her emotions are poured into her book.

“It went from being how grand life was to what it was like (in the aftermath of 9/11) … the incredible anger and sadness I was feeling and then the birth of our kids and opening the brewery. It’s all out there.”

She officially releases “Life After Windows” today at a book signing at 11 a.m. at Rusty’s Gifts at 403 N. Main St. in Tarboro.

Pentagon survivor hopes 9/11 anniversary will help promote unity

Karen Hampton was a civilian worker for the U.S. Army serving a six-month detail at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, in Washington, D.C.

It was a beautiful day. The heat of summer was fading and the weather was cooling. Fall was right around the corner. The sky was clear blue.

Hampton, whose office was located on the first floor between the sixth and seventh wing in the C corridor of the Pentagon, was just around the corner from where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed.

“I thought it was a bomb because it was so loud,” she said. “And then about 20 seconds after the boom, I saw a dust cloud coming down the corridor. I later learned it was compressed air generated by the impact of the airplane. The corridors are very long — probably about a quarter of a mile long — and I could see this cloud of dust rushing toward me. The wind blast traveling through the corridors is what threw me the distance.”

Hampton’s husband, Craig, was working about two miles away in Crystal City. His office was on the twelfth floor and after the attack, he could see smoke coming from the Pentagon. Craig Hampton frantically tried to contact his wife but because communication services were jammed, his efforts were futile.

Some made it out of the chaos and smoke and burning jet fuel, while others did not. One hundred eighty-four people were killed that day inside the Pentagon.

“It was absolute bedlam trying to get out of the building,” Hampton said. “There are only seven exits at the Pentagon and roughly 30,000 people were trying to get out.”

Having walked two miles in heels, Hampton was eventually reunited with her husband.

“We shared lots of big hugs and big kisses,” she said. “It was very dramatic.”

While it may come as a surprise to some, employees went back to work the very next day.

“There was no question in our minds that we were going to work,” Hampton said. “Being the determined people that we are, we weren’t going to let this experience stop us, slow us down. On Sept. 12 when we returned to work, all active military were wearing their combat gear — it was the fighting spirit shining through, the American way.”

Hampton said she felt anger more than anything else during the aftermath of the attack.

“How dare somebody do this, how dare they attack our World Trade Center, our Pentagon, the center of our military might, the center of our economic might?” she said. “This attack was well planned out. It had obviously been in the making for a long period of time.”

Reflecting on how the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 changed her relationships with loved ones, Hampton said, “You don’t hesitate to call your family, call your friends, tell the people that you love you love them. You hug, you kiss, you write letters, you telephone — you just show love in every possible way.

“Twenty years later, our country is so divided,” she said. “I hope when people watch the television coverage and reach back into their own memories, they think about how much stronger we are as a nation when we are united. I just hope people remember.”

City’s retreat cost more than $70K

The City of Rocky Mount’s 2021 annual retreat held this spring in Asheville cost $70,444.99, a document the municipality provided to the Telegram said.

Of that $70,444.99 amount, $43,684.70 was paid for lodging at the Omni Grove Park Inn and for facilities usage-related expenses, apparently mostly at the hotel, the document said.

As for the rest of the cost, the document said $20,550 was paid in connection with two consultants having served as facilitators during the retreat; $5,426.54 was paid to municipal officials and staff, three City Council members, three residents and a media consultant as reimbursement for mileage to help cover their costs of fuel used while traveling; and $783.75 was paid to reimburse, on a per diem basis, municipal officials and staff and two of those three council members for meals.

A per diem is a reference to an allowance from the municipality to help cover an employee’s or official’s costs of meals while away from Rocky Mount on official business.

Interim city Communications, Marketing and Public Relations Director Jessie Nunery late Tuesday afternoon emailed the data after months of requests via email by the Telegram citing the state’s public records law for the expenses and the reimbursements for lodging and travel by participants at the retreat.

The council in a 4-3 vote on Feb. 8 directed the retreat be held in Asheville because the council majority wanted to go to the Buncombe County seat to learn from officials there how they have been addressing housing issues.

The retreat was held from April 7-9 at the Omni Grove Park Inn — and on the second day of the retreat City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney and her team presented a proposed strategic plan for affordable housing in Rocky Mount.

According to the document provided to the newspaper on Tuesday by Nunery, of the $43,684.70 for lodging and facilities usage-related expenses in connection with the retreat, the City of Rocky Mount paid $23,299.25 to the Omni Grove Park Inn for charges for hotel rooms. The document said that of the remainder of the $43,684.70, the city paid $12,173.27 to the Omni Grove Park Inn for charges for food and meals, $5,428.52 to the Omni Grove Park Inn for charges for the use of a conference room that served as the meeting place for the retreat, $3,271.70 for what was classified as “group meals” and $852.50 for what was classified as a “group tour.”

The document did not provide further information about those two items, although retreat participants went on a tour of selected housing projects in Asheville.

During the retreat, Angie Arrington of Evolve Consulting Inc. and Valerie Batts of Visions Inc., both of whom do consulting and training, served as facilitators. Batts served as a facilitator via teleconferencing.

The document Nunery provided to the newspaper on Tuesday said $12,500 was paid to Evolve Inc. and $8,050 was paid to Visions Inc.

Visions’ website also lists Angela Bryant as a co-founder of Visions. Bryant is a former city council member, a former state house member and a former state senator.

The document Nunery provided to the newspaper on Tuesday gave a breakdown of which municipal officials and staff and the three council members were paid and how much for expenses in connection with the retreat.

The municipal officials, staff and three council members reimbursed were:

  • Videographer Mark Adcox, $349.44 for mileage and $114.50 for meals, totaling $463.94.
  • Councilman T.J. Walker, $344.96 for mileage and $112.50 for meals, totaling $457.46.
  • Policy Analyst Jayson Dawkins, $345.52 for mileage and $91.50 for meals, totaling $437.02.
  • Councilman Andre Knight, $344.96 for mileage and $89.50 for meals, totaling $434.46.
  • Small-Toney, $343.39 for mileage and $89.50 for meals, totaling $432.89.
  • City Clerk Pamela Casey, $344.96 for mileage and $76.25 for meals, totaling $421.21.
  • Tanika Cooper, who at the time was Small-Toney’s executive assistant, $320.99 for mileage and $91.50 for meals, totaling $412.49.
  • Assistant City Manager Elton Daniels, $343.54 for mileage and $68.50 for meals, totaling $412.04.
  • Planning Administrator JoSeth Bocook, $342.72 for mileage and $50 for meals, totaling $392.72.
  • Councilman Reuben Blackwell, $344.96 for mileage.
  • Development Services Director Will Deaton, $342.72 for mileage.
  • Community Code Administrator Kelly Cook, $342.72 for mileage.

The document Nunery provided also said media consultant Dorothy Brown Smith was reimbursed $281.90 for mileage.

The document Nunery provided said three residents were reimbursed for mileage:

  • Garland Jones, $348.32. Jones is chairman of the Central City Revitalization Panel.
  • Robert Davis, $347.20. Davis leads the Meadowbrook Community Improvement Association.
  • Lea Henry, $338.24. Henry at the time was an appointee to the Business Development Authority.

Nunery told the Telegram on Wednesday that the council invited residents to attend the retreat and that several residents also came at their own expense for a large part of the retreat.

During the council’s discussion before the council’s vote on Feb. 8 about the location of the retreat, Councilman Lige Daughtridge was the chief dissenting voice against having it in Asheville. Daughtridge cited safety-related concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic as a key reason.

Mayor Sandy Roberson before the council’s vote proposed the Rocky Mount Event Center as the location for the 2021 retreat, given the long drought there as a result of safety measures put in place due to the pandemic. Roberson said he believed having the 2021 retreat at the event center would show support for the community during this period of time.

Knight made the motion for Asheville as the location of the 2021 retreat, with Blackwell seconding and Walker and Councilman Richard Joyner voting yes.

Daughtridge voted no, as did Councilman W.B. Bullock and Councilwoman Chris Miller.

Daughtridge, who went to the retreat, told the newspaper that he received a group rate for lodging, that he paid the Omni Grove Park Inn for lodging and that he reimbursed the city for meals and incidentals.

Daughtridge provided the newspaper with the amounts regarding his participation during the retreat as follows: Lodging, $607.94; meals, $409.29; and incidentals, $100.

Generally, incidentals are gratuities and other minor fees or costs in addition to the main service, item or event paid for in connection with business-related activities.

Daughtridge told the newspaper he did not request any reimbursement from the city as a result of his participating in the retreat.

Two of the council members did not make the trip to Asheville.

Miller participated in the retreat via teleconferencing and as a result, she did not incur any expenses.

Bullock told the newspaper he used his computer at his residence to listen to a majority of the retreat.

The document Nunery provided said Roberson, who went to the retreat, paid the city $931.25 as a reimbursement for lodging and facilities usage-related expenses.

State law specifically makes clear that all records made or received in connection with the transaction of public business are open to viewing. The law also makes clear this applies to all types of local government agencies and all types of records, including paper and electronic records, recordings, films, videos and photographs.

The catch is that, even though the city’s 2021 retreat ended more than five months ago, the law does not compel public officials to respond to requests for open records by a specific time.

The 2020 retreat was supposed to be in Raleigh but was canceled due to the pandemic.

Man in wheelchair killed after being hit by vehicle

A man in a wheelchair was killed on Thursday evening after being struck by a vehicle in the southwestern part of the city, police said.

Officers about 9 p.m. went to West Raleigh Boulevard at Williford Street, police Cpl. Ricky Jackson said in a news release.

Nash County Emergency Medical Services personnel arrived at the scene at 9:13 p.m. and pronounced the man dead at 9:18 p.m., Nash County Emergency 911 Director Bryant Fisher told the Telegram in an email.

Jackson said that the police department’s crash reconstruction unit responded and that an investigation is continuing.

Jackson said that the man was 59 years old. His name is being withheld from publication to ensure the man’s next of kin has been notified.

The scene was adjacent to a Shell fuel station just southwest of the intersection of West Raleigh and Nashville Road.