Remembering a moment

Each of the speakers who has come to town as part of the Herald-Star Speakers Series has brought with them a unique perspective.

We had a close-up look at life into the administration of the late President John F. Kennedy as seen through the eyes of retired Secret Service Agent Clint Hill and the chance to listen as Antonio Mendez, who was joined onstage by his wife, Jonna, described just how American hostages were able to escape from Iran — a story that was much more dramatic than the one portrayed in the film “Argo.”

Capt. Richard Phillips offered details of his ordeal after being captured by Somali pirates; Rebekah Gregory offered a firsthand look at what it was like to be a victim — and a survivor — of the Boston Marathon bombings; Mark Geist offered an intimate account of what it was like to live through the siege at Benghazi; Jeanine Pirro presented a look at the state of the world in the way that only she can; retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the Central Intelligence and National Security agencies, offered a perspective on the world that only a person who had been involved at the highest levels can provide; John Quinones asked a simple question — What would you do? — and Matthew Charles told how his life was being changed through the First Step Act.

All were interesting — all made us think.

That includes the presentation that happened six years ago Friday, when retired Col. Mark Tillman took the stage at the Steubenville High School Auditorium as part of special Sept. 11 Day of Remembrance. We were reminded of that event as marked the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that changed the way we live our lives.

Tillman was the perfect speaker for the evening — he had served as the pilot of Air Force One during his career, and, on Sept. 11, 2001, was the man in charge of ensuring President George W. Bush was able to return to Washington safely after learning of the attacks.

Before Tillman’s presentation, the area’s veterans and first-responders were recognized. The evening was a chance to show thanks for the jobs they do on a daily basis, while remembering all that had been lost 13 years earlier.

He proved to be a dynamic speaker, one who threaded all of his experience as an Air Force office who started flying the C-130 and ended up being selected as the 12th presidential pilot and commander of the Presidential Airlift Group.

“Any terrorist who thinks they can knock us down, they did that day,” Tillman explained that evening. “But they didn’t kill us. You may have knocked us down this day, but we are going to get you. Why? Because we are Americans. It’s what we do.”

While Tillman was an Air Force pilot entrusted with keeping the most powerful man in the world safe on Sept. 11, he admitted there were many somber moments as the Boeing 747 made its way toward Washington, D.C.

The president, Tillman said, had given authorization for United Flight 93, the last of the hijacked planes which likely was going to be used to attack the Capitol or the White House, to be shot down. When they received word that the 757 had gone down, it was assumed by those aboard Air Force One the Air Force had shot it down, and it became very quiet inside the jet.

What they would learn was that the plane had crashed not too far east of here, in Shanksville, Pa., after its passengers, having had the chance to talk with family members and learning what the hijackers likely planned to do with the plane, failed in an heroic attempt to take control back from their captors.

“Those are true Americans. They beat the terrorists. But it was a sad moment for all of us,” Tillman remembered.

Sept. 11, 2001, was not the only high-risk flight with Bush that Tillman commanded. He also was the pilot who flew the president into Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day in 2003 so the commander-in-chief could celebrate with the troops.

Only five people, including himself, were aware of what was going on, Tillman added. It was a clandestine operation that included secret meetings, the use of both of the presidential 747s as decoys and sharing details with no one — including most members of Bush’s Secret Service detail.

There have been 10 presentations in the series, which opened on Nov. 14, 2012. Many volunteers have worked to make the evenings possible. Joining the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times have been a group of loyal major sponsors, including the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Eastern Gateway Community College, Trinity Health System and WTRF-TV.

Like most other things, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing restrictions mean there won’t be a presentation this year. But we’re looking for the series to resume next fall. It’s way too early to know who that speaker will be, but we do know whoever it is will offer area residents the opportunity to look a little more deeply into issues that affect our lives.

We were reminded of that in Tillman’s presentation, when he made a comment that is as appropriate today as it was on Sept. 11, 2011, or Sept. 11, 2014:

“Respect the flag. Respect the United States of America, all right? After Sept. 11, I saw Americans come together — all Americans were supporting the United States,” he said. “It’s what we do. We make the best of every situation.”

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)


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