Remembering 9/11: Former Mayor 'Disbelief, Shock'
As we observe the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we look back at how Pensacolians reacted to the attacks and their relationship with the city’s Muslim community.
That Tuesday started out as just another business day approaching midweek. But just before 9 a.m. Eastern time, they heard NPR "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards with this:
“Breaking news from New York City where planes — two planes — have hit both towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan; the upper floors — 110 stories high, each tower.”
“So that everyone watching that picture, saw a second plane hit the second tower moments after — maybe five to 10 minutes past 9 Eastern time this morning,” he said.
Those tuning in late or to hear the top-of-the-hour NPR newscast, heard a report from NPR correspondent Larry Abramson.
“Debris from the explosions rained down neighboring streets, just as people were heading to work,” said Abramson. “There’s no word on whether the crashes might have been some sort of terrorism, but the FBI is investigating that possibility. Ordinarily, air traffic is routed well away from the towers.
Television showed the damage at the World Trade Center — caused by American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. A short time later, American Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pa. To this day it’s believed that 93 was headed for either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
“My immediate reaction was just disbelief and shock, and then the second airplane came in and hit the tower,” said former Pensacola Mayor John Fogg, who was holding that office on 9/11. “And then we started hearing about the airplane in Pennsylvania.”
One concern locally, Fogg said, is that Northwest Florida has the largest concentrated military presence in the United States — potential major targets.
“Another thing that kind of came out of it was there was a tremendous amount of coordination between all levels of law enforcement and public safety, working together in a way that we perhaps hadn’t done it before.”
At the grassroots, there were few changes in government brought about by 9/11. Fogg believes the changes, to a great extent, originated at the federal level.
“The warfighting doctrines had to be reexamined; we had to figure out ways to anticipate the kind of attack that we saw on 9/11, and other potential threats to our country and our people,” Fogg said. “
What we learned was that 19 Muslim terrorists hijacked the four jetliners and instigated the attacks. And despite President George W. Bush’s call for not painting an entire religion with that broad brush, some of the backlash against American Muslims was, in some cases, fierce. But not everywhere. It was different in Pensacola.
“One lady showed up at our door one day with a yellow rose; and she just said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and handed us the rose and left,” said Ronald Jacobs, inactive president of the Islam Dawah Center on Barrancas Avenue in downtown Pensacola. “The people of Pensacola are very religious; very spiritual, so we treat each other with respect.”
Jacobs, a retired Navy senior chief, converted to Islam while on active duty. During an open house in 2017, he said there was little, if any, thought about Islam when he served before 9/11.
“There was never that feeling because we were a tight unit; everyone works for each other,” he said. “There were people that would look at you kind of side-eyed because you did something different — you washed your feet before you pray or you clean yourself, or whatever. We did have some of that, but aside from that we were all one.”
“Let me start with our greeting as Muslims,” said Imam Hosny Ibrahim, welcoming visitors to an open house at their Pensacola Islamic Center in 2017. “As-salāmu ʿalaykum, which is ‘Peace upon you.’”
Ibrahim added that when it comes to community, there is no difference between Muslims and non-Muslims.
“We eat together; we work together, we live together,” Ibrahim said. “And we stand together; we are neighbors.”
And, Ibrahim says despite what you hear in the media, the form of Islam espoused by terrorists is not the Islam followed by the vast majority of Muslims in the mainstream.
“Islam is a religion of peace; Islam is a religion of mercy,” said the Imam. “Terrorists are everywhere. And, with every religion, anyone can be a terrorist.”
“In the 20 years I served in the Marine Corps, I lived on the West Coast, the East Coast, and all over; and I was stationed [in Pensacola] many times,’ said former Mayor John Fogg. “I became aware of the fact that the people of Pensacola are truly different than the people everywhere else in the country.”
“We are a welcoming and kind people, and I can’t give you a reason for that, why there would be a differentiation among the people of Pensacola compared to everybody else,” said Fogg. “But I am not surprised to hear that.”
An exhibit honoring victims lost and those impacted by the Sept. 11 attacks is on display at the Pensacola Museum of History, running through January. The items are on loan from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, and the History Museum of Mobile.