Never the same: For older generation, everyday life forever altered

Ken Willingham

MOUNT PLEASANT -- On the morning of the 9/11 terror attack, Billy Swails was at his insurance office when he received a call from his old friend and Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman.

"Turn on the TV," Hallman said.

Swails said he didn't have one.

"You need to come here then," Hallman replied.

Swails made the short trip down Johnnie Dodds Boulevard to the mayor's office, where they watched an unbelievable scene unfold.

"We both cried," Swails said.

Lives hung in the balance. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. People who had kissed loved ones goodbye that morning faced an unspeakable horror as the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

"You know people are dying in front of you for no good reason," he said.

Today, Swails, 63, occupies the office where he watched the first reports of the attack. He was elected mayor in November 2009. Hallman died in January after resigning in May 2009 because of the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

Life and business for Swails have not been the same since Sept. 11, 2001.

He now writes business insurance policies that include terror attacks. Air travel has lost its attraction. Driving to Atlanta is easier than the hassle of security screening.

"It upsets me that it's changed our way of life," he said.

But he sees a bright future for America, whose people don't live in fear. The Navy SEALs proved that when they took out Osama bin Laden.

"It makes you damn proud to be an American. It took 10 years, but we got that sucker," he said.

When the airliners struck the World Trade Center towers 10 years ago, Ken Willingham and his staff went through the same thought process as Swails and Hallman.

Willingham, now 70, recalls listening to radio news of the attack while at the Cross satellite office of his trucking company. The Mount Pleasant resident struggled to sort out the information.

Was this a horrible accident? Or something more sinister? First, one plane slammed into a tower, then another. He and his staff came to a grim conclusion.

"We said, 'This can not be coincidental. It's a planned thing,' " he said.

Changes came to the trucking industry because of what he saw that morning. New security measures were implemented for the big rigs and their drivers.

"It's expensive. It takes an extra layer of checking out people," he said.

And, like Swails, he flies less because of the new hassles.

An Army veteran, Willingham resisted calling the country's anti-terrorism effort a war.

World War II, Korea, Vietnam, those were different. Now, our soldiers fight an enemy who uses weapons such as suicide bombers.

"It's crazy people," he said.