By Linwood Outlaw III -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Valerie Pratt was attending elementary school when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks suddenly struck eight years ago.
Like virtually everyone else throughout the country, Pratt, 16, now a student at Randolph-Macon Academy, recalls an initial feeling of uncertainty.
"All of a sudden, everyone was like 'OK, we're going home,' and they wouldn't tell us why," said Pratt, of Herndon. "I came home ... and my mom was sitting in front of the television crying because she [knew] some people who worked at the Pentagon because she used to work there. But, [fortunately] everyone we knew was safe."
More than 360 students and staff at the college prep military school on Academy Drive gathered outside Sonner-Payne Hall on a cloudy Friday morning for a brief Patriot Day ceremony honoring the nearly 3,000 people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
That day at Randolph-Macon Academy, school President Maj. Gen. Henry Hobgood said, began like any other ordinary day. The students had breakfast, participated in ceremonies and went to class before school officials received word later that morning that al-Qaida terrorists had hijacked and crashed commercial aircraft filled with passengers into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, Hobgood said. Terrorists soon crashed another plane into the Pentagon near Washington, and a fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers tried to seize control of the aircraft from the hijackers.
The attacks spawned much concern and fear across the country.
"Sept. 11 is a day that will live in our minds forever," Hobgood said at Friday's ceremony. "As horrible as it was, the 9/11 terrorist attacks awakened a determination and patriotic spirit of the American people. Thankfully, this spirit lives on today."
Student Alandra Moreira, 16, of Cabin John, Md., was attending school in Oregon at the time of the attacks. She said she was instantly worried about family and friends who were in the Washington area. "I got a phone call from my dad and my mom, and they were both very upset," Moreira said.
Valerie Pratt's father, Douglas R. Pratt, was working for the postal inspection service in Arlington and helping a new employee through orientation when someone alerted him to the attacks on the World Trade Center.
"We got everybody organized. And, nobody wanted to take the subway because there were rumors about gas attacks like the one in Japan. There was another rumor that there was a truck bomb at the State Department," Douglas Pratt recalled. "I wound up driving 15 people home in my van that day. It was quite a day."
Friday's ceremony included a prayer and gun salute. The cadets placed 3,000 flags on the lawn in front of Sonner-Payne Hall in honor of the victims, with the last of those flags symbolically being placed by a student during the ceremony.
"I think we should never forget [the events of Sept. 11] because, a lot of people, they take it out of perspective," Valerie Pratt said. "But, we have to remember that this was real, and it happened in our generation."
Moreira said the events of Sept. 11 teach that, "especially on this day, ordinary citizens of the United States of America became heroes.
"This is something that we definitely don't want to forget, and something that we want to learn from in the future," she said.
Douglas Pratt agreed. "Most of the time, history seems to be something we get out of books. This history we lived," he said. "Some of us were pretty young when it happened. But, this piece of history is going to be in every book that's written. And, we lived through it."