Tim Tackett, a paramedic in Dardanelle, was in the shower when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Seventeen minutes later, while watching in stunned silence as United Airlines Flight 175 sliced into the south tower in lower Manhattan, Tackett knew immediately he would soon head to New York.

As a member of the National Disaster Medical System, Tackett had been to hurricanes, fires, floods and other natural disasters to help with the logistics of rescuing and supporting victims across the country.

But those were natural disasters. This one was different. The four hijacked planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Pa., were all acts of terrorism.

Twenty years ago Saturday, the country’s innocence was shattered and everything changed. Now, two decades later, travelers can no longer breeze through airports and instead stand in long lines to be screened to the point of removing their shoes and undergoing extensive searches.

Loved ones can no longer wait at the gates and watch as planes taxi up to them. Access now is limited to main terminals for those waiting to pick up friends and families while armed security officers patrol vigilantly.

But, despite the sudden awareness of the country’s vulnerability then and the rampant paranoia of future attacks that resulted from Sept. 11, 2011, the country also drew together and some of the cold harshness of humanity dissolved, Tackett found out.

Tackett, now 62, said a telephone call from his security office got him out of the shower that Tuesday morning in 2001. “Are you watching television?” his co-worker asked. “Turn it on.”

Tackett asked what channel he should tune to.

“It doesn’t matter,” his co-worker said. “It’s on all channels.”

“Right then,” Tackett said, as he watched the second plane hit a 110-story tall tower, “I knew I’d be going.”

The attacks

It was a serene morning in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Even the anchors of NBC’s Today Show commented, in a now frequently viewed clip on the internet, how quiet the day was.

Then, shortly after 8 a.m. local time, American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston and bound for Los Angeles with 81 passengers and nine members of the flight crew, made a sudden southern turn while flying over eastern New York. Five Al-Qaeda terrorists took over the airplane and bore down on Manhattan.

When the plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, officials couldn’t fathom it was a purposeful event and speculated that an aircraft accidentally hit the building.

But at 9:03 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175, also from Boston, collided with the second tower, and people realized it was a deliberate attack.

Then, at 9:37 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77, which had taken off from Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Va., plowed into the Pentagon building and at 10:03 a.m., passengers aboard United Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., overpowered terrorists and the plane crashed into a field in rural near Shanksville, Pa.

Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks that day 2,705 were killed in New York including firemen, police offices and rescue workers who responded to the scene. Another 184 died at the Pentagon and 40 perished in the Pennsylvania field.

Tackett, who had been with the National Disaster Medical System since 1988, headed first for Washington, D.C., as soon as the federal ban on all flying was lifted three days later. There, he coordinated rescue efforts and, later, recovery work.

“I left as soon as the planes were flying again,” Tackett said. “It was like a scene from the Twilight Zone. We had three passengers on the plane with six flight attendants. Our first thoughts were, ‘Is anyone else on the plane a terrorist?’”

Arkansans killed

Seven of those who died that day had Arkansas connections:

Joni Cesta, 37, from Little Rock, lived in Bellmore, N.Y., with her husband and a pet boa constrictor. Family told the New York Times she loved animals and had won ribbons in equestrian tournaments. She was an in-house counsel for a securities trading firm near the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, she was visiting a client in the center when the planes hit.

Lacey B. Ivory, 42, was born in Marvell. His family moved to Kansas City, where he graduated high school and joined the U.S. Army in 1977. He served in the Army for 24 years, and had received the Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, the Army Commendation Medal and other awards. He was the Senior Enlisted Military Assistant in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs when he died in the Pentagon attack.

Sara Low, 28, of Batesville, was a flight attendant for American Airlines and was on Flight 11 from Boston, the first plane that crashed. Authorities believed she gave another flight attendant her telephone calling card to use as an “airfone” to give those on the ground information about the terrorists’ takeover of the plane.

Nehamon Lyons, IV, 30, was born in Pine Bluff and graduated from Dollarway High School in 1989. In 1990, he moved to Mobile, Ala., and attended the University of South Alabama, pursuing a degree in medicine. In 1997, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and his first assignment was aboard the U.S.S. Gettysburg. He transferred to the Pentagon in January 2001 and was an Operations Specialist 2nd Class.

Barbara Shaw, 57, from Little Rock, worked as a consultant for a computer company on the 103rd floor of the northern World Trade Center tower. Co-worker said she always doted on her grandson and constantly showed them pictures of him. In a ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of the attacks, the grandson said he was joining the military in honor of Shaw.

Jimmy Storey, 58, was born in Texarkana and later lived in Katy, Texas. He was a senior vice president for Marsh and McLennan, a risk and insurance company in Houston. He was a voracious reader of mysteries, an avid history buff and a devoted family man, friends said. He was visiting the company’s offices on the 99th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower when the airplane struck.

Malissa White, 37, was a graduate of Bald Knob High School and moved to East Flatbush, N.Y., when she married in 1996. Friends recalled in a New York Times interview that she was the “caretaker of the family.” She graduated from Grambling State University, rooming with her sister, and went to work in the human resources department of a firm on the 99th floor of the north tower.

At ground zero

After spending days in Washington, D.C., helping coordinate the travel of the hundreds of emergency workers who traveled to the area, overseeing the funding and “doing all things behind the curtain,” Tackett said, he took a train to New York City to begin working at the site of the fallen towers.

“It was surreal,” he said. “It was like being on a movie set. The lights, the smell, the steam. It was like being at a construction site and a funeral all wrapped in an emotional envelope.”

Whenever human remains were found, a siren would sound and workers would stop digging through the rubble momentarily.

He noticed the massive amount of dust at the site. “You’d think in such a huge office building, there’d be telephones and desks and chairs,” he said. “Everything was pulverized.”

One of the few things he recognized was flattened air tanks worn by firefighters who were inside the buildings when they fell.

“Every second we were there, we wondered if there would be a second attack,” he said.

Tackett worked at one of three sites around the wreckage with a Disaster Medical Assistance Team in a large medical tent near the southwestern corner of the World Trade Center’s base. The unit was a fully self-contained site with pharmacists, logistical teams, physicians and administrators. He’d sift through the burnt, twisted steel and dust and treat workers who received cuts and burns.

At times, he’d walk to the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral and lie on a pew where George Washington once sat. Instead of being told to move, though, Tackett said church officials thanked him for being there.

“You think New York is full of coldness,” he said of its residents. “But they were all kind and warm.”

When workers would leave for the day, headed back to hotels for the evening, those around the site would applaud them.

Appreciation poured in, he said. School children in Illinois sent cookies and snacks. Others sent socks with thank you notes pinned to them.

“It was an outpouring of love,” Tackett said. “I never expected that.

“As bad as this was, the attacks brought the country together. People were Americans again.”

Returning home

On the last day in New York, Tackett and his team stopped work and began singing “Amazing Grace.”

“It was barely daylight,” he recalled. “The sun was rising and steam was still coming up off the metal. It was mesmerizing.”

Tackett returned to Arkansas after two weeks in New York. He said he doesn’t have bad memories or nightmares about the work. Instead, he said, he felt “great” to be able to participate in the operation.

He made friends with firefighters and other workers he met there and stays in contact with many of them, although he doesn’t call them on Sept. 11, instead choosing to reflect on the day alone.

“It’s a private day for me,” he said.

There was a drawback to his visit, however. He like many other first responders to the scene, developed respiratory issues from breathing in asbestos and other fumes from the wreckage. Tackett now suffers from asthma and uses a breathing aide.

It hasn’t stopped him, though. He still travels to sites across the country to help during emergencies. This year, he said, has been one of the busiest he’s worked in the 33 years he’s been an emergency responder. He’s set up command units in Mississippi to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and he’s expecting to leave shortly to Louisiana to help the victims of Hurricane Ida.

He also teaches classes on counterterrorism for Louisiana State University, has spoken at various venues about terrorism and rescue efforts and has displayed the photographs he’s taken at the fallen towers.

Tackett has returned to New York twice and was one of the first visitors to the 9/11 museum.

“I don’t really reflect on the day,” he said. “A lot of times, I’m on the road on Sept. 11. This is a busy job.

“They’d call us heroes,” he added of the people thanking the workers in New York. “But we weren’t heroes. We were helping the people who were the heroes.”