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North Central Florida Residents Remember 9/11 On Its 20th Anniversary

Mike Plaut, 80, of Gainesville, still has the camera he used to photograph the 9/11 wreckage soon after the terrorists attacks in 2001. (Nora O’Neill/WUFT News)
Mike Plaut, 80, of Gainesville, still has the camera he used to photograph the 9/11 wreckage soon after the terrorists attacks in 2001. (Nora O’Neill/WUFT News)

The Sept. 11 attacks happened 20 years ago, but Tina Billias remembers every detail.

Billias, 75, of Dunnellon, remembers turning the TV on in her apartment in Palm Beach County – and seeing that an airplane had smashed into the World Trade Center.

The massage therapist stood up so fast, she spilled her coffee all over herself and the floor in her apartment. As she sprinted to wake up her roommate, she soon realized her grandnephew worked as a sommelier inside the trade center.

“My heart was beating so fast,” Billias said. “I remember that horrible feeling of fear.”

Luckily, she said, her grandnephew’s boss had told him not to report for work that morning, because a shipment of wine was delayed.

People across north central Florida are commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Gainesville will hold a ceremony at 8 a.m. at Reserve Park. Mayor Lauren Poe, Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones and Gainesville Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Stephen Hesson will speak. The event can also be accessed virtually, Hesson said.

Hesson was working at Gainesville Fire Rescue Station 2 on 9/11.

“I think it’s important to pay tribute to the heroes that we lost that day,” he said, “as well as recognize the sacrifices of people both on that day and since then.”

Bill Fisher was a senior consultant for a professional services firm with offices in the World Financial Center, across from the trade center, when he heard a thud. Building security said a small plane had hit the North Tower – but there was no need to evacuate. Recalling the trade center bombing in 1993, he and his coworkers left anyway.

But Fisher went back to his office to call his secretary, who was in Connecticut. They were talking when he watched United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the South Tower.

“It was the largest explosion I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Fisher, now 65, who lived in Naples for 10 years until he recently moved to Virginia. “That’s when it was so obvious that this was not an accident.”

Fisher went to the South Tower to help people evacuate. Fisher was helping a limping firefighter walk to an ambulance when the tower collapsed.

“It sounded like a freight train was coming,” he said. “We look straight up, and we can see the tower just coming down in slow motion.”

Fisher and 12 others waited in an apartment building until firefighters told them to head toward the Hudson River, where boats took them to New Jersey.

For Mike Plaut, 80, of Oak Hammock in Gainesville, the details of 9/11 are less clear.

Plaut was visiting his father, a New York native, in hospital in New Mexico. He recalls nurses gathering around the TV to watch the news, and a sense of shock and disbelief.

At the time, Plaut worked as a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He traveled to New York on Sept. 20, 2001, for a clinical conference, and took the subway to where the towers had stood, taking pictures of what he saw.

“You could be in a crowd of people, but it felt lonely,” Plaut said. “It was raining, which was almost fitting.”

Remembering 9/11 is important, said Kim Davis, director of Alachua County Veteran Services.

“It was a hit on America that for quite a few years, we remembered well, and then as time goes by, you don’t want to think about it,” Davis said. “But you’ve got to remember to appreciate the good that you have.”

Marion County will hold a commemoration 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Ocala/Marion County Veterans Memorial Park. A traveling 9/11 memorial wallwill be at the park from that day through Sept. 19.

At the University of Florida, “In Memoriam - September 11, 2001,” and “America the Beautiful” will be tolled in a musical tribute from Century Tower at 12:35 p.m. Friday.

Members of area public safety agencies will climb the stairs at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 8 a.m. Saturday, at an event hosted by the UF Collegiate Veterans Society.

Bikers on Parade is an annual motorcycle ride sponsored by Gainesville Harley-Davidson that began in 2o01 as a response to 9/11. The event raises money for veterans and will take place this year on Nov. 14.

“There were hundreds of people who ran into buildings to save lives, knowing they’ll never come out,” Davis said. “Don’t forget those heroes – and then those that followed that are trying to protect our world.”

Nora is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.