ALEXANDRIA – Visiting an old two-story fire station in New York City, Ron Richardson looked over the photographs of the seven firefighters who had lost their lives three months earlier when two planes struck the World Trade Center in a terrorist attack by al Qaeda.
“I got to thinking that’s an entire patrol shift for the sheriff’s department,” the former Madison County sheriff said.
Richardson had joined department chaplain Benjamin Santiago and Obidiah Smith, who was with Church of God Ministries, on a mission trip as the city continued to dig itself out from under the rubble. They were among thousands of people from across the nation who went to New York City to assist in the recovery and cleanup efforts.
“It was that moment when they prayed with (the firefighters) and we walked back to the van I had an emotional breakdown. I cried,” Richardson said.
A major with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department at the time, Richardson was driving to work on Sept. 11, 2001, when he got word of the attack. When he arrived at the office, he saw on TV what all the chatter on the radio was about.
“It was the most horrific thing I had ever seen in my life and ever will,” he said.
At that moment, Richardson wasn’t certain whether the plane had flown into the Twin Towers intentionally or by accident, but it didn’t take long for him to develop suspicions.
“It looked to be more intentional because there was no maneuver to miss it.” But as the second plane hit the other tower and a third plane went down in Pennsylvania, it became clear this was an orchestrated attack, he said.
In the following months, Santiago made a trip on his own to check on family who lived in New York City.
“He came back and said he wanted to go back and do a second trip,” Richardson said. “I told him if he did that, I would take some time off and go with him.”
As he prepared for the trip to deliver Christmas cards, cookies and signed baseball cards and photos of Carl Erskine, Richardson said, his wife Pam, a police dispatcher in Anderson, and the other wives expressed concern to a reporter about the ability of the men to handle what they were about to witness.
“They talked about how once you have been there it changes you,” he said. “And my wife was concerned about how it might change me because she didn’t want to lose me.”
Richardson admits the trip did change him.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “It definitely changed me, but it made me a better person. It really made me appreciate life and those around me. I think it really gives you a hard, true look at how quickly life can change. …
“That trip was one of the better decisions I made in my life because it made me a better person. It made me a better son, a better husband, a better employee at the sheriff’s department.”