Keene name at Memorial

The name of Leo Russell Keene III is engraved among the thousands of names memorialized at the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City. The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history.

Editor’s note: The following story originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2011, edition of The AJT in retrospect of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

To Linville Falls resident Russell Keene, Sept. 11, 2001, “seems like it was yesterday.”

That’s when, at 8:53 a.m., he woke to a phone call about a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center, just a tower away from where his son, Russ Keene, was working as an analyst.

“My daughter-in-law Kristin called me,” Keene said. “Russ had called her and told her a plane had hit one World Trade Center building. He’s in Trade Center Building Two (South Tower).”

Despite announcements telling people in his tower not to panic and to continue on as normal, Russ and his coworkers decided to evacuate.

“They thought it was an accident,” Keene said. “They didn’t realize it was a terrorist attack.”

Russ was on the 89th floor, a series of elevator rides from an exit route. It was in that elevator that, months later, crews would find his body.

“When the second plane hit, basically, they just went into free fall,” Keene said.

The elevator’s braking system kicked in between the first and second floors and its occupants pried the doors open and helped push two of Russ’ coworkers through.

“Linda, she was one of the girls, she points to the elevator right there and says, ‘There’s at least 15 people in this elevator,’” Keene said.

That’s the last time anyone remembers seeing Russ alive.

“(Linda) got into an ambulance and they got about a block and a half away from the tower and then it collapsed, and that was the end of that,” Keene said. “There’s a lot of should of, would of, could ofs, had they actually gotten out as soon as they saw this other building that was totally engulfed in flames, they would have made it.”

Keene was watching with the rest of America on TV as the South Tower collapsed, a tower where he knew his son had made that phone call moments before.

“He didn’t take his cell phone that day,” he said.

Keene’s daughter-in-law didn’t give up.

“She just kept waiting for a call, waiting for a call from him and the later it went on in the day... I remember telling her, ‘Well, Sugar, it doesn’t look good,’” he said.

That’s when Keene and his wife packed their things and headed to New York.

“We just commenced a 12-day vigil of trying to figure out everything,” Keene said. “They didn’t really find him until January 13.”

Russ was found with an Atocha coin around his neck, a doubloon from a shipwreck Keene had invested in years before.

The coin, along with other artifacts, was discovered off the coast of Florida in 1985.

“The ship sunk in 1622,” Keene said. “This coin survived all those years under the sea and now I’m holding it in my hand. It survived the World Trade Center.”

Now, 10 years later, as a country, we’re a safer world, he said. But it’s a world without his son, an avid outdoorsman, father and husband.

“It seems like the good people die first,” he said.

What the country needs now, he said, is to unite like it did 10 years ago.

“The way it was right after 9/11, we were doing pretty good there,” Keene said.

But, he added, America will never be completely safe. September 11, 2001, proved vulnerability, “like Pearl Harbor.”

The best thing we can do as a nation is unite, he said.

“War isn’t always the way to go,” Keene said.

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