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‘A life-changing event’: How former law enforcement leaders remember 9/11 19 years later
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Former Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper's shadow box at his Hall County home includes a wooden cross made from a pew at a church near Ground Zero. - photo by Scott Rogers

The week surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, was a life-changing one for now retired Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper. 

Hooper served as the city’s chief from 1998 to 2009. Days before the 9/11 attacks, he was tending to his father who had cancer, had slipped into a coma and was at home in hospice care.  

The retired chief’s son told him to turn on the news. 

“It was something you prepare for as a public safety agency. We had plans in place, but I guess it’s something you never can really truly prepare for,” Hooper said. “When you saw those towers come down and just the uncertainty of everything that was going on … you start wondering is there something here locally that could be a vulnerable target.” 

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Frank Hooper was the Gainesville police chief in September 2001. He found out about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center while he was tending to his sick father. - photo by Scott Rogers

This year’s annual public remembrance of the attacks was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities said Wednesday, Sept. 10. But messages will be recited by the Gainesville/Hall County dispatch radio personnel starting at 8:40 a.m. Friday, Sept. 11, honoring the nearly 3,000 Americans killed. 

The messages will be read marking the times the planes struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon as well as the crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

The last announcement will be at 10:28 a.m., marking the collapse of the north tower. 

After five seconds, the message will be: “These acts of terrorism change our nation forever. We will never forget.” 

Hooper’s father, Roy Franklin Hooper Sr., died later that week. He was a World War II veteran who spent 25 years in law enforcement. 

“I guess it was a little bit of relief for me that he was in a coma and never knew anything about any of this happening,” Hooper said. “It was a life-changing event, just everything that happened that week.” 

Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers was working in the Hall County Sheriff's Office at the time, assigned to investigations as a first lieutenant. 

"I just remember it being the most shocking thing I could imagine happening in this country,” Spillers said. “Time stopped while the active reporting was going on. I remember being glued to any news report you could find about it." 

Retired Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic was in his office when his command staff told him to turn on the news. 

“A short time later, the second plane hit. I guess our world changed at that point,” Cronic said. 

Before becoming sheriff in 2001, Cronic was in charge of a regional insurance fraud division for AIG, which was based in Manhattan. 

He had worked with retired New York Police Department detectives and some personnel retired from the local district attorney’s office. 

Cronic and Hooper discussed the local response in the weeks afterward, where suspicious packages and bomb threats took on a new level of concern. Local communities were “on pins and needles” and ultra-vigilant on anything outside of the norm, Cronic said.  

Hooper recalled getting a number of calls from people thinking there was something suspicious in their mail. 

“We had to develop protocols for that,” Hooper said. “Some of it was pranks, but you’ve got to treat it all seriously.” 

Information sharing between local, state and federal agencies increased. 

“After that, it kind of galvanized everyone and kind of let us all know that we’re definitely all in this together,” Cronic said. 

The men recalled the outpouring of support locally through words of encouragement, food brought by the departments and people wanting to stay connected to law enforcement by inviting them to speak. 

“Coming out of it, I think that told us the quality of the community that we served, and that was comforting amongst all that was going on,” Cronic said.