BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Remembering the day the country vowed to never forget is an everyday experience for Roy and Pearl Williams. Their loved one, Army Major Dwayne Williams, was one of the 125 men and women who perished inside the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.
A hero called Fish
20 years later, Roy and Pearl still remember 9/11 as the day that changed their lives forever.
But Major Dwayne Williams wasn’t always a soldier.
In his childhood, before Dwayne became known for his military valor, he was simply known as “Fish.”
“He was a swimmer: such a strong swimmer they called him Fish,” Roy said.
The Williams matriarch, Pearl Williams, remembers well Dwayne’s early entry into the pool.
“I worked at a recreation center, and my children played in the children’s section of the swimming pool while I worked,” Mrs. Williams said. “And one day I saw him jump into the adult part. It scared me to death — he was only five years old. So he went swimming every day, and they told him he was going to turn into a fish.”
Those who knew the four Williams brothers, Dwayne, Kim (whose nickname was Chip), and identical twins Roy and Troy, thought of them in pairs.
“It was always Fish and Chip and Roy and Troy,” Williams said.
Even at an early age, in and outside of the pool, Dwayne Williams was a leader.
Williams was among the first class of African-Americans to integrate Jacksonville’s city schools.
“He was a trailblazer in that way,” Roy said.
Dwayne’s penchant for leadership would only grow in the years that followed.
Dwayne Williams became a star school football player (a wide receiver) and member of the basketball team. Even in their neighborhood, Dwayne was known as the home run hitter.
“I grew up living my sports fantasies watching my older brother Dwayne,” Roy said.
“He was such a nice guy that by the time he graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1979, he was the first Black to ever be elected class president,” Roy said. “Blacks liked him, whites like him. He was just an all-around good guy.”
Pearl Williams said that Dwayne’s graduation was a special moment for her.
“I was so proud of him,” she said. “It set a good example for my other children because I had been a high school dropout, and I was determined that my children were going to get their education.”
High school wouldn’t be Williams’ only graduation. He went on to study marketing at the University of North Alabama, where he played on the football team from 1979 to 1982.
Moving toward the military
After college, the military was an attractive option for Dwayne. The Williams family has a long history of military service.
Roy said that for as long as he can remember, “the Williams family has had people serve in the Army, Air Force, Marines.”
“My identical twin is in the Air Force,” Roy explained. “Since World War II, serving our nation in wars as late as Vietnam…uncles, aunts, cousins. We are a very strong military family. “
Unlike his brothers, Roy Williams chose to be a journalist, a profession defined by observing and documenting the lives and experiences of others.
He didn’t hesitate, then, when Dwayne asked if Roy wanted to come watch him jump out of planes.
Dwayne, around 25 at the time, had become a Ranger and paratrooper and was stationed at Fort Benning. Roy, only 21 then, had gotten an internship at a newspaper in Columbus and was staying with his brother for the summer.
“That when our relationship took off,” Roy said of that summer in 1986. Roy got to watch Dwayne serving as a paratrooper, an experience he says he’ll never forget. “I was just like…my brother is fearless. I was just totally amazed. You just felt so much pride.”
Roy and Dwayne’s relationship blossomed. Dwayne would serve as Roy’s best man in his wedding. The two vacationed together in Cancun.
Three years before that tragic day in Sept. 2001, the pair met up in Cairo, Egypt, where they were able to enjoy some of the most famous “wonders of the world.”
“We went to the Sphinx and the pyramids,” Roy said. “It was an amazing experience. We got to ride on donkeys. We went and saw King Tut’s tomb. He took us on a [boat] ride on the Nile River. Those are the memories I choose to focus on instead of the tragedy.”
But Rangers, as the slogan goes, lead the way. They volunteer to do something more.
“Which makes us know that he knew when he became a Ranger, that if the nation went to battle that he would have to play a major role in the field,” Roy said.
Major Dwayne Williams served in the Persian Gulf War, went to officer candidate school and had just started his assignment at the Pentagon in July 2001, just two months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
A spirit of doom
Three weeks before that tragic day, Pearl Williams knew something ominous was on the horizon.
“I had a really bad nightmare, and I woke up screaming, shaking,” she said. “And a small voice said ‘something’s going to happen to you.’ A spirit of doom came over me, and my spirit became downcast.”
Her fears would come to pass.
“I remember the morning of 9/11,” Mrs. Williams said. “It was a strange morning that day. I arrived at work late.”
Williams worked at Jacksonville State University at the time.
“I was already crying because I knew the warning I had received from God.”
Roy worked as a reporter at the Birmingham News at the time. When Mrs. Williams heard about the attack, she phoned her son at the newspaper’s offices.
At that moment, Roy said that he was watching with his colleagues on television as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were engulfed in flames and smoke. He answered his mother’s call.
“My mother called frantic, saying the Pentagon had been struck,” he said. “And I said ‘no, mom.’ You’re wrong. It’s the World Trade Center towers.”
As soon as he hung up the phone, he saw the first images of the attack on the Pentagon, his brother’s new workplace.
“My heart sank,” Roy recalls. “I tried to call Dwayne’s cell. No answer. I tried to call his work number. No answer. I tried to call his home. No answer.”
The Williams family would not find out until that evening that Major Dwayne Williams was among the missing.
Then, Roy Williams said, came the ten days of hell.
It would take those ten days for Major Williams’ family to learn his fate.
“Those were the most agonizing 10 days of our lives,” he said. “My mother flew up to Washington D.C. to give blood to be able to identify the remains.”
After Major Williams’ remains were identified, with the help of his mother, came the official notification.
“I still remember to this day when I was at my mother’s house the day that we found out that Dwayne had died,” Roy Williams said. The Williams family got the news when two people, among them a military chaplain, knocked on his mother’s door. “Our hearts sank,” he said, “but at least we knew that we were able to have some closure.”
Pearl Williams appreciated the closure, too. The ten days of hell had come to an end.
“Not knowing,” Mrs. Williams said, “the agony of waiting to be told, was worse than knowing.”
20 years later
20 years since Sept. 11, 2001, Pearl Williams said she’s only recently found a way to be at peace with what happened.
“My pastor and my deacon told me not to focus so much on Dwayne’s death,” she said, “but to focus on his memory.”
Pearl Williams, who just won a battle with COVID-19 and pneumonia, has done that, day in and day out, by serving others.
“I have tried to make a difference in other people’s lives,” she said.
Roy Williams said his mother hasn’t just tried to do that. She’s succeeded.
The Williams family will be at the Major Dwayne Williams Memorial at Jacksonville City Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony on September 11th. It’s what they’ve done since 2002, when the memorial was unveiled, thanks to the tireless effort of Pearl Williams.
“She gathered together people politicians, people from our alma mater Jacksonville State and others to help her raise money to build a monument: a memorial to Dwayne in my hometown,” Roy said.
As Roy Williams reflects on the last twenty years, he recalls the spirit of unity around the country that helped him and his family grieve.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years, he said. “But, I wonder how Dwayne and the 3,000 heroes that died that day would feel when they see that after 9/11, our nation united. It was amazing. You had people proudly waving their flags. Patriotism was at an all-time high. We put aside Black versus white versus Latino. We put aside, Republican versus Democrat. It wasn’t a red state versus blue state. We all united as the United States of America, under the proud colors of red, white and blue. And I wonder how he would feel 20 years later to see that we’ve forgotten that, people are bickering again, they’re fighting.”
Williams hopes that on this 20th anniversary of the tragic events that led to the death of his brother, Major Dwayne Williams, “Fish,” that we get back to unity in the United States.
“My hope and prayer is as we get ready to celebrate this anniversary is that,” he said, “for one moment, for next week, if you don’t want to do it for a week, then maybe one day, you would set aside the political bickering, set aside all this arguing over COVID-19 and vaccinations and just honor the memory and legacy of those who died that day, including my brother, by uniting as one nation.”