The Fearless Four: The Alabamians who died in the Pentagon on 9/11

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — You could call them the fearless four.

Of the 125 men and women who died when a commercial airliner struck the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, on Sept. 11, 2001, four were Alabamians.

Two men and two women, all African-American, these servicemembers gave the ultimate sacrifice for the United States. To those that knew them, though, they were more than just soldiers or sailors. They were loved.

Army Sergeant Tamara Thurman, age 25, Brewton, Alabama

Tamara Thurman wasn’t always a sergeant. To Bea Woolen, she was a big sister.

Thurman was the oldest of four siblings, but she was closest in age to Bea.

The two grew up on a farm in Brewton. Woolen said that Thurman loved nature.

“She loved animals,” Woolen said. “She loved butterflies, flowers, things like that. She didn’t even want you to kill certain things.”

Woolen said that if someone would suggest killing even a mosquito, her sister would object.

“No, don’t hurt it,” she’d say. “It’s not doing anything to you.”

As she grew older, Thurman began playing basketball, which Woolen called one of her sister’s “big loves.” She participated in the church choir. She loved writing.

Woolen said that at one point, Thurman even wrote a skit that they performed in church.

“It was centered around a lonely girl who had a lot of issues going on,” Woolen said. “IT was about how she overcame those issues. People really loved it.”

Thurman committed to the military before she’d even graduated high school. Once she joined, her love for writing didn’t go away. Woolen said Thurman was taking college journalism classes while in the service.

Woolen said that aside from the normal struggles during basic training, Thurman loved military life, particularly the ability to travel that it provided.

“Once she got her first assignment, which was in Seoul, South Korea, she loved it,” Woolen said. “When she would go from one base to another, she would send me pictures.”

Woolen said that her sister particularly liked her time in Germany.

“I remember her telling me it was gorgeous. That the landscape was beautiful, how serene it was, how different it was than the U.S. altogether. I remember her saying ‘I could live here.’”

Woolen said she wants her sister to be remembered not only for her military career and the way she died, but for the person she was and the way she lived.

“She was Tamara. She was Tammy. We remember her as the lovable person she was, the caring person she was. She was a person who inspired other people to do good things in life.”

Army Major Dwayne Williams, age 40, Jacksonville, Alabama

Dwayne Williams grew up as a child in Jacksonville answering to the nickname “fish.” His mother, Pearl, worked at a recreation center where she caught Dwayne jumping in the deep end at only five years old.

At only 10, Williams was a member of the first class of black students to integrate Jacksonville’s city schools.

“He was a trailblazer in that way,” his brother Roy Williams said.

His leadership wouldn’t end there.

Williams was a star athlete in high school. In football, basketball, and in neighborhood baseball games, Williams was the best around.

“I grew up living my sports fantasies watching my older brother Dwayne,” his brother said.

Williams would go on to attend the University of North Alabama as a marketing major, playing for the football team from 1979 to 1982.

Afterwards, his career in the military began.

Roy Williams recalls fondly watching his brother, who was a paratrooper and Army Ranger, jump out of planes at Fort Benning when he was living with him in the summer of 1986.

“That when our relationship took off,” Roy said. “I was just like…my brother is fearless. I was just totally amazed. You just felt so much pride.”

Later, Williams would serve as Roy’s best man. The two would vacation together in Cancun and, three years before 9/11, in Cairo, Egypt.

“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.”

Navy Operations Specialist Nehamon “Nick” Lyons IV, age 30, Mobile, Alabama

To Sheldwyn Willis, Nehamon Lyons was just “Nick.” The two met early on in Willis’ career. He had just joined the Navy, and met Nick aboard the USS Gettysburg.

Willis said Lyons was reserved and liked his time alone, but he was was “very take-charge.”

“A lot of people went to him for knowledge,” Willis said.

During their service together, Willis and Lyons went to places from Ecuador to Panama to Israel.

“When we went to Ecuador, we got to hang out there. He was just really fun to be around,” Willis said. “We would walk around and we would sightsee, and he would explain things to me.”

Willis said these experiences helped him grow into the man he is today.

“Me being the young 18, 19 year old I was during that time, I just didn’t have the knowledge,” he said. “He just really taught me how to handle myself as a man to grow up, how to be mature, how to take care of my business. He taught me the right way to do things. Instead of going off the beaten path, he put me on the right path”

Willis said Lyons’ favorite port was Haifa, Israel. While there, the two got to take a trip to Jerusalem.

“He just liked to go out there and experience life, experience the culture,” he said.

One thing that Lyons made clear, Willis said, was his love for the place he called home.

“He loved Alabama,” Willis said. “I can honestly say he absolutely loved Alabama. Even though he was from Little Rock, Arkansas, he would say he was from Mobile. He just loved being down South.”

Navy Information Systems Technician Marsha Dianah Ratchford, age 34, Prichard, Alabama

Marsha Ratchford’s husband, Rodney, still commemorates his wedding anniversary, even 20 years after his wife’s death at the Pentagon.

“It’s been 33 years,” he posted on Facebook on May 7 of this year. “Love you, Marsha, for your love and our family.”

A year earlier, he did the same.

“I do, I did,” he said on the social media site. “32 years later, I have three beautiful children, three beautiful grandchildren, with one on the way.”

Marsha Ratchford was born in Detroit, but she grew up in Mobile, Alabama.

She met Rodney at a training school in San Diego. “She had an awesome smile,” Ratchford said of that meeting.

They’d soon marry in Alabama and would eventually have the three children Rodney mentioned in his post.

And that’s the way Rodney, even in the the days just after her death, remembers her most fondly.

“The main thing about her,” he told The Chicago Tribune, “is that she was just the most loving mother.”

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