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Special Report | ‘Never forget’: 20 years later, legacy lives on for Ky. man killed on 9/11

Those who knew Rowan Co. native Ed Earhart, who died at the Pentagon, urge Kentuckians to keep their promise to remember.
Updated: Sep. 9, 2021 at 3:00 PM CDT
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MOREHEAD, Ky. (WKYT) - She sits at the dining room table, flipping through old photographs, identifying commemorative pins, sharing remembrances of mementos and artwork.

A stained-glass window. A banner. Candid snapshots. Family portraits.

She stops at a photo of a young man with a warm demeanor.

“Ed with his smile,” she says. “That was typical Ed.”

Twenty years since her younger brother’s death, Andrea Earhart Stauter is doing what she can to keep alive his memory - and the memory of the other souls who lost their lives on a sunny, late-summer Tuesday morning in New York, New York, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and in Arlington, Virginia.

“If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” Stauter said. “We don’t want another 9/11. We don’t want to repeat it.”

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, “Never forget” was a common refrain, a patriotic promise made by many Americans. But those who knew and loved Edward Earhart fear that is exactly what is happening as the country nears the 20th anniversary of that dark day.

Ed Earhart's name on the veterans memorial in downtown Morehead.
Ed Earhart's name on the veterans memorial in downtown Morehead.(WKYT)

Petty Officer First Class Edward Earhart, aerographer’s mate in the U.S. Navy, was stationed at the Pentagon as a weather forecaster for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was not scheduled to work on September 11, 2001, but had gone in anyway to help train a colleague.

Even now, 20 years later, his older sister’s recollections of that day are clear.

“A blue, blue sky, and it had puffy white clouds,” Stauter said. “I remember that day.”

Stauter remembers hearing of the terrorist attacks in New York and worrying about her brother in the military, but feeling some sense of reassurance in knowing he was stationed at perhaps the most secure building in the world.

Not long later - at 9:37 a.m. - that sense of safety came crumbling down, when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the western side of the Pentagon.

“I had my brother’s desk number, and I remember calling it,” she said. “And it was just ringing. Busy, busy, busy, busy, busy. And then I called his cell number, because he normally always had his cell with him. It was just ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’”

For several days they waited, before they finally got confirmation for what they already knew to be true.

“He never wanted my parents to worry,” Stauter said. “And when there was no call from him, I knew something was wrong.”

Ed Earhart, 26, was one of the first known casualties of the attacks that day.

Ed Earhart grew up on Christy Creek and went to Rowan County High School, where he played football.

He was also active in DeMolay International, a Masonic youth leadership organization. It was there he met friends like Roy Wallace and Todd Hamilton.

“I think about Ed every day,” Wallace said. “I just try to remember the good heart that he had. Probably the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Those who knew Earhart say he loved to serve, loved to help others. It was unsurprising to them, then, that he was a natural fit for serving in the military, joining the U.S. Navy after attending Morehead State University.

Through everything, friends say Earhart was a good listener and never lost his ability to lighten a tense mood with a quick joke or moment of levity.

“It’s unfortunate that we did not get the benefit of his attitude, his service, his essence through adulthood,” Hamilton said. “Because I think he would’ve touched so many lives. And through his sacrifice he’s touched a lot of lives as well.”

It is hard sometimes for loved ones not to think about the what-ifs, the what-could-have-beens, the what-should-have-beens.

That he should be pushing 50, instead of forever 26.

That he should be a father, instead of a youthful photo.

That he should still be making a name for himself, instead of that name being etched in stone.

Yet it is a different world today than the one in which Earhart woke up, got dressed and went to work - one last time - on that fateful Tuesday morning.

A flag draped over the side of the Pentagon.
A flag draped over the side of the Pentagon.(Gray DC Bureau)

Earhart’s family was not alone in feeling a crumbling sense of security as the dust settled on 9/11.

Perhaps the entire country did.

“The safety that we felt on September 10 was shattered on September 11,” said Dr. Brian Simpkins, an assistant professor of homeland security at Eastern Kentucky University. “It was like, ‘Whoa, this actually happened here.’”

Dr. Simpkins worked as a homeland security contractor prior to teaching in EKU’s College of Justice and Safety.

He says the attacks that day woke up America to the threats facing the U.S. and the many vulnerabilities therein, specifically with critical infrastructure and other sites - like the Bluegrass Army Depot, he said - that would have major effects on the population if something were to happen to them.

Protecting them became a major homeland security focus post-9/11, Dr. Simpkins said, even at the expense of losing focus on other mission areas (such as natural disasters, the impact of which was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina).

Homeland security efforts now take an “all hazards” approach - not solely focused on terrorism - but the resources and capabilities to combat it still exist and are used to make air travel safer and critical infrastructure more protected, as well as to keep awareness of threats facing the country, Simpkins said.

“That big push of equipment, technology, coordination, collaboration has helped us get to where we are today,” he said, “where we’re less likely to be subject to another complex, coordinated terrorist attack.”

He says the lessons of 9/11 - felt even hundreds of miles away here in Kentucky - led to major efforts to make the homeland stronger and safer, leaving the country better prepared to prevent, respond and recover to catastrophes.

“Their deaths are not in vain,” Dr. Simpkins said of the victims, including Ed Earhart. “It is a tragedy that almost 3,000 people lost their lives that day. But we took that as a mission to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

A military portrait of Ed Earhart adorns a prominent shelf in the home of his older sister.
A military portrait of Ed Earhart adorns a prominent shelf in the home of his older sister.(WKYT)

For Earhart’s family, two decades have dulled but not lessened the pain of their loss.

“It’s not as raw as when I used to look at a clock and see 9:11 I would grimace, and sometimes I would cry,” Andrea Earhart Stauter said. “Now I look at 9:11 and I think about things that happened, and I can be retrospective. But on 9/11, it’s hard.”

That is why each year on Earhart’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, loved ones place a bottle of Ale-8 on his grave. (“He was a purist,” Stauter said. “He had to have the bottle.” She described wrapping bottles of the soft drink in bubble wrap to send to him and his shipmates in care packages.)

But even these rituals have changed over the years. Earhart’s parents are now buried beside him at Hamilton Cemetery.

“My mom had a really difficult time because he was the baby,” Stauter said of how Ed’s loss impacted her parents. “I remember when she got the flag, and her just crying, and I remember the tears just falling down on the flag.

“My dad (an Army veteran) dealt with a lot with Vietnam, and he just said, ‘I always hoped Edward would make it home. I never wanted him to come home like this.’ And I said, ‘Well, Dad, at least he was serving his country.’”

It is that legacy of service that friends and family are working to keep alive through volunteering and through the scholarship in his name.

They also donated some of his things to the Kentucky Historical Society to be part of the museum’s collection remembering 9/11: the coveralls he wore in the Navy, a flag flown in his honor over the U.S. Capitol, a commemorative coin given to the family a year after his death.

[A CLOSER LOOK | Ed Earhart’s items at the Kentucky Historical Society]

More than just memorabilia, they are living history lessons for generations to come.

“These objects are really tangible reminders of that tragic day,” said Stuart Sanders, director of research and collections. “It’s that immediate personal connection to visitors and to future Kentuckians who can really understand the sacrifices that were made.”

Knowing that, at some level, Earhart will be remembered for posterity is of some comfort to those who knew and loved him. They do not want to see what he meant to them get lost in the back of our country’s collective memory as the years continue to pass.

“It is a call for us, every September 11,” Todd Hamilton said, “whether it’s one year, 20 years or 100 years from now, to really pause and rededicate ourselves to our citizenship in this country.”

So they work to make sure America lives up to the promise made by so many on that dark day in 2001: Never forget.

Flowers on a bench at the Pentagon 9/11 memorial.
Flowers on a bench at the Pentagon 9/11 memorial.(Gray DC Bureau)

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