Smyrna firefighter Evan McBrayer remembers exactly where he was.
He was an 18-year-old high school student on Sept. 11, 2001, and was working in an auto shop class at Milton High School.
Listening to the radio, he heard about the first plane. He thought of his uncle, Marietta native Kenneth McBrayer, a partner in investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill & Partners, whose offices were on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into floors 77-85 of the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., 17 minutes after a plane hit the North Tower. The South Tower was the first of the two to collapse, at 9:59 a.m.
Like many Americans, Evan McBrayer figured the crash was probably caused by a small plane, “a Cessna, or something like that.”
It quickly became clear that it was much more serious.
Kenneth Miles McBrayer died in the attacks, at the age of 49. Survived by his wife, parents and siblings, he was remembered as a generous and hardworking man who lived life to the fullest.
Of Sandler O’Neill & Partners’ 171 employees, 66 died on 9/11, according to a 2002 Fortune Magazine article.
Kenneth McBrayer was born in Marietta, son of Max “Dugan” McBrayer and Betty McBrayer, both of whom are now deceased. Max and Betty both attended Marietta High School, and Max later was a teacher and coach at the school. Max McBrayer later became principal of Briarwood High School in East Point, which his son Kenneth McBrayer attended.
“Our family always has been close, always attending each member’s birthday, holidays and other special events at graduations, weddings and other family occurrences,” Dugan McBrayer told MDJ editor Bill Kinney in 2001. “The last time we saw Ken was in August when he came from New York for my 76th birthday celebration. Ken enjoyed life and involved the family in many of his activities, so the awareness of his absence will be with us always.”
In the months following the attacks, The New York Times published “Portraits of Grief,” Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage that included about 2,400 short obituaries of the victims.
McBrayer was one of them.
In the brief remembrance, the Times described McBrayer’s close relationship and frequent phone calls with his wife Marsha, who was living in Washington, D.C., while attending law school. Marsha McBrayer told the Times that Ken had encouraged her to go to the best program for her, instead of choosing a law school simply because it was close to him.
David Galloway, a consultant and former pastor, went to high school with Kenneth, or “Ken,” as the people interviewed for this story called him.
“I was probably a ... (rising) freshman at the time, but Ken was our quarterback, and just a brilliant kid … he just took time with me and made me feel like I wasn’t a punk — big-brothered me, really,” Galloway said.
McBrayer’s academic success led to him earning a spot in the U.S. Naval Academy, where he finished as an honor graduate in 1974. Graduating 12th in a class of more than 800, Ken, then a Navy ensign was presented with his diploma by then-President Richard Nixon, according to a 2001 MDJ obituary.
McBrayer’s connection to the academy continued throughout his life — he owned a sailboat that he kept docked in Annapolis. His funeral was held there, and his memorial is located there.
Galloway served as president of Briarwood’s student council and through that got to know the principal, Max McBrayer. Galloway called him after he heard the news about his son and stayed in regular contact.
“I made a point after that I called him every 9/11, just tell him I was thinking about him,” Galloway said.
Max McBrayer was a great principal, Galloway said. Ken was Galloway’s “high school hero.”
On occasion, he has posted a tribute to McBrayer on Facebook, which often leads to a flood of messages and comments from old classmates.
“Everybody at Briarwood loved Ken. And it was a very personal loss, because he was the best of us.”
A sailor through and through
After graduating from the academy, Ken McBrayer served five years of active duty, assigned first to the fast frigate U.S.S. Capodonna before being transferred to carrier U.S.S. Saratoga. Most of his seafaring time was spent in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
“I knew him like a son. He was probably my very best junior officer,” said Robert Frey, an 87-year-old retired U.S. Naval captain who was Ken’s commanding officer.
At the time he left the Navy, Ken wanted to pursue medicine, according to Frey. But in the “Navy’s unfathomable stupidity, he was not selected.”
In the late fall of 2001, or maybe early 2002, Frey heard the bad news from another former officer.
Frey recalls McBrayer as personable, polite and a good leader of young men. He remembers McBrayer getting married during his time on the ship, and fondly said he used to tease Ken for driving a Volvo, which Frey called a “nerd car.”
“If you wanted to get the job done, Ken McBrayer did the job,” Frey said.
Resigning from the Navy in 1979 as a lieutenant, McBrayer began working as an engineer for Proctor and Gamble, near Americus. He was later transferred to Memphis before leaving P&G to work at First National Bank of Commerce, also in Memphis.
In 1990, McBrayer moved to Resolutions Trust Corp. in Atlanta.
Per the 2002 MDJ obituary, Ken McBrayer was a passionate sailor and used to sail on the Chesapeake Bay with his wife — his favorite vacation involved chartering a sailboat and sailing in the Caribbean.
McBrayer taught his nephew Evan how to sail, which became the biggest part of their relationship. McBrayer was a kind teacher with a “let’s do this together” attitude, Evan McBrayer said.
“We would sail throughout the Chesapeake Bay, we’d sail up to Baltimore, things like that.”
For the first few weeks after the attacks, Evan McBrayer recalls the family communicating with his coworkers to try and figure out what happened to Ken. Confirmation, and closure, eventually came — “it allowed the beginning of the recovery process, which was helpful for myself and my family,” Evan McBrayer said.
Many young adults joined the military in the wake of 9/11. Evan McBrayer was profoundly influenced by the attacks, which led in part to his career as a firefighter.
“I won’t say that the reason I became a firefighter was because of my uncle — that is a big part of it — but it steered me toward public safety. … to see the men and women, the responders in New York and what they did, it did kind of steer my life,” Evan McBrayer said.
He remembers his uncle as always smiling, full of laughter and above all, generous: always wanting to see what he could do for others, and not the other way around.
For the McBrayer family, Sept. 11 is a time to come together and check on each other, the firefighter said. Around this time, he tries to make sure he calls his two sisters and his parents to “draw a little closer together as a family.”
“I never try to remember how he left this world, I just remember what he did for others and what he did for me while he was in this world,” Evan said. “I think about him regularly, I think about the values that he helped instill. And obviously I miss him.”