“Every day I see something when I’m not even expecting it,” said Sylvia Ball of Bald Knob, who lost her sister, Malissa White, in the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, on New York City’s World Trade Center. “I see that plane hit that building.”
With it being the 20th anniversary of 9/11 today, Ball said “I think about her every day, but this year for some reason, documentaries are on early – and I know it’s because of the 20th anniversary – and I’m thinking you know, ‘You’ve got two more weeks, three more weeks,’ but I know people want to get the story and tell the story.
“... Some days are easier. I usually come to school to work to keep my mind off of things, but I teach my kids what happened that day – there was a young girl that was just like them, attended this small school in Bald Knob and ended moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., but working in Manhattan, N.Y. We talk about all that and you can dream big and you can be from a small school but you can touch other people’s lives, and I tell them that’s what my sister did. She took people in. I mean, somebody had a house fire, she took them in. I don’t believe you would do that in New York, but she did that.”
Ball called her sister “just selfless like that. She was just special. She had that enormous heart and I know people talk about all the time or they really try to make somebody seem angelic when they pass, but she was truly like that all the time.
“... She was not only my sister, she was my best friend. She was a virtuous woman who was a mentor to many.”
The 99th floor
Malissa White went from being a peewee cheerleader in Bald Knob all the way up to the 99th floor of Tower 1, the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, where she worked as a technical recruiter for the investment firm Marsh and McLennan.
She was one of the 2,977 killed when hijacked commercial airliners were flown into the twin towers and into the Pentagon by members of the al-Qaida militant Islamic terrorist group, and another plane was downed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Ball, Malissa’s older sister, is an elementary teacher in the Bald Knob School District from which Malissa graduated in 1982. Malissa went to college at Grambling State University in Louisiana.
“When she got out of college, she started working at Walmart Distribution Center No. 18 [in Searcy],” Ball said. “She was working there and she decided she was going to get married ... and that is what took her to New York, she got married.”
Ball said Malissa was married to Wakeland Higgins, whom they call “Rocky.” He moved to Florida a year or two after 9/11 and works at Disney World in Orlando. Malissa did not have any children biologically, according to Ball, and Higgins has two children.
There weren’t any Walmarts in New York City when Malissa got married, so “she started working for another firm called Young and Rubicam. It was an advertising agency. She worked in human resources there,” Ball said. Then after White left Young and Rubicam, she went to work in the North Tower.
Ball said Malissa was excited to be working in the big city and in the big building but Ball, being afraid of heights, laughed and said she wasn’t excited. “When she said, ‘I’m on the 99th floor,’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness!”
Ball, who graduated from Bald Knob in 1981, said she was 17 months older than her sister and “everyone used to think we were twins; not everyone but a lot of people thought we were twins because we were right there together.”
She said that Malissa “always acted like she was older, and a lot of people said, ‘She’s older than you,’ but that was because she was more like a caregiver and liked to take care of everyone and did that all of her life with her and their two younger siblings, Marc, who lives in Memphis, and Phillip Jr., who lives in Bald Knob.
‘We didn’t know’
On the day that her sister was killed, Ball said she was working at the school and the secretary came down to her door and said, “I need you a minute.”
“I thought maybe they had a parent conference or something like that,” Ball said. “She walked me down the hallway and asked me if my sister worked at the Trade Center, and I said, ‘Yes, she works there.’ I knew everybody up here knew she worked there so I was like, ‘Why is she asking me that question?’
“She walked me out the door – because at the time I lived right across from the school – and she said, ‘I think you need to go home and call her and check and see if everything is OK.’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ Then we walked across the street and she began to tell me that a plane had hit the tower, and she said, ‘Which tower does she work in?’”
When Ball told her that her sister worked in the North Tower, she was told, “’Yes, that’s the tower, I believe, that the plane hit.’ So, I walked across there and I tried to call her because at the time I had telephone numbers on my refrigerator. I was calling and calling and there was no reception, no reception, no reception, so I didn’t know what was going on.”
She said she turned on the television “and I could see that this plane hit the towers and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. I tried to call her husband and I couldn’t reach him. For some reason, my brother was off that day – he normally works on Tuesday because he works for Walmart Distribution – so I went down to his house, and that’s when another plane was hitting and then another plane. I was watching all that and people started coming to his house and they were saying, ‘Was Malissa at work?’ We didn’t know. ‘We don’t know, we think she’s at work.’”
Ball said her mother, Bertha White, was in Chicago visiting her sisters “so we were trying to contact her and they were trying to contact us. Of course, they had suspended all flights and she couldn’t get home. Then they had problems with rental cars. Everyone was trying to rent a car and couldn’t get a car right.”
She said her mother, who died in 2016, was finally brought home by one of Ball’s cousins. However, they didn’t know what had happened to White “until later on when I contacted her [Malissa’s] husband.”
“They were up all night walking around,” Ball said. “I had an aunt up there at the time. Her name is Emma. She was there and another friend of her’s, Debbie. They were walking around and, I don’t know if you can even imagine this, going to hospitals to see if they had any victims that had survived, maybe that had amnesia, burns, you know something like that, and, of course, it was days before we found out that she was there [in the tower]. We knew she was there, but I mean that we really knew she was in that building.”
The call finally came from Higgins and he said, “We have searched and searched and searched and we can’t find her, so we know she’s in the building.”
Ball said they still have no remains of her sister.
Following the attacks, Ball connected with Alison Low, whose sister, Sara, another Arkansas victim of 9/11 killed while working as a flight attendant. They call themselves “sisters” because of their connection.
“They found Sara’s rings but my sister didn’t even have on her wedding ring; she had left it on the dresser,” Ball said.
She said she and her family also went to a memorial that was held for Malissa and other victims who worked for Marsh and McLennan.
“I know it was over 300 victims from her company. I don’t even remember the exact total, but I’m estimating that it was like 358 employees lost from that one company,” Ball said. The memorial “was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, so I did get to meet some of her friends and colleagues. It was in October of 2001 and then the next year, they let us [family members] go to ground zero. They had opened up ground zero, but before that, you couldn’t get to ground zero.
“We had a memorial there on the first anniversary. My mom went, my brother, Phillip. We, I’m talking about part of my family, went back for the 10th anniversary and went back for the 15th anniversary.”
Ball said she also looks at Malissa’s online tribute page and there are pages and pages on the internet of tributes to her.
“So many people have put how she helped them get a job. How she encouraged them,” she said. “I want people to know that she left here and went to Grambling State University and she received her bachelor’s and her master’s, actually she was in journalism. That is what she thought she was going to do, but then got into human resources.”
“Her former boss who worked for Young and Rubicam, his name is Orville Dale, he started a scholarship in her name at Grambling State University in Louisiana. Then, another scholarship was started by American Transportation, the bus company in Conway, because I had a cousin who worked there, so she told them about Malissa’s story and they started a scholarship for her, Sara Low and then the young man from Pine Bluff [Nehamon Lyons IV]. There was a scholarship for each one of them and they collected in no time like $30,000, so it was $10,000 a piece. We still have a scholarship fund in Bald Knob and we still have the one at Grambling.”
Ball said the Bald Knob scholarship in memory of her sister is normally awarded in May to a high school senior. Sometimes, she said, she does not award one but sometimes, she will award two in a year when she sees outstanding students.
Ball has been teaching in Bald Knob since 1994.
In addition to being a peewee cheerleader and playing girls basketball in junior and senior high, Malissa had been in journalism, worked on the yearbook staff and was also the high school editor of the newspaper in Bald Knob.
“Back then, we had a local newspaper called The Knob,” Ball said. “She was also the editor of our college newspaper The Gramblinite. My mother used to tell me all the time, if if had not been for journalism, I don’t know if she would have finished high school. That was her interest, her love.”
Phillip White was 28 at the time his sister died. He said he “saw the news that morning and it still didn’t really hit me.”
“We all took it hard, but my mom took it the hardest,” he said. “Right after that, her health started going downhill. She had a heart attack and a stroke. She was fairly young, earlier 60s. She was born in 1945.”
Growing up in the family, Phillip said Malissa was “the favorite – the favorite sister, the favorite everything. Everybody loved Malissa. It wasn’t a secret; she was just everybody’s favorite, the favorite niece, the favorite cousin, because she was just so giving and kind and just wonderful to be around.”
Phillip recalled going to New York in 2001. “As soon as they let planes start flying again, we flew out,” he said. “They had a fence up and it [the building] was still smoldering. There was ash all over all the windows everywhere we went. I think we stayed about four or five days and while we were up there, we did the DNA swab with the NYPD and they did a DNA swab on me and my brother.”
He said his family was planning on going to New York this year but didn’t because of COVID-19. “Hopefully, next year.” Phillip said he has been to New York three times now. He mentioned that he and his brother went to Brooklyn to Malissa’s apartment and went through her things.
Phillip said 9/11 “has really changed me as far as how I look at the whole world because I can remember right after 9/11 happened, the whole country was just kind of together. and that is a good feeling. I hate that it had come through that expense, but that was just a good feeling everywhere we went you just saw signs of patriotism.
“I’m not saying you see that you don’t see that now but where I work [it’s] mostly 20-year-olds and younger and they were babies or weren’t born when it happened.”
Phillip has been working at Walmart Distribution Center 6003 in Searcy for 28 years and said that “Malissa got me on there.”
He also praised how his sister “always gave godly advice. My mother would give advice but Malissa, who was right at 8-9 years older than me, would give godly advice. Sylvia is 10 years older than me. Marc is three years older than me.”
Marc, who lives in Memphis, said he has a story about his sister “that has been passed down.”
“Of course, Sylvia is the oldest by a year and then there’s Malissa and six years later, I came, so she wasn’t a baby anymore and she really didn’t like it,” he said with a laugh. “I remember some stories about her telling her teachers at school – I think maybe she was in the first grade, they asked her, ‘How do you like your new brother?’ and she said, ‘I don’t. They can take him back.’”
Growing up, Marc said Malissa was “just the most loving sister you could have or hope to have. She was a very protective sibling of the rest of us. She acted like the oldest even though she wasn’t and if anything was going on, she would be right there trying to protect any and all of us, and it extended even more than with just us siblings. She was like that with pretty much anyone that she loved or anyone she felt was an underdog.”
Marc said he remembers the pictures and outfits when Malissa was a peewee cheerleader. He also remembers her playing basketball and when she was a junior, he thinks her team was a “runner-up for state.” He said she loved to drive and go and any time their parents needed someone to go somewhere, she would raise her hand and be willing to go.
“She liked to go to the skating rink – normal kid things when she was that age. She grew up and did things kids do in Bald Knob and Searcy and I think back then the skating rink was the place to go, and when we got older, she would take us.”
Asked how he felt about Malissa working in the World Trade Center, he said she was always the type that was a little bit afraid of things.
“It’s kind of a contradiction,” he said. “Being in the house, she would say, ‘Did I hear something, did I hear something?’ but she was never afraid to try new things; she was adventurous in that way. So when she moved to New York, she’s going to be afraid of everything up there. She was a subway-riding, New York accent to us when she came back [to visit]. She sounded like a New Yorker but she said the people in New York said she still sounded like she had a Southern accent.”
Marc said he was working nights and was in Memphis on 9/11 when a friend from college called him about the attacks.
“She had actually gone up to New York and Malissa had toured her around New York, her job at the World Trade Center and everything a few years before that,” Marc said. “She knew Malissa and she called me and said, ‘You may want to turn the TV on.’ I was groggy not knowing what was going on and then, of course, I was awakened by that news and then trying to figure out which tower she was in and then the second plane hit and, of course, trying to watch the events.
“The not knowing for probably a couple of weeks was probably the absolute torture. After about maybe two weeks ... my brother and I were wanting to go right up there, but my mother said, ‘No, let’s see what is going on.’ Then we finally did fly up there and her company, Marsh and McLennan, they had experts there to tell us about the building’s structurabiity and the actual heat of the plane. They went into depth, basically telling us that anyone that was on the floor that she was on wouldn’t have survived. There was no way, so the finality of that hit us while we were up there. As bad as that was, it was probably not as bad as not knowing if she was just out there somewhere.”
At the memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Marc said “this was my first time being in a large Catholic church like that. I just thought it was beautiful. Even though you are going through a horrific time, you can still see the beauty in certain things. This is a paradox.”
Marc said he has been to New York about five times since 9/11. He recalled going to the 10-year anniversary “and that is when they built the Freedom Tower. They have the fire museum there and they have where the actual fires were, there is a waterfall with the names of all of the victims there. We got to go and look for her name and we found her name.”
Marc said his message on the 20th anniversary is that “life does go on and life gets better, and being able to have a person that lived such a good and full life is fulfilling.”
“She was 37 when she passed away, so life is unpredictable,” he said. “Love those that you are around. Make sure they know that they love you and you treat them with the love and respect I think each and everyone of us deserves because we just don’t know a time and a place when death may occur.
“It’s a 9/11 story to everyone else, but it’s a family story to us, so that ‘s what I would leave to the families, to make sure you are enjoying your family and loving your family with the time that you have.”