It was mostly silent, save for occasional hushed tones as people gathered at Overlook Park on Spear Street before the 9/11 memorial service Wednesday.
By the time the fire, police and rescue departments arrived, at least 100 people had gathered to remember the day 18 years before when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit by passenger airlines that had been hijacked by terrorists and a fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers attacked the hijackers.
South Burlington Fire Chief Terry Francis greeted public safety workers and others as they arrived, and he shared reflections from that day. He was working for the Burlington Fire Department then. The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Francis was doing firefighter candidate interviews when the lieutenant told them that they should come downstairs to see what was happening.
Later, Francis said, he heard two F-16s fly overhead. He said that 8 minutes later those planes were over New York.
As Louis Fay waited for the ceremony to begin, he said he was working at IBM on that morning and there were television monitors in the halls for outside news or in-house announcements. He noticed a group watching the TV and looked to see what was happening.
“I saw the plane fly into the tower,” Fay said. “I literally had to walk away.”
Roger Pidgeon is with South Burlington Fire and Rescue. On that fateful morning, he was working with the department part-time and selling fire and rescue equipment with Frontline Fire and Rescue. His employer heard the news of the attacks on the radio and turned the TV on at work.
“I had training that the average person doesn’t have,” said Pidgeon. “I had a sneaking suspicion about what was going on.”
The attacks changed his life because that day spurred Pidgeon to go into fire and rescue full time.
Andrew Squires was at his work at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., when he heard what was happening on the radio. He was also in the Army National Guard and thought it would mean that he would be called up, but he wasn’t. Not then. Later, he would be stationed in Afghanistan.
Squires has written a book about his military experience called “Chasing the Taliban: One Soldier’s Memoir of Afghanistan.”
When the ceremony began, retired Fire Chief Doug Brent, Fire Captain Gary Rounds and fire department chaplain Deacon Tony Previti spoke of that day and the bravery and sacrifices that were made by so many and the impact on our lives.
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, after a long and emotional day, the South Burlington safety workers held an impromptu gathering at Overlook Park and the ceremony has continued since.
Chief Francis said that last year they hadn’t planned to have the celebration. They’d decided that they would only hold commemorations every five or 10 years because it takes a good bit of work for already overworked firefighters and they are often getting called out during the ceremony.
But last year, people really felt the need for the ceremony, and so they decided to continue the tradition annually, albeit without the choral group that was often scheduled. And sure enough, during this year’s ceremony, a fire truck and an ambulance had to leave to respond to calls.
“That attack killed 2,977 people who were killed outright and another 6,000 people were injured.” Francis told those gathered. “Of those who perished, 343 firefighters were killed, 71 police officers from the New York Police Department and Port Authority, and eight EMTs from other responding agencies also perished in attempting to evacuate the Twin Towers.”
More than 20,000 people were successfully evacuated that day, he said.
“That attack caused an estimated 455,000 New Yorkers and New Jerseyans to suffer from PTSD. Some of them still suffer today. Of that number, 10,000 were school children in New York public schools,” Francis said.
He said that is why it is so important to teach the lessons of 9/11. Over the last 18 years, the toll of 9/ll continues, and among the immediate responders, it’s still growing.
“You cannot take two 110-story buildings and reduce them to 12-story piles of metal and concrete that burn for 96 days at temperatures greater than 2,300 degrees and expect nothing else to happen,” Chief Francis said.
He said there’s a lesson we should take from the firefighters that responded on 9/11.
“They never once asked anyone their race, their socioeconomic status, what political party they were affiliated with, who they chose to love, and whether they were legal or not,” Francis said. “They just did one thing – pull together and get people out of peril. That’s just what firefighters do.”