THIS WEEK'S FEATURED STORIES
By Jackie R. Broach
It was an emotional day at Midway Fire and Rescue’s headquarters station in Willbrook as hundreds gathered outside to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
“My husband’s handkerchief is pretty drenched,” said Lyle Werner of Murrells Inlet. Her husband, Ken, let her use it during the ceremony. Her eyes were still red and glassy, proof she cried through most of it as she listened to the stories of people who lost much and were changed forever on that terrible day in 2001.
The Werners lived in northern Virginia then, “in the shadow of the Pentagon.” Ken was supposed to be on a flight to New York on the morning of the attacks, but his trip was cancelled at about the same time Lyle decided there was no way she was letting him get on a plane.
For the anniversary, “we needed to go somewhere to feel connected to what happened 10 years ago and be with others who felt the same way and wanted to remember,” she said.
When they heard about the ceremony at Midway, they decided it would be the perfect place and Lyle said being part of it made her feel proud to be an American.
As the start of Sunday's 2 p.m. ceremony neared, the seats set out in front of a towel-draped memorial had long since been filled. People brought their own chairs to fill in behind them or line up along the grass across the street or in the shade of a nearby tree.
Still more stood, many carrying umbrellas to create their own little patch of shade and block out the blistering sun.
Boy Scouts wandered around, handing out yellow ribbons emblazoned with the words “We Remember” and spectators continued to wander over, many hiking from a business complex across Willbrook Boulevard.
But as the lilting sounds of a bagpipe started on the hour, the crowd fell instantly into a respectful silence. The only other sounds were the wind and the gurgling of a baby with a white ribbon on her downy head.
The ceremony was centered around the unveiling of a Sept. 11 memorial erected in front of the station. The memorial features a small part of the World Trade Center — a 92-pound I-beam — encased in a clear box on a pedestal.
A plaque beneath reads “Lest we forget” and pays tribute to the 2,819 people who were killed in the attacks, including 343 firefighters and 60 police officers.
Midway got the I-beam in February and the monument was taken on as an Eagle Scout project by Austin Meares.
As the cover was lifted and the crowd got its first glimpse at the monument and the twisted piece of steel pulled from the wreckage in New York, the reaction was instantaneous: thunderous applause and some careful dabbing of eyes.
But it was the stories of those who witnessed the devastation first hand or who knew the dead that really resonated.
“Oh, my God,” whispered Ginger Scott of Pawleys Island as one speaker, Angie Shoemaker, was introduced and it was announced that she used to work for Cantor Fitzgerald. The company lost more than 650 employees that day and Shoemaker knew many of them.
Holding two small American flags and standing in the shade of one of Midway’s fire engines, Scott couldn’t help but get emotional. She attended the ceremony to pay tribute to those who died in the attacks and the words spoken outside Midway made the images and horror of that day feel new again.
“I think everybody here remembers where they were,” she said. “You remember where you were and how you felt the moment you realized we were under attack. Even today, 10 years later, it’s hard.”
Shoemaker was one of four key speakers at the event, along with Midway assistant chief James Crawford, firefighter Troy Hutchinson and Mike Fanning, a Pawleys Island Police officer who was with the New York Police Department. All three were among the responders on 9/11 and worked on recovery efforts after.
“When I saw the south tower fall, I knew in my heart that hundreds of firefighters had died and some possibly were friends,” said Crawford, who worked for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire. “As it became more evident that this was an attack on our country, I became compelled to act.”
On the evening of the attacks, Crawford was among Pittsburgh firefighters who went to aid the New York Fire Department and spent days working side by side with them in the piles of rubble, first searching for survivors, then digging for remains and evidence.
“Seeing images of the attacks only 10 hours earlier on television in the Pittsburgh fire house gave no justice to the horrible and graphic reality of the war zone that I was now standing in,” he said.
But like so many who responded that day, he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“I went to help dig for potential victims and my missing brother firefighters, because I understood the immense pain that they were going through,” he said. “I had lived through firefighter death before in Pittsburgh.
“This nation witnessed thousands of innocent civilians fleeing the battle ground, but they also witnessed thousands of firefighters rushing into all but certain death to rescue human life.”
Firefighters at Midway and around the world are willing to do the same every day.
“They’re here to serve you without a second thought and lay down their lives for you.”
The memorial at Midway will for Crawford be “a permanent reminder of the hatred that exists in our world today, but more importantly of the extreme love and compassion that we have for each other as Americans.”
Fanning briefly recalled his time searching across acres of debris for human remains and evidence left in the stories high debris that had once been the twin towers.
He mentioned the family centers created to console grieving families, working in the morgue and getting hairbrushes and toothbrushes to help identify remains through DNA so families could bury what was left of their loved ones.
He was assigned with the hate crimes task force during the attacks and remembers how “within hours we were besieged with reports of retaliatory crimes against people for the way they spoke or the way they dressed, and they had nothing to do with the events of 9/11.”
But Fanning dedicated his speech to “the way an entire world came together to aid the people of New York City and the rescue workers.”
He recalled how people came from all over the country to lend assistance, helping in any way they could.
“There were firefighters, police officers, clergy and construction workers, and for me, St. Paul’s’ Chapel on Broadway became a sanctuary where dozens of ordinary folks from Virginia, Ohio and other states gathered,” Fanning said. “They prepared food for us, administered basic medical aid and they consoled the rescue workers.”
He also recalled “throngs of civilians” waving American flags and cheering on rescue workers.
Hutchinson recalled a day that started like any other and quickly became something forever etched in his memory. He worked for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and responded to the attack at the Pentagon.
He helped put out the flames, then spent nine days on the scene helping with the recovery effort.
He was in a special training class that morning when the students were called out to see images of the north tower in flames.
“I knew they were in trouble,” he said of the firefighters on the scene. “I knew they had their hands full.”
Then he watched as the second plane hit.
“All I could think was, ‘oh, my God, what are they going to do?’ ” he said. “We knew a lot of people had already died and it was going to get worse. We didn’t know 30 minutes later we would be responding to our own.”
On the scene at the Pentagon, rescue workers were called away from their jobs multiple times as reports came in that another plane might be about to hit.
“You see people running everywhere, screaming, yelling, crying,” he said. “We’re running for cover; we’re looking over our heads and we don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I’ve had a lot of training, but they never trained us for anything like that.”
By the third time they were called away from the scene, fear was morphing into frustration and anger.
Then, the rescue workers heard that the towers had fallen.
“All of us stood there and we couldn’t believe it. The only thing we could think of, because it’s our occupation, was the firemen and the police officers. We knew that a lot of firemen were going to be in those buildings doing their jobs, trying to make rescues and put the fire out ... we said a quick prayer and went back to doing our jobs.”
Shoemaker was the last speaker, calling by name several of those she had worked with who died in the smoke and flames of the north tower, or escaped that kind of death only by falling or jumping from windows more than 100 stories up. She gave them faces through her memories of interactions with them.
Tears flowed freely in the audience by the time she was done.
“When she started mentioning names and saying never forget these people, that was the beginning, and then the helicopter flew over and that was my undoing,” said Esther Yardumian-Smyth of Pawleys Plantation.
The speeches were followed by a presentation of the flag, the playing of “Amazing Grace” and a fly over by Life Care 5.
The ceremony was an opportunity for Yardumian-Smyth to show her patriotism and pay homage to the victims and heroes of Sept. 11, she said. She’s from Philadelphia and her husband, Brian is from New York, about 30 miles upriver from Manhattan.
Each speaker had something singular to offer and it was impossible not to be moved, she said.
Listening to them while standing under the hot sun, “you know any discomfort you feel is miniscule in comparison to what these heroes endured.”
In a closing prayer, Midway’s chaplain, the Rev. Nels Ledwell, urged the crowd to be thankful for its many blessings, including the freedom to live and worship as they choose.
Ten years after one of the most painful days in American history, “America is better than it has ever been,” he said.
The purpose of the ceremony was to “put a personal touch on 9/11,” said Midway chief Doug Eggiman.
He urged Americans to stay vigilant and not forget the events of that day, no matter how many years pass.
“It could easily be ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” he said.
But the consequences of complacency are too high.