Local officials remembered 9/11 during a somber ceremony Thursday morning at the Firefighter Memorial at the Bryan County Administrative Complex in South Bryan.
Richmond Hill Fire Chief Ralph Catlett called Sept. 11, 2001 a day "that has indelibly shaped who we are."
On that day, terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center towers, killing some 3,000 people and sparking a grinding war in Iraq and Afghanistan,
"Just as December 7, 1941 - Pearl Harbor Day — defined a generation, September 11 has indelibly shaped who we are, how we live our daily lives and what we believe in," Catlett said to those who attended the ceremony. "But unlike Pearl Harbor, in which one nation attacked a military installation, this time an organization of terrorists, not operating under the flag of any one nation, attacked thousands of unsuspecting innocent men and women."
Worse, these were not soldiers or marines, Catlett said. They were noncombatants.
"(They were) bankers and brokers. Analysts and administrative assistants. Technicians. Designers. Some just starting out in the workplace; some at the apex of their careers. Pilots and flight attendants. Vacationers, business travelers and those flying across the country to see friends and family," he said.
And continued: "And police officers and firefighters, who took an oath to protect and serve the hard-working public no matter how horrific the circumstances. All of these individuals we remember here today committed no offense against another nation."
County Emergency Services Chief Freddy Howell was also among the speakers. Howell recalled he was the assistant chief training officer for the Waycross Fire Department when the attacks occurred.
"I was conducting a high-rise drill in the stairway of a five-story building," Howell said. "I was on about the third floor when the chief called me and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center and for us to wrap up the training and get back to the stations."
He and another firefighter went back to the station and saw the second plane hit the second WTC tower, "at which time we all called our
family and friends to tell them and check on them. Then we set down and were glued to the TV the rest of the day."
Howell said the thousands people who died in the attacks included thousands of civilians and the firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and police officers who rushed to help them. He also spoke of the $10 billion in damage caused when terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into the towers, and then brought the tragedy closer to home.
"The population of Pembroke and Groveland is around 3,000 people," Howell said. "The attack on Sept. 11 basically wiped out a town the size of Pembroke and the community of Groveland."
"But this morning, let’s think of it like this," Howell continued. "Those were moms and dads, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends ... grandpas and grandmas. Those 3,000 people started their day just like you and I do every day. They left their home going to work to try to make a living. Some were hoping to get married, some were hoping to take a vacation, some were trying to pay their way through college or pay for their kids’ college."
The attack also changed the lives of family members. "Think about all the Christmas mornings that will never be the same to those families," Howell said.
And, while asking that people remember the victims, Howell sounded a note of hope, recalling his meeting in 2010 New York firefighter Jay Jonas, who on 9/11 responded to the attacks and after a grueling 3-1/2 hour ordeal helped save the life of Josephine Harris, who as the building collapsed was trapped in a stairway on the 20th floor with legs injured from a car wreck two weeks earlier.
"We should all keep our hope," Howell said. "Remember Jay Jonas and Josephine Harris, who without hope would never have survived. We haven’t been forgotten and we have a God who is still in charge. We will never forget."
Catlett said perhaps the most shocking aspect of the attacks weren’t that they took place or how they were carried out, but rather that what was under attack was the American way of life.
"Our way of life that embraces freedom and democracy," he said. "Our way of life that recognizes and respects varying opinions in society, and still preserves the rights of all to express those opinions. Our way of life that allows us to worship freely and to look differently."
Catlett said the U.S. is "one of the most desirable places on this planet to live, not for our oceans and plains, not for our mountains and rivers, not for our cars and homes and technology, but for our freedom."
"Our American spirit is defined by our ability to move forward in the aftermath of overwhelming loss, even when it seems easier to quit," he said. "Just think about the courage of our policemen and firefighters who rushed into two burning towers to bring thousands to safety. Or the courage of Flight 93 passengers, who resolved to save the lives of perhaps hundreds of other innocent victims on the ground by storming the cabin of their plane. Or the courage of our military and DOD personnel at the pentagon, rescuing fellow co workers while still operating inside the structure."
Catlett ended his speech by reminding those who attended that there are those who stand watch and remain vigilant today, 13 years after the attacks that changed America and the world.
"There is comfort in knowing our military personnel stand a wall to repel terrorism around the world, but they do not stand alone," he said. "First responders, law enforcement, and medical personnel in big cities and small communities across this great country, we also stand a wall and as counterparts say ‘sleep well tonight nothing will harm on my watch.’"
County Commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed and incoming District 5 member Rick Gardner, a retired Army pilot, also spoke.