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Pembroke event honors first responders
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Flanders Powell Funeral Home staff members Ernest Seigler, Doug DeLoach and James Thigpen get ready to serve North Bryan’s first responders as a way to pay them back for the work they do. Photo by Jeff Whitten.

Do an online search for Flanders Powell Funeral Home and Crematorium’s Facebook page and you’ll see the slogan “big enough to serve, small enough to care” right before the funeral home’s address at 197 South College Street in Pembroke.

Friday, Tommy Flanders and Audie Powell spent time doing both, as they and staff members Ernest Seigler, James Thigpen and Doug DeLoach served approximately 100 of Clarence Padgett’s barbecue dinners to North Bryan first responders in what has become an annual event honoring the county’s public safety officers.

“It’s our chance to give something back to them,” said Flanders, who with Powell serves as a deputy coroner for Bryan County. “We know first-hand how much they do for the people in this county.”

The event by design takes place on or near the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which is now one of two national days of service and remembrance -- the other is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. And given Pembroke’s habit of not making a big deal out of big deals, it was a low key setup with tables lined up in the parking lot and the barbecue, baked beans and cole slaw served on foam containers. The midday break from shifts and patrols was appreciated by those who stopped by, among them Sheriff Mark Crowe.

“They really do a lot to help us out, and as deputy coroners Tommy and Audie sometimes work with us in very close quarters and come out in some bad situations, so we do appreciate them,” he said, noting it’s also important to reflect on 9/11. “It’s a great opportunity to bring everybody together to remember and honor those in law enforcement, fire and EMS who made those sacrifices that day,” Crowe added. “It seems the least we can do is remember.”

Perhaps because Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of what may be the defining event of the 21st Century to this point, the memories of 9/11 were still fresh in the minds of those who came by for some fellowship.

Here are a few: Pembroke Public Safety Director Bill Collins was working for the Bryan Oil Company and had gone to the Savannah airport to pick up a woman who was coming down from New York to update the company’s software.

“She had family at the tower, and she was very upset,” Collins recalled. “I felt so sorry for her because she was not where she needed to be. Getting her back to her family was hard, there were no flights to New York and it took me a week just to get her on Amtrak.”

Bryan County Emergency Services Administrative Assistant Susan Dasher was taking her children to Charles Ellis Montessori in Savannah when the first plane hit. She was driving back home and was at Habersham and DeRenne when the second plane hit.

“Everything just stopped,” Dasher said. “Everything stopped. It was just total disbelief.”

Bryan County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Eric Gaustad was on duty as an officer with the campus police at Armstrong State when the attacks began.

“There was not one car on Abercorn Street,” he recalled. “Not one single car. We were taking pictures of it, nobody was out there. It was unreal.”

Pembroke Fire Department Firefighter Joseph Vietch was in the Army and stationed at Fort Polk, La., when word came of the attacks.

“We were actually in the training box in the field, preparing to go to Kosovo, and they said one of the towers had been hit, and when I went walking into the command post they had it on TV,’ Vietch said. “I thought they were watching a movie.”

Vietch, then an 11B, which is the Army MOS for an infantryman, deployed later to Iraq and was there when U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein.

Crowe said he actually thought about joining up for a moment immediately after the attacks, but felt he was too old.

“It made me sad, it made me mad,” Crowe said. “I never dreamed in my lifetime I’d see something like that happen in America. Things like that don’t happen on our soil, they happen somewhere else.”

Bryan County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Brandon McElveen was in the ninth grade at Southeast Bulloch when the attacks began.

“It was probably hard to understand what really happened because of my maturity level at the time,” McElveen said. “But I remember being in algebra class the first thing in the morning, and the teacher said something about turning on the TV because there’s been an attack, and it kind of went from class to class. We watched it on the news like everybody else.”

Bryan County Chief Deputy David Ellis had just come off a patrol shift and had gone to bed when he was awakened by his wife, who told him he needed to see what was unfolding on TV.

“I think I was in shock as much as anything,” Ellis said. Bryan County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Jeff Davis recalled waiting on his wife, Chaley, to go into labor. Both worked for the Hinesville Police Department at the time.

Powell was in the Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., and on duty in a courtroom when a senior NCO came in and was telling us “the first plane had hit the tower,” he said. “The base commander put everyone on high alert, and we went to the armory to draw our weapons and stood guard at each entrance.” Powell spent a total of eight years in the Marines and deployed to Iraq.

McElveen said his brother, two years older than him, joined the military immediately after graduation from SEB as a result of the attacks, which for a time united the country.

Collins said he could remember trying to fathom why the U.S. was being attacked.

“I started getting very, very angry that someone could come here and do that,” he said, noting the unity in the wake of 9/11 has become a thing of the past. “And it initially brought people together, but we’re not as together now as we were then. It’s unfortunate because we’re still the same country, and we’re still the same people, so whatever divides us, whatever is pushing us apart, we’ve got to figure it out because we’re a stronger country when we’re together.”

Dasher had a friend whose mother-in-law was in one of the towers when it was hit.

Dasher said wants U.S. citizens to always remember 9/11.

“I don’t think we should ever let this date be forgotten, because if we always remember, we’ll never again become lax and let our guard down again,” she said.

Collins said Americans have more in common than differences.

“I strongly believe no matter what our differences are, whatever is occurring now, we’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “We’re all Americans, we all want to be free and we all have to protect one another.”

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