LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Morgan Davis was in the first grade at Gene Witt Elementary School when two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We were reading a book and the teacher had to put the TV on," recalls Davis, now 18. "I didn't even know what was happening."
Ari Moss was in the second grade when the horror of 9/11 unfolded, triggering a lockdown at her school in Apollo Beach.
"I just remember everyone was crying and we were like, 'Why are they crying?' ... I didn't know what was going on."
Davis and Moss were among the dozens of young Manatee Technical Institute students who assembled Wednesday morning outside the school's East Campus for the annual "Lakewood Ranch Remembers 9-11" ceremony. The future first-responders and technical professionals, who were mere children on that fateful day, gathered to honor the memories of those who were lost and to hear from someone who was there.
Guest speaker Garrett Lindgren, a retired New York Fire Department firefighter who now lives in Bradenton, said it's important to keep the lessons of 9/11 fresh in the minds of today's generation, especially those who someday might be faced with a terrorist act or some other catastrophe.
"It doesn't matter where you work in this country, we are a target, and you've got to be diligent," Lindgren told the audience. "You can never let your guard down, you can never assume anything. You can never, as we probably used to do, consider something like a car fire to be a routine call anymore. There is no such thing as a routine call."
Lindgren, who counts about 62 people he knew personally who died that day 12 years ago, understands that all too well. He had just gotten done with a shift that morning and was still on the roll call sheet when the first plane struck the towers; with spotty cell phone service, Lindgren's wife and two children spent most of that chaotic day thinking he was among the first-responders who perished.
The 55-year-old is now vice president of the FDNY Suncoast Retirees and has spoken at various 9/11 remembrances over the years. That wasn't easy at first, Lindgren said, but it's helped him deal with the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's always difficult, but it is such an honor and privilege to speak for all those wonderful people who did what they did that day," he said.
Johnny Schroeder, 53, was among those at Wednesday's ceremony who had a first-hand view of 9/11. The Sarasota resident worked at FDNY "Ten House" -- Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10, across the street from the World Trade Center site.
He made it out alive from the 23rd floor of the second tower that day. Other comrades weren't as lucky: "All my boys in Brooklyn died," he said.
Schroeder's reason for coming to Wednesday's remembrance, along with his PTSD service dog, "Brooklyn Dodger," was simple.
"It's like, why do you go to church?" he said. "To pay your respects."
With 9/11 happening more than a decade ago and thousands of miles away from sleepy Lakewood Ranch, Lindgren said he tried to make sure his words would resonate with students in MTI's Law Enforcement Academy and those preparing to be firefighters.
"If you get a call for a shooting now -- which there's plenty of shootings in Manatee County, more than we need for sure -- you also don't know if that shooting going to turn into an Aurora, Colo.-type incident," Lindgren said.
"We have movie theaters and shopping malls and things like that. Terrorists look for soft targets. It's not always going to be the airplane into a skyscraper in a big city. It could be anywhere, and we're going to have to be ready."
For Davis, who's in the optometric technician program at MTI, Lindgren's message hit home. Her fiance, a firefighter in Nokomis who also serves in the U.S. National Guard, is among the people being honored in similar ceremonies around the country on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
"We should thank them for their public service," she said. "Every other day of the year they're not recognized, and today they are."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. You can follow him on Twitter@JasonBartolone.