BRADENTON -- Six flags and banners rippled softly in Wednesday morning's breeze, held at attention by the Manatee County Honor Guard at the Emergency Services Memorial at Riverwalk.
So did Old Glory, suspended at half staff on the monument flagpole in observance of the 12th anniversary of 9/11.
The distant wail of a fire truck siren provided an appropriate backdrop to the annual Tribute to Heroes Memorial Service, as Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant read a poignant poem by Trisha Kitas from the podium:
"To those who went up and did their jobs,
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"Our hearts will mourn and we will weep,
"To save those lives you gave your all,
"And on this day, 9/11, we shall always recall."
Her words and those of all the speakers resonated with the audience, filled with the community's first-responders and civic officials.
Yet it was Ed Cleveland, the retired West Manatee Fire Rescue fire chief, who added a wider perspective to the 9/11 aftermath: the disturbing escalation of serious illnesses suffered by those on the front line of recovery operations in the toxic World Trade Center devastation.
"It's important to remember the 343 New York firefighters who perished," Cleveland said. "But there were thousands of first-responders and volunteers from outside the city who came to do what needed to be done. And nobody knew what the dangers were because they were only concerned about doing the job -- not for hours, but for days and weeks and months."
According to published reports and medical journals:
More than 1,000 first-responders have died from illnesses contracted while working at Ground Zero.
A study by the New York Fire Department's chief medical officer revealed 5,000 rescue workers had impaired lung functions.
At least 20,000 Ground Zero workers are being treated across the United States and 40,000 are being monitored by the WTC Health Program.
An estimated 1,140 people have cancer who worked in the debris field at the World Trade Center, Cleveland said, adding: "That doesn't count the respiratory illnesses and the blood-borne illnesses they have. We can't forget about those people."
Wednesday's ceremony connected with Paul Wren.
He was a 17-year-old Manatee Community College student that fateful day.
He is now an East Manatee Fire Rescue firefighter like his father, Rick. His brother, John, is a Manatee County sheriff's deputy.
"Those events definitely gave me pause and, having a family connection to public service, I wanted to do something for my community," said Wren, 30. "It hit home then, it hits home today and it will for time to come."
Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston echoed the sentiment.
Though Tribute to Heroes has diminished in scope over the last 11 years, its continuance is imperative, he said.
"We're making sure nobody forgets," Poston said. "Other cities have blown it off, but not this city. Not on my watch."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix