BRADENTON — The wreath of yellow carnations was placed reverently before the marble Emergency Services Memorial at Rossi Park on Friday morning, followed by a 21-gun salute and mournful Taps by the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 honor guard.
Yet long after those sounds vanished, the words on the wreath’s ribbon lingered throughout the day:
They were on the minds of Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover-Bryant, Denise Evers, Bradenton Fire Capt. Tom Woods, Ron Bell and Meredith Meerman, among other people who attended the ninth annual Tribute to Heroes, a remembrance of the 434 firefighters, police and emergency rescue personnel who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
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The morning service was followed by a luncheon at Bradenton Auditorium where Lt. Col. Kathryn Champion, U.S. Army (Ret.) was an inspiring keynote speaker.
Before losing her eyesight to disease in 2008, Champion was in uniform for 27 years, including Special Forces with which she served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Close your eyes and imagine if somebody tells you you can never ever see again,” she told the luncheon’s hushed audience of firefighters, law enforcement, EMS personnel and family members. “That’s the fear each and every one of us has felt and overcome in our lives as we go to a fire, an EMS call, or go on a mission.
“On 9/11 you saw firefighters running into that building, saw police looking for people, saw EMS standing in the way of ... things coming down on them as they helped the injured.”
Remembering that tragic day was the core of Bryant’s remarks at the morning’s service.
“I’m afraid we’re in danger of forgetting the day that shook our nation to its core nine years ago tomorrow,” she said. “The generation that endured the attack on Pearl Harbor told its story to succeeding generations. I fear the horror of Sept. 11 is receding in our national consciousness.”
Her words resonated throughout the ceremony and luncheon.
Especially for Denise Evers, whose husband, Richie, a retired New York City firefighter who was at Ground Zero moments after the Twin Towers collapsed.
They moved to Bradenton in 2002.
A nurse and fire dispatcher in Brooklyn, N.Y., Evers spent that fateful day outside Staten Island University Hospital decontaminating hundreds of soot-covered survivors.
Forget 9/11? Not Denise Evers.
“It is an open wound,” she said. “If events like they had today don’t endure, down the road people do start to forget and it will have all been in vain. The most important thing is to teach a child what happened and why. Let them learn so they never forget.”
Friday’s events were filled with poignant reminders.
The morning’s service, begun by Danielle Hollobaugh singing the National Anthem, included speeches by Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells, Manatee County EMS Capt. Ron Rich and East Manatee Deputy Chief Lee Whitehurst.
“If we don’t learn anything from the history of nine years ago, the tragedy is even worse,” Whitehurst said.
The climax of the morning services was the release of doves to commemorate departed firefighters, including former Bradenton Fire Chief Vernon Horne, former Myakka City Fire Chief Bobby Maddox and former Samoset Fire Chief Paul Deese, who all died in 2009.
Then a Manatee County fire dispatcher read over the radio part of the Irish blessing:
“May the road rise to meet them, may the wind always be at their back, may the Lord hold them in the palm of their hand until we meet again.”
The video witnessed at the luncheon afterwards was profound and wrenching.
It began with an old black-and-white newsreel of the World Trade Center that was completed in 1971.
A compilation of network news feeds and amateur videos of 9/11’s horror followed.
n The first tower being hit by the hijacked jetliner, followed by the second.
n Newscasters relating the unfolding tragedy.
n Survivors talking about how the building shook.
n The sobbing of spectators as the second jet hit.
n Firefighters organizing at the World Trade Center’s base as the first tower collapsed behind them.
n A voicemail of someone calling loved ones, telling them he was OK.
n Photos of firefighters who were killed.
n Streetside memorials by grieving families and friends, desperate for closure.
Forget 9/11? Not Tom Woods.
“Every time I watch this, it just tears at me,” said the Bradenton Fire Department captain. “People want to let things like that fade away, but they need to be reminded. There are bad people out there with X’s on us and we have to be vigilant.”
Forget 9/11? Not Ron Bell.
“We’re so complacent about everything,” said the 54-year-old luncheon organizer. “But watching that video and remembering what happened? It scares me. We can’t forget what happened that day.”
Meredith Meerman won’t.
She was 11, running a mandatory daily mile at a Montessori school in Sarasota when a teacher told the runners to stop.
“That never happened before,” said Meerman, 20, who waited tables at the luncheon. “When the teacher told us what had happened, I had no idea what a hijack was. I remember that so well.
“I think we need a day to observe 9/11 as a country. For the first couple of years it was a strong thing, but anymore I feel like people are, ‘Oh, 9/11, it was a bad thing, but ... ‘ and they move on. Everybody was affected directly or indirectly. It needs to be recognized more than what it is.”