One of the most emotional moments of the 9/11 remembrance ceremony held at the Somerset-Pulaski Special Response Team (SRT) building wasn’t any of the speakers in attendance. It was the disembodied voice of a Pulaski County 911 Dispatcher paging all first responders in the county.
At 8:46 a.m., the voice on the radio halted the in-person activities, saying: “At this time 19 years ago, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, starting the largest attack in history on U.S. soil. Please take a moment and remember all those who we lost that day, and others we have lost since September 11, 2001. May God watch over and be with our first responders, Pulaski County, and the United States of America. We shall never forget. Dispatch clear.”
For some, it may be hard to believe it’s been 19 years since the terrorist attacks that caused panic, fear and confusion across the country, 19 years since hijackers took over four planes with the intent to attack America on it’s home soil.
For some, the memory of living through that day is still very clear.
Those four planes were, as mentioned above, American Airlines Flight 11 which crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, United Airlines Flight 175 which crashed into floors 77 through 85 of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and United Airlines Flight 93 which, after being hijacked, a group of crew and passengers stormed the cockpit in an attempt to prevent the plane from making it to the hijacker’s intended destination. That flight crashed in Shanksville, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing all on board but not reaching it’s presumed Washington target.
The official numbers say that 2,977 people died that day – 265 on board the planes, 2,606 at the World Trade Center and 125 at the Pentagon. More than 6,000 more were injured.
At Friday’s remembrance ceremony, SRT Chief Doug Baker reminded the crowd that as many as 3,000 more died of cancers and other ailments incurred from sorting through the debris of the scenes, trying to rescue victims and, later, recover the bodies of those who died in an effort to help bring closure to their families.
Baker recalled the details of Flight 93, a flight which was delayed and, because of that the passengers on board were told of the other hijackings and crashes. With that knowledge, they made the decision to prevent their plane from reaching Washington, D.C, even at the probable cost of their own lives, “saving many innocent lives in Washington,” Baker said.
But a story many may not have heard before, Baker said, was that of two New York Air Guard pilots who were scrambled to intercept that flight. Being on American soil, and not expected to deal with threats here, neither of the F-19s dispatched had weapons on board, and it would take too long to arm them and still have a hope of reaching the hijacked plane in time.
“The pilots lit their afterburners knowing that if the plane did not change course the only way they could stop it was, both at the same time, making a kamikaze attack to bring it down,” Baker explained.
It’s stories like those – the ones who rushed into save lives at the risk of their own – that lead most people to brand first responders as heroes.
Somerset Mayor Alan Keck thanked local first responders during his speech at the ceremony, then turned his attention to the phrase that gets associated frequently with the tragedy: Never Forget.
“I think, first, we have to understand that it is a call to action,” Keck said. “In many ways, it’s a call to honor. But that takes effort. That’s not just to post a meme or to post something on that day. It means to never forget even in tough times that the men and women that are standing here today and men and women all over this country, all over the world, are willing to lay down their life for strangers. We can’t lose sight of the fact that they ran into that building that day, irregardless of religion, race, gender, to save folks they had never met.”
Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley also described the heroism of the first responders who ran towards the scenes of chaos, saying that most people have the instinct to “run away from fear.”
“But God has put a calling in the hearts of men and women to be first responders, and they don’t run from fear. They run to fear to protect those from the attack.”