As the 17th year passes after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, first responders and law enforcement officers still remember and honor those that died with a commemorative ceremony. The closeness of the event to local first responders and others witnessing the event from three time zones away keeps the memories fresh and the commemorative ceremonies relevant, even 17 years later.
Foreign attacks on U.S. soil come down to two of the most major events — Pearl Harbor attacks in Hawaii and 9/11 in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory. The bombing killed more than 2,300 Americans, completely destroyed the American battleship U.S.S. Arizona and capsized the U.S.S. Oklahoma. Americaslibrary.org said the attack took the country by surprise. Similarly, the 9/11 attacks shocked the nation, a nation once known for security and peace.
“When you see that kind of loss of life on American soil — citizens, first responders and all (others) — it’s pretty sobering as to what can happen and how, prior to that, we didn’t have any belief that something like that could happen,” Sheridan Fire-Rescue Department interim Chief Gary Harnish said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists from the al-Qaeda terrorist group hijacked four airplanes headed out of Boston, Newark and Washington, D.C. Two crashed into the two World Trade Center towers in New York City; one crashed into the Pentagon; and one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. The attacks killed 2,996 people.
“Seventeen years later now, we’re still seeing the loss of life from that,” Harnish said. “It’s not just the fire service but all the first responders and people in the area that developed certain cancers that they’re relating to it.”
Today, people who are 77 years old and older were alive during the attack on Pearl Harbor, while those 17 and older were alive during 9/11. While time makes no event less important, it does make events more personal or sensitive to some.
“Many of the firefighters still working today were working (on 9/11),” Harnish said. “We watched those events unfold as our shifts changed here at the station.”
Larry Grooms, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with SFRD, was on shift that day. He watched the events throughout the day via television with his colleagues after being told what was happening by a fellow firefighter’s wife. Each year, new thoughts and emotions arise about the event for Grooms, but he cannot quite explain what exactly changes inside.
Do those events ever become less relevant?
Grooms, now explaining the day to his children as best he can, recognizes the disconnect that is bound to happen with each generation experiencing traumatic events like Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
“Certainly they’ll never totally understand (9/11), just like we won’t totally understand Pearl Harbor or any of those significant events (before our time),” Grooms said.
For Harnish, his crew and the majority of the American population, recants of 9/11 live as a personal memory in their lives. Harnish said for as long as he is at SFRD — and he anticipates even after — the ceremony will live on to commemorate the lives of those lost on that day.
“Our significance is remembering those who were lost in this,” Harnish said. “We are to the point now where we have people that are approaching adulthood that were not alive when this happened, and it’s part of our history.”
Just as Pearl Harbor remains a national day of remembrance, 9/11 comes with a protocol to commemorate those who served to save lives in the face of terrorism.
Whether because of the repercussions of 9/11 through the continued loss of life seen today or the freshness of the events in the memories of American citizens 20 years old and older, Sheridan first responders and law enforcement will continue to remember fellow teammates who lost their lives serving to save.