The field was quiet and still at the Valencia College Osceola campus. A late afternoon breeze lightly waved the flags placed in rows from the campus commons all the way to the edge of the roadway. The display – highly visible on the approach to the college for all commuters to see traveling east and west on Irlo Bronson Highway. The solemn peace was relative. The quiet signified the moments of silence for those that have perished 17 years ago in a terrorist attack that is forever etched in the minds of those who lived through it.
There was a flag for each of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon as well as those who heroically took over Flight 93, which never reached its unknown intended target and crashed in Shanksville, PA. Not all flags were American flags. There was also flags representing the countries of origin for all the victims who were naturalized immigrants or foreign nationals that perished that day. The fire department hoisted a giant American flag between two ladder engines overlooking the college campus. A row of police motorcycles were parked along the walkway from the parking lot to the ceremony location.
The ceremony began with some songs and a prayer as the onlookers – many current and retired first responders, both in local municipalities as well as those who once served in New York City’s Fire and Police Departments. The retired NYC members wore the uniforms with NYPD and FDNY insignia – a rare, yet contrasting sight among palm trees and stormy clouds of the Florida fall.
Congressman Darren Soto gave remarks to the audience, highlighting one of his staffers – a former New York Police Department officer who helped in the aftermath of the attacks. He stressed how important it is not to forget the sacrifices made by the first responders and the significance of the memorial ceremony, particularly given that the younger generations will not have the same recollections of the stark differences of the world prior to and after the attacks.
“This was the dawn of the age of our anti-terrorism global effort”, said Congressman Soto. “The world changed after that day – from how we felt as a nation, how we had to address terrorism – from local police stations to our airports, to internationally and it set off years of conflicts that we are still grappling with now, so in order to make sure we don’t repeat the lessons of history, it’s important to heed them in addition to respecting all the sacrifices of those we lost.”
The powerful keynote speech was delivered by Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson. He recalled serving as a Deputy Sheriff in Osceola county on the day of the attacks and how in the face of shock and concern, him and his colleagues saw it as their duty to protect the residents of Osceola county, as well as providing extra security to the Disney parks which in the hours following the initial attacks were under caution for a potential unfounded threat. Nonetheless, Sheriff Gibson emphasized that the priority then, as it is everyday – is to provide residents with a sense of comfort and peace as they go about their days.
“When these foreigners, these terrorists, came on American soil and attacked one of our cities, one of our monuments, they attacked us all,” said Sheriff Gibson. “When that happened that day, my heart screamed out, it cried out in pain, for my brothers and sisters in New York, for my brothers and sisters that were in Washington and those folks that were on all of those planes – it’s just so disheartening to think that these people came on board these airliners and changed the way we do business in America, just like that – 19 people came in and changed the way all of America operates.”
The Sheriff asked the general public in attendance to honor the first responders who were present at the ceremony both prior to beginning and at the conclusion of delivering his remarks. Likewise, he reminded everyone that these attacks ought to serve as a reminder that we are all Americans, regardless of any political disagreements or leanings and asked everyone to recite the pledge of allegiance facing a United States flag, flown on the side of the Valencia College Building.
“We unified, and I think that it scared these potential terrorists and saw that we didn’t just run around in terror, not knowing what to do – we formed a plan of action, we came together as one and we made a difference.” added Sheriff Gibson. “When you poke the bear and wake that bear up, you’re not always happy with what the outcome can be.”
The emotionally charged ceremony concluded with a placement of wreaths for the first responders and the civilians who perished on September 11th, 2001 followed by the tolling of the bell in their memory.