By Donald Wittkowski
Joining in a national observance, Sea Isle City solemnly marked the 17th anniversary of an “act of war” that terrified America, but ultimately unified the country to show that “we will never surrender” to terrorists, speakers said.
The annual Patriot Day ceremony Tuesday honored the nearly 3,000 victims killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and also paid tribute to the police officers, firefighters and other first responders who risked their lives to try to save others.
In keynote remarks, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said that on the morning of 9/11, “the world seemed to spin out of control and our lives were changed forever.”
“Without a doubt, the numbers 9-1-1 have left an indelible mark on American history,” he said.
Desiderio noted that the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a beautiful, warm day, but “in a flash, it turned so cold and grim” when the four hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York, into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Pa.
“As most of us stared in horror at our television sets that morning, it became more and more apparent that we were, indeed, at war,” the mayor said.
At the same time, Americans never allowed themselves to be intimidated or paralyzed by fear, uniting in a common goal to show the world that “we will never surrender to tyranny and acts of terror,” he emphasized.
“The terrorists thought they could (win), but they were wrong,” Desiderio said.
Dozens of members of the public gathered with elected officials and other dignitaries inside the headquarters of Sea Isle’s fire department for a morning of prayer, songs, a wreath laying and somber tributes to the victims of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil. The Patriot Day ceremony is normally held at the city’s Veterans Park, but was moved inside due to the lingering effects of the weekend’s coastal storm.
Cape May County Clerk Rita Marie Fulginiti, who also gave remarks, recalled how she and her late husband, Tony, had taken a trip with some friends to New York in June 2001, using the city’s skyline, including the Twin Towers, as the background for a celebratory photo. She glumly noted that just three months later, the Twin Towers were gone.
She called 9/11 the day “we lost our innocence.”
“The innocence of that day was lost, but the resiliency of the American people was strong and is still strong today,” Fulginiti said.
Another speaker, Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan, who was a sheriff’s officer 17 years ago, recalled the initial shock he felt, wondering whether the attacks were “something like Pearl Harbor.”
Nolan, though, said he also remembers how Americans immediately showed great pride and national unity by displaying the flag across the country.
“Our United States flag was a symbol of our greatness and all we stand for,” he said.
Nolan stressed that the country should “never forget” the act of terrorism that shook the nation on 9/11, but will “always remember” the victims.
“We are Americans, and we do not forget,” Charles “Chick” Haines, commander of Sea Isle’s VFW Post 1963, added in similar remarks to Nolan’s.
Cape May County was not untouched by the 9/11 attacks. Hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi unsuccessfully sought to take flying lessons at the Cape May Airport and spent time on the Wildwood Boardwalk before he would pilot United Flight 175 into the World Trade Center’s South Tower on 9/11.
Speakers also used the Patriot Day ceremony to thank police officers, firefighters, first responders and members of the military for their service to the country. They noted that first responders and the military were heroes during 9/11 and continue to help out during national crises.
Desiderio said first responders fearlessly rushed into the burning and collapsing buildings struck by the hijacked airliners to try to save lives. The first responders, he said, “ran towards the flames while others were running away.”
Every day, Desiderio wears a lapel pin given to him by a New York City police captain who lost some members of his squad during the attacks. Framed by a blue ribbon, the miniature pin depicts a police shield, an American flag and a date: 9/11.
The mayor said the pin always serves as a reminder of the horrors of 9/11, but also the bravery and sacrifice by so many Americans.
“We cannot forget what happened on 9/11,” he said to close the ceremony.