By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Retired New York City firefighter Lenny Munda recalled the grim way he said goodbye to his father as he prepared to rush to the carnage at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s a sad day, because I remember telling my father, ‘If I don’t come back, take care of the kids,’” Munda said, referring to his two children.
By the time Munda arrived at the World Trade Center to begin rescue efforts with his fellow firefighters, the twin towers had been reduced to a sickening mass of smoldering rubble. Death was everywhere.
“All of the chiefs I knew, they got killed,” he said of the fire department’s senior leaders.
Munda’s sobering description of both the horrors and heroism that fateful day in U.S. history poignantly underscored Sea Isle City’s Patriot Day ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Nearly 3,000 lives were lost when 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.
“Some of them were ordinary, and others were extraordinary,” Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said of all the victims. “Some led everyday lives, and others were bound for greatness. Some were old, and some were very young.”
“Together, they made up a tapestry of humanity that was truly American – because they came from different walks of life, from different faiths, and from different corners of society. Each victim had value, and each one deserves to be honored,” he continued.
Desiderio said first responders fearlessly rushed into the burning and collapsing buildings struck by the hijacked airliners to try to save lives.
“More than 300 of the victims were New York City firefighters, and dozens more were officers with the New York City Police Department and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,” he said.
“Other first responders also perished. As did military personnel, doctors, nurses, teachers, computer programmers, secretaries, salesmen and individuals working in many other noble professions,” he added.
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.
A large crowd attended the 9/11 ceremony at Sea Isle’s Veterans Park memorial. A giant American flag hanging from the ladder of a Sea Isle fire truck hovered over the memorial to create a patriotic backdrop.
“It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed – 20 years,” Desiderio said to open the ceremony.
In depicting the surreal scene he encountered at the World Trade Center, Munda told the crowd that the death toll was so awful that authorities were ready to convert Yankee Stadium into a massive morgue if needed.
With so many of New York’s utility lines destroyed by the World Trade Center’s collapse, firefighters had to use water from the Hudson River to extinguish the flames, he recalled.
Munda, 66, lives in Staten Island, N.Y., but he and his 61-year-old wife, Jeanette, also have a shore vacation home at a campground in Dennis Township. He wore his old New York City Fire Department navy blue dress uniform at the ceremony.
In an interview after the ceremony, Munda described the gruesome task of digging through the Twin Towers rubble in search of possible survivors and the remains of the victims.
“There was paper flying all over the place. There was rubble. They told us to look for bodies,” he said.
The ceremony on a beautiful Saturday morning also included prayers, songs, a wreath laying and somber tributes to the victims of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil.
“We remember images of death and destruction,” Father Perry Cherubini, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sea Isle, said while delivering the invocation. “Children could not find mom or dad for welcome home hugs.”
Father Cherubini also repeatedly noted that “this date of 9/11 carries a heavy burden of memory.”
Another speaker, Tony Desderio, a retired FBI agent who lives in Sea Isle, paid tribute to John O’Neill, a former FBI counter-terrorism expert who became head of security at the World Trade Center and was killed while helping to evacuate the North Tower during the attacks.
“John was an incredible agent,” Desderio said.
O’Neill, who was from Atlantic City, was a key figure in the capture of Ramzi Yousef, the leader of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Desderio said O’Neill was also focused on the capture of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and may have been able to stop bin Laden beforehand if he had been given free rein by U.S. diplomats.
“He was the No. 1 person, by far, to try to catch Osama bin Laden,” Desderio said.
Mark Lloyd, commander of VFW Post 1963 in Sea Isle, said in his remarks that the terrorist attacks were so profound and horrifying that “life as we knew it was changing by the moment.”
Lloyd praised the heroism of scores of first responders who bravely raced to the scene of the attacks “and their certain death.”
Patti Lloyd, Mark’s wife and the president of the VFW Post 1963 Auxiliary, noted that the victims of 9/11 sadly would not have the opportunity to celebrate the countless marriages, graduations, births and other special family occasions that have occurred in the last 20 years.
“For those souls taken 20 years ago, that’s not happening,” she said.
Patti Lloyd also said that it would be a great tribute to the victims of 9/11 if Americans would emulate the heroism and sacrifice they showed during the attacks.
Speaker after speaker vowed that Americans will always remember the attacks that shook the nation – no matter how many years have passed by since Sept. 11, 2001.
“Twenty years, and we will never, ever forget,” Desiderio said in closing remarks.