By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
With prayers, inspirational speeches and a solemn promise to “never forget,” Sea Isle City joined in the national observance Wednesday of the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
During the annual Patriot Day ceremony, Mayor Leonard Desiderio drew parallels between the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the United States into World War II.
“It’s difficult to believe that 18 years have passed since terrorists used commercial airplanes to launch coordinated attacks against our nation on September 11, 2001. Just as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, is also a day that will live in infamy,” Desiderio said.
He went on to say that although memories often fade over time, he doubted that anyone who lived through the 9/11 attacks would ever forget “precisely where they were” when they first heard that the terrorists had struck.
“On that tragic and fateful day 18 years ago – before some of today’s college freshmen were even born – people all around the world were glued to their television sets as thick, dark smoke billowed out of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, from the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and from the wreckage of Flight 93 in southwestern Pennsylvania,” the mayor said.
Dozens of members of the public gathered with Desiderio and other elected officials and dignitaries at Sea Isle’s Veterans Park 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.
While delivering the invocation, Deacon Joseph Murphy, of Sea Isle’s St. Joseph Catholic Church, called 9/11 a “sacred day.” He prayed for peace as well as for all those who died.
“We pray for the wound that is still healing,” said Murphy, a retired Philadelphia police detective.
Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan, who also gave remarks, paid tribute to the “courage and strength” of the first responders who fearlessly rushed in to try to save lives amid the fire and smoke of burning buildings.
Nolan said the terrorists thought they could weaken and divide America, but that the country actually became “stronger than ever” in the aftermath of the attacks.
“It truly became one of our finest hours,” he said.
Another speaker, Sea Isle VFW Post 1963 Commander Charles Haines, said the attacks were nothing more than mass murder by “useless cowards” against innocent men, women and children.
“These cowards found out that America has a force much larger than our military,” Haines said of how the country united following the attacks.
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 asked veterans who were sitting in the audience to stand up or raise their hands so they could be recognized. The crowd showered them with applause.
In another poignant moment, spectators wiped away tears during the playing of “Taps” by bugler Greg Murphy. He is a member of Bugles Across America, an organization that plays “Taps” at military funerals.
Murphy, who lives in Gloucester Township, is vacationing in Sea Isle and noticed a sign in town inviting the public to the 9/11 ceremony. He contacted city officials about his desire to play “Taps” and received their blessing.
Murphy said he has played “Taps” for 17 years at 9/11 ceremonies in Gloucester Township, Wilmington, Del., and now Sea Isle.
“I’m very honored to do this,” he said in an interview afterward.
Throughout the ceremony, one theme dominated during the speeches – that Americans will never surrender to terrorism and will never forget the 9/11 attacks.
During the benediction, Pastor Melissa Doyle-Waid, of Sea Isle’s United Methodist Church, told the crowd that “we go as free Americans … not defeated by terrorism.”
In his remarks, Desiderio urged everyone to always remember the 9/11 victims, ensuring that they will be honored in death as heroes and serve as “beacons of hope for the future.”
“Please, do not forget Sept. 11 and the victims of Sept. 11,” he said.
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.
Desiderio pointed out that the victims “made up a tapestry of humanity that included people of all colors and ages – with victims who ranged from small children to older folks in their 80s.”
“Clearly, the terrorists who planned those evil attacks didn’t discriminate by age, gender, race or profession,” he said. “They were simply happy to kill Americans and to take innocent lives.”
“We must strive to always remember those who died on September 11,” Desiderio continued. “Keeping their memories alive is so very important, because remembering them in our hearts and minds will ensure that their lives were not lost in vain.”