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Patriot Day: First Responders Share Their 9/11 Memories

Written by
Tina Williamson
Published on
August 19, 2020 10:30:00 PM PDT August 19, 2020 10:30:00 PM PDTth, August 19, 2020 10:30:00 PM PDT

Patriot Day commemorates the 2,977 lives lost on September 11, 2001, after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, and those who died on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. 9/11 was the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. Most of those who died were civilians, and more than 90 countries lost citizens in the attacks. An additional 6,000+ individuals were injured during the attacks. This day also recognizes the first responders who lost their lives while trying to rescue civilians trapped in the destruction. 412 first responders did not survive:


  • 343 firefighters (including a chaplain and two paramedics) from the New York City Fire Department
  • 37 police officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department
  • 23 police officers from the New York City Police Department
  • 8 emergency medical technicians and paramedics from private emergency medical services
  • 1 patrolman from the New York Fire Patrol


On December 18, 2001, Congress declared September 11 to be known as Patriot Day. Other suggested names for the day included the National Day of Remembrance and the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. Every year, the U.S. president proclaims that all Americans lower their U.S. flags to half-staff from sunrise to sunset and stop for a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. EST, the time the first plane struck the World Trade Center. Remembrance ceremonies are held every year across the country.


Many first responders currently serving their community were still in school when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Others were already actively serving their community. A few of them shared what they remember about 9/11, how they recognize Patriot Day each year and if their feelings changed toward the American flag after the terrorist attacks. Following are comments from a Firefighter/EMT, Fire & Rescue Captain and two Police Officers (a retired Lieutenant and a Major).

 

What would you like Americans to know about your 9/11 experience?

“My personal experience as a law enforcement officer was that of shock and surprise. Initially, we were all stunned by the attack, and most of us thought a war was upon us all. On that day, in particular, it seemed as though the day had stopped. No one was working, no one was driving around, everyone was glued to their television and listening on the radio for the next news coming out about our county. I remember eating lunch at a local lunch stop when everyone in the room got quiet and began watching the breaking news on the television. After the initial broadcast, most of us drove back to headquarters to see what everyone else had heard and see what else was on the news. The day seemed to stop, yet fly by at the same time.” Jon Gerrell – Major with the Clayton Police Dept., Clayton, N.C.


“I was only a teenage freshman in high school on September 11. Living in eastern Connecticut felt like we were close as we safely could have been, and yet realistically still a world away from what was happening in Manhattan. We watched on the televisions in school like everyone else.” Matthew Troy – Firefighter/EMT with the Hebron Fire Dept., Hebron, Conn.


“[9/11] was definitely one of those moments where you remember small details about the day, not just where-you-were moments. [I remember] hearing D.J.s cry over the radio heading home, worrying about what was going to happen next, having a college professor try to reassure everyone and wondering if we were going to war.” Ashley Fletcher – Captain of Timberlake Fire & Rescue, Timberlake, N.C.


 “The overwhelming guilt that I wish I could have done more to help.” William T. Coghill – Retired Lieutenant with the Durham Police Dept., Durham, N.C.

 

What will you never forget about 9/11?

“I personally will never forget learning of the news that day, seeing and feeling the loss, shock and sadness in everyone’s eyes and their tone of voice when talking about what had happened.” Jon Gerrell – Major with the Clayton Police Dept., Clayton, N.C.


“We were all in band class, early in the school day, watching awestruck. The band teacher was out sick that day. A group of friends staring at a T.V., wondering what this all meant. And then Mark, the (literal) leader of the band (a cool high school senior) disappeared into the storage closet, only to return with the marching band color guard holster around his neck, and the parade flag waving. We smiled and laughed, as I think was his intention, because he wanted to cut the tension in the room. He wanted to dry some tears and remind us that in this moment, we were still okay, and that we were together in this. I think he knew this was a moment of national crisis, and in crisis, comes unity.” Matthew Troy – Firefighter/EMT with the Hebron Fire Dept., Hebron, Conn.


“How scary it was. Nothing like this had ever happened in my life! I was worried that we were going to war and the draft was going to be brought back. I’ll never forget the images I saw on T.V. and the drive home from school. I’ll always remember the surge in patriotism and how, for a few months, our country was united.” Ashley Fletcher – Captain of Timberlake Fire & Rescue, Timberlake, N.C.


 “9/11.” William T. Coghill – Retired Lieutenant with the Durham Police Dept., Durham, N.C.

 

 What did you learn about yourself, your city, state and country through your 9/11 experience?

“I learned that after 9/11 everyone around our city, state and country came together as one nation. The small issues of the day were no more, and we all stood together as one in remembrance of the victims and survivors of that day.” Jon Gerrell – Major with the Clayton Police Dept., Clayton, N.C.


“On September 11, 2006, I was a college sophomore at NYU. The World Trade Center resurrection was underway. I was a young volunteer firefighter of only two years. But that year, on the fifth anniversary of that tragic day, I attended a memorial ceremony downtown near ground zero of a FDNY pipes and drum unit. When I went home to my apartment building in midtown, you could still hear a single piper playing ‘Amazing Grace’, somewhere echoing through the city. That I will never forget. In the chaos of Manhattan, the melody of a piper playing the song of remembrance. I think Manhattan will forever hear those echoes.” Matthew Troy – Firefighter/EMT with the Hebron Fire Dept., Hebron, Conn.


“I was so proud of the American people. Everyone came together. Everyone was affected.” Ashley Fletcher – Captain of Timberlake Fire & Rescue, Timberlake, N.C.


 “That people have a very short memory. It was all patriotic and the community loved each other. It was us against the world of evil. We were unified, but all too quickly, it faded, and it was back to the sad fact of us against us.” William T. Coghill – Retired Lieutenant with the Durham Police Dept., Durham, N.C.

 

How did your feelings change toward the American flag and what it represents after the 9/11 attacks?

“I have always been a proud American patriot and respected the American flag. It began in elementary school. Back then, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance before school started. Throughout the years, I maintained my respect at various functions as the flag was presented, but I didn’t think much of it as I think we do today. After the 9/11 attacks, the flag represented a little something more. It represented the resilience and a strong bond that all citizens of the U.S. felt during that time. After the tragedy was over, many Americans as well as Emergency Service Works (Police/Fire/EMS) were proud to represent and display the American flag on more than just a pole. It was found on stickers, patches and even some badges.” Jon Gerrell – Major with the Clayton Police Dept., Clayton, N.C.


“I never really paid much attention to the American flag back then, at least not as this sacred symbol. [Now], what I would like to see is a United States where Americans display their flag as a reminder that what happened on 9/11 didn’t break us. What happened on 9/11 didn’t tear those stripes apart, no matter how much it may seem we are beginning to fray some days. We are still together as one, EVERYONE, and that to be a “patriot” is not to fly one’s flag in the face of fellow Americans who some think are lesser in their convictions, but rather, to fly our flags together knowing that it flies above us all, every single day.” Matthew Troy – Firefighter/EMT with the Hebron Fire Dept., Hebron, Conn.


“I definitely felt more patriotic after 9/11 and viewed the flag as something I took more pride in. Being 21 when the attacks happened, the flag was something I always had taken for granted and never really thought much about it.” Ashley Fletcher – Captain of Timberlake Fire & Rescue, Timberlake, N.C.


“My feelings only grew stronger about the flag. I was always patriotic going back to elementary school. I was raised in a time that every morning in school the ENTIRE class would stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. To this day, I still get chills every time I stand, face the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout my military experience, including a combat tour in Iraq, and my 28-year police career, I always wore or saluted the U.S. Flag. It was an important symbol for me. I know that it is just a piece of cloth, and so many [people] disrespect it, step on it, burn it or curse it, yet it is the very symbol that allows them to do those horrible things to it. It is just a symbol and a piece of cloth that I am willing to defend until my last breath.” William T. Coghill – Retired Lieutenant with the Durham Police Dept., Durham, N.C.

 

How do you and your fellow first responders recognize Patriot Day each year?

“Well, for first responders, it almost takes on a whole new meaning. We, of course, want to honor those who lost their lives that day. But, as first responders, we were all taken back by what we felt were our brothers and sisters at the time, no matter the job or distance away from them we were. Initially, we partnered with our local fire department the following year and held a memorial service. Now, we wear mourning bands on our badges, have a moment of silence and lower the flags at headquarters.” Jon Gerrell – Major with the Clayton Police Dept., Clayton, N.C.


“I’m not sure we’ll ever recognize September 11 as “Patriot Day.” I think for those who lived it, it will always just be September 11. Intended as a national day of prayer, reflection and mourning, I have participated in a number of ways to commemorate the day. I’ve coordinated memorial events at the local agricultural fair when the dates align (we are preparing for the 2021 twentieth anniversary). I’ve stood in dress blues at memorial events in Manhattan hosted by the FDNY. I’ve been at the U.S. Open watching tennis, but not after a collective bow of the stadium’s heads in silence to reflect on what happened one borough over. I think so long as we all take a moment to reflect on that day, explain to the next generations how hatred and malice took so many lives, but it did not break our nation. And that on this day, we share a sense of love, and community and gratitude with not only our fellow citizens, but our fellow man. September 11 was a global event, and to remember this, is a means to never forgetting this.” Matthew Troy – Firefighter/EMT with the Hebron Fire Dept., Hebron, Conn.


“I always put a ‘343’ on the training calendar for my volunteer department. We have so many young members. Some were born just days before or after the attacks, who know what happened, but don’t get it because they weren’t there. I make sure that at least the 343 firefighters are never forgotten. I always try to take a personal moment as well to remember all who experienced that day in NYC.” Ashley Fletcher – Captain of Timberlake Fire & Rescue, Timberlake, N.C.


“Every day is treated the same. There is no difference. Police, Fire, EMT and the U.S. Military run towards the sounds of the gunshots, the fire, the screams for help, the horrific scenes that your imaginations or the movies can do no justice, to unselfishly help and protect those who need us.” William T. Coghill – Retired Lieutenant with the Durham Police Dept., Durham, N.C.

 

This upcoming Patriot Day, find your own personal way to remember those who died on September 11. Whether it is a moment of silence by yourself or attending a Patriot Day ceremony, the important thing is that we never forget what happened. During this day of reflection, remember to thank first responders for the selfless service they give to your community.

 

Britannica.com and wikipedia.org were used as a reference for this blog.