Before Sunday’s commemoration of the 21st anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 at Fire Station 21, Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin wondered how long it takes for a nation’s momentous events, like 9/11–or like the Civil War–to go from immediate memories affecting everyone alive to something as distant as “book memory.” The crowd was gathering, including children, adolescents and young adults, some of them firefighters and cops, who’d have no living memory of the attacks.
This year will mark the first time when many college graduating college students will have been born after that day, when 19 hijackers of four planes murdered 2,977 people in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania. (“Those who perished that day were from 93 Different nations. They were all of all races, creeds and cultures,” Eberle said.) These graduates represent an entire generation that will have no memories of the attack other than those derived from other people’s memories, from books and ceremonies–much as it’s been the case for generation after generation with Vietnam and World War II or preceding wars, all of which are now almost generically crowded into Veterans and Memorial Day commemorations.
“We look back on that day and ask, Lord, can it have been so long ago? For in our hearts and in our minds it was but yesterday.” Rabbi Rose Eberle of Temple Beth Shalom would soon say in her opening invocation.
Alfin had no direct answer to the question he asked himself. But as he addressed the crowd, he spoke of the responsibility to keep certain memories alive, and how fulfilling those responsibilities can transcend the tragedies making them necessary. The 9/11 commemorative ceremony Sunday evening, produced by Palm Coast Fire Department Lt. Patrick Juliano, did that in two ways: celebrating a tree, and celebrating a retiring fire chief.
A severe lightning and thunderstorm forced Sunday’s ceremony away from Heroes Park and into the hangar at nearby Fire Station 21, away from the callery pear tree the city planted at the park just ahead of last year’s 20th commemoration. (The storm didn’t lessen the crowd, which numbered around 100, including the sheriff, two county commissioners and every city council member). The tree, a gift from the St. Augustine Fire Department, was grafted from a callery that had risen at the foot of the Twin Towers and that, charred thought was, had managed to survive after the New York City parks department rehabilitated it at a nursery in the Bronx. Many seedlings of the tree have since been dispersed and planted across the country as symbols of rejuvenation.
“I’d like to imagine that one day this tree may bloom 2,977 new leaves, one for every loving soul who lost their lives on 9/11,” Alfin said. “And I’d also like to image imagine that every sapling that has been transplanted across the nation, reproduced thousands of new buds, symbolizing the family members who have been born from those who passed. This would signify that the attack did not destroy American families. It absolutely made us more resilient. It made us more determined to prove to the world that the democratic way of life stops at nothing.”
Recently, the Palm Coast professional firefighters Local 4807 bought and dedicated a bronze memorial marker for the tree.
Alfin then spoke of the inaugural Tunnel to Towers 5k at Palm Coast’s Central Park this year. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was founded in October 2001 to honor firefighter Stephen Gerard Siller, who was assigned to Brooklyn Squad One in New York City. On that day he’d finished his shift and was on his way to play golf with his brothers–he was the youngest of seven, and had five children of his own–when he got word over the scanner of a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
He called his wife and had her relay a message to his brothers that he’d catch up with them later. The 1.7-mile Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which connects Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan, had already been shut down to traffic by the time he got there on the Brooklyn side. As his story describes it on the foundation’s webpage, “he strapped 60 lbs. of gear to his back, and raced on foot through the tunnel to the Twin Towers, where he gave up his life while saving others.”
That day, 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters died on duty in the towers, as did eight emergency medical technicians from private companies and 56 law enforcement officers. “Everybody that ran into those buildings that day, knew they were going to come down,” Forte said. “No one can tell me that they didn’t know. They knew.” County firefighters–and any others willing to participate–this year, as they did last year, marked 9/11 by making 10 trips up the 11-flight stairwell at the the Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa, replicating the 110 stories of the World Trade Center towers. downward trips are not counted. Firefighters on Sunday dressed in full turnout gear and began their first ascent at 8:46 a.m., the time when the first plane struck.
The Tunnel to Towers foundation has a Follow the Footstep Award in Siller’s name. “This award is intended to be given to a community member who exemplifies these qualities: leadership and willingness to lend a hand wherever needed have had a tremendous impact on our community,” Alfin said, before summarizing Forte’s career–joining the Palm Coast Fire Department as a volunteer in 1990 before rising through the ranks: Lieutenant in 1997, Captain in 2000, deputy fire chief in 2009, fire chief in 2018, then serving as interim public works director and interim assistant city manager.
“Chief Forte is someone who for 32 years, the residents of Palm Coast have been able to continually count on to do whatever needs to be done to get the job done,” Alfin said. “For these reasons and many more, I am honored to present Chief Jerry Forte with the 2022 Tunnel to Towers Follow the Footsteps Award.”
Forte would later say he had no idea the award was on the program, and indeed the printed program made no mention of it: leave it to Juliano–who also bookended the ceremony with two bagpipe pieces, including the ending “Going Home”–to choreograph timely surprises. Juliano had of course included the solemn bell-tolling (carried out by Battalion Chief Tim Wisley), the placement of the memorial wreath (carried out by Palm Coast Councilman Eddie Branquinho, a former cop, Fire Chief Designee Kyle Berryhill, Sheriff Rick Staly), and two pieces by the Flagler Youth Orchestra quartet–America the Beautiful and Let There Be peace on Earth.
Whether it gave him time to gather his thoughts or not, Forte, between tears, rose to the occasion, spoke of firefighters’ training academies, of the risks inherent in the fire services’ job and the many firefighters who have died since 9/11 from complications seeded that day. He spoke of the markers in a firefighters’ life–that first day on the job with family, that first time a son or daughter joins the services: “You have set the course for their decision without saying a single word,” Forte said. “And they think if it was good enough for mom or dad, they’re all in. This is our life and the life we choose and it should not be surprised when your kid comes to you and said they want to go to the academy.”
And it all somehow reconnected with the tree: “Like a tree we experience the change of the seasons of our lives from the joys to the saddest occasions,” Forte concluded, “even when we are to experience those rainy days and windy days of our lives, when nothing else seems to be right. We are met again with the spring air and the sunshine of renewed birth. Life takes us through that circle and it is our strength and resilience that allows us to weather the most turbulent times.”