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In Juneau, milestone was a day for reflection

Posted: September 12, 2011 - 12:02am
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Members of the Juneau Police Department color guard raise a flag during a ceremony held Sunday at Riverside Rotary Park to commemorate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.                                  Jonathan Grass / Juneau Empire
Jonathan Grass / Juneau Empire
Members of the Juneau Police Department color guard raise a flag during a ceremony held Sunday at Riverside Rotary Park to commemorate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When the World Trade Center fell 10 years ago, America’s citizens knew it was something they would remember the rest of their lives. It’s been a decade, and that memory hasn’t faded one bit.

Ten years is a milestone. Many significant — even some historical — events often don’t maintain the level of reverence for as long as the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks have.

“Never forget” is the theme for Sept. 11. And it certainly rang true in Juneau on Sunday. Hundreds showed up to pay their respects at the Riverside Rotary Park memorial.

First responders were there to meet the crowds who wished to express their appreciation for their work every day. After that, the Juneau Police Department’s color guard raised the flag and the ceremony began.

Juneau Parks and Recreation Director and Rotarian Brent Fischer described how the memorial, which he designed, commemorates the tragedy.

Each side of the broken pentagon is 4 feet long to represent the four airplanes, with the two missing sections representing the World Trade Center. It’s made of Pennsylvanian marble and concrete as a symbol of the heroes’ strength. The top of the pentagon is aligned with the North Star as a symbol of all Alaskans.

Also there are flowers for patriotism, flags for national unity and forget-me-nots to hold the promise to never forget what happened.

Officer Chris Gifford of JPD recalled awakening to the phone call with the news 10 years ago.

“I got a telephone call that told me what had happened and I didn’t believe it because I didn’t believe all that could happen,” he said.

He remembered how the unusual quiet outside drilled home the fact that it had.

He said he did what most officers did and called his sergeant to ask what he could do. He said he understood the need three local officers felt to fly to New York to help out.

“Looking back 10 years, it’s important to remind ourselves that each of the names of the almost 500 first responders killed is an individual life away from that event,” said Gifford. “It’s easy to go through there today and look through and scroll down and just names and names and names but each one of those represents an individual, a family, friends and passions outside of law enforcement or outside of firefighting that are gone.”

Gifford also said this is for the officers that are killed each year.

Firefighter paramedic Charles Blattner of Capital City Fire and Rescue talked about his memories on that day.

“Ten years ago, Sept. 11, 2001. I was heading home on what I remember to be an uneventful shift at the fire department. I did not know that my fellow brothers in arms, firefighters like we were responding to what would be their final bell,” said Blattner.

“Some might call us heroes but most firefighters think of ourselves as ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things in unusual circumstances,” he said, explaining it was such an unusual circumstance that cost the lives of 343 firefighters that day. He said it is a calling to be a firefighter, even when such unforeseen situations can lead to such a result for any of them.

He then presented Fire Chief Richard Etheridge and CCFR with a Phenix Technology commemorative fire helmet for Sept. 11, of which only 343 were produced in recognition of the fallen firefighters.

“This helmet is numbered 343 of 343. It is the last one out, and it’s an honor to be in its presence,” he said.

Later that day, police and firefighters honored those New York responders by tackling 110 stories worth of stairs at the federal building. Many carried photos of fallen police and firefighters as they simulated the same climb those responders tried to make at the World Trade Center.

Almost 60 police and firefighters went in teams through 10 floors of elevated stairs over and over to match the climb that would have gone up the 110 floors of the World Trade Center.

Each team’s climb averaged an hour and half, sometimes longer. They all finished sweaty yet smiling. The task itself was no easy feat and was still intensified by some police officers running up stairs in uniform or by firefighters wearing full gear and equipment.

“The reason everyone’s here today is to be on one team,” said CCFR Division Chief of Career Staff Brian Long. “It doesn’t matter if you’re volunteer, career, fire or police. We’re all one team today remembering our brothers and sisters.”

The men and women could break at any time with water and provisions available. Long said this is standard just like in a real emergency. Firefighters normally break every seven or 10 stories when climbing.

The stair climb originated in Denver in 2005. Now municipalities in 25 states participate. Juneau is the first in Alaska to do so.

“As long as the federal building is willing to have us, we’d love to come back every year,” said Long.

Many involved in the activities have personal ties to Sept. 11, making this anniversary all the more meaningful. For example, Fischer’s childhood friend, Chris Newton, was aboard the American Airlines flight that hit the Pentagon.

Police officers Kathy Underwood and Daniel Cheshire did the stair climb with red bandanas in memory of Welles Crowther, who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Crowther was an equities trader and volunteer firefighter who saved several lives that day before he died. He carried a red bandana and used to cover his mouth and nose as he saved who he could.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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