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‘Never Forget’: West Hartford Fire and Police Departments Memorialize 20th Anniversary of 9/11

Lt. Neil Sinatro speaks at a 9/11 memorial ceremony at Fire Station 2 on Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Fire Department Lt. Neal Sinatro, in his keynote speech Saturday morning, said the 20th anniversary of 9/11 should be a reminder of many things, including our freedom – to serve, to fight, and to live in this beautiful community.

Fire Chief Greg Priest (left) and Police chief Vernon Riddick hold an image of a 9/11 Memorial in Israel presented by the Jewish National Fund. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

The weather Saturday morning was exactly the same as it was 20 years ago – the clear cloudless sky a “9/11 blue,” Mayor Shari Cantor said, as members of the community gathered at Fire Station 2 for a ceremony to memorialize the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ceremony paused briefly at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The American flag in front of the station was lowered to half staff as representatives of the West Hartford Fire Department, West Hartford Police Department, the mayor, and Town Manager Matt Hart spoke of the significance of the day. Dana Klein of the Jewish National Fund gifted the town an image of the 9/11 Memorial in Israel, and as the touching ceremony concluded, a bell rang out the signal 5-5-5-5 – the “four fives” – a fire service tradition honoring those who lost their lives.

The flag is lowered to half staff. 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Saturday is a day to remember, said West Hartford Fire Department Lt. Neal Sinatro, who gave the keynote speech, “for us to join in the memories of our fallen brothers and sisters, and above all, reaffirm the true spirit of 9/11: love, compassion, and sacrifice.”

There were 2,977 fatalities resulting from the attacks, including 343 members of the Fire Department of New York, 23 New York police officers, 37 Port Authority police officers, and eight private ambulance company personnel. More than 25,000 people were injured, and the long-term impacts are still being felt.

Sinatro was still a teenager in 2001, but 20 years later he said he understands the magnitude of what happened that day more than ever before.

Fire Department Lt. Neal Sinatro speaks at the 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Men and women are called into this profession for many reasons, yet few know the true depth of the profession until you live it,” Sinatro said. “It’s not every career where your colleagues become family. We spend more time together than we do with our wives, our husbands, and our children. We spend holidays together. … We mourn together. … We work in unison not only because it’s our job, but because our lives depend on it. Every day, no matter the hour, we show up and we do our job. Twenty years ago, as the buildings started to collapse, hundreds of first responders ran in as the world looked on. Every year on this day, many Americans praise our profession. They thank us for just doing our jobs.”

What those who responded to 9/11 had in common, Sinatro said, was courage, strength, and wisdom. “Courage to share and endure the trouble of those who need us. Strength to bear whatever burdens are placed upon us. Strength of the body to deliver to safety, all those placed within our care. And wisdom, to lead in the face of adversity. Those men and women … will forever be remembered for their commitment and their bravery.”

9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Sinatro also highlighted the West Hartford connections to 9/11, including two bridges over I-84 named in honor of victims. The Thomas DeAngelis Memorial Bridge on South Main Street is a memorial to Battalion Chief Thomas DeAngelis of the 8th battalion in Manhattan whose sister, Carol, lives in West Hartford. And the bridge that crosses on Mayflower Street, the “Joseph Lenihan Memorial Bridge,” honors the 1978 Hall High School graduate who was on the 89th floor of the South Tower when it was hit.

Sinatro also called on the community to honor three from West Hartford who lost their lives in the war against terror: Army Lt. Col. Michael McMahon, a 1981 Conard High School graduate who died Nov. 27, 2004 in a plane crash in the mountains of Afghanistan, leaving a wife and three young children; Army Capt. Eric Paliwoda, a 1993 Conard graduate who died Jan. 2, 2004 in a mortar attack on his base in Iraq; and his own classmate from Conard Class of 2001, Lance Corporal Lawrence Philippon.

“Known affectionately to his friends and coaches as ‘GOAT,’ Larry died May 8, 2005 while fighting insurgents in western Iraq. He was best friends with one of our very own fire department members, Lt. Ryan Shea, who also served as a corporal in the United States Marine Corps,” Sinatro said.

“Let this 20th anniversary of 9/11 be a great reminder of what we have. Freedom to serve. Freedom to fight. Freedom to live in this beautiful community where we have so much. We’ll honor the lives lost by continuing to serve our communities. By respecting the brave men and women of our armed forces, some of whom I have the honor of calling my colleagues. They all fought and continue to fight to enable us to live with such privilege,” said Sinatro.

“We’ll keep doing our jobs, our brave soldiers will keep doing their job. Because we can, and because those we lost did so, while asking for nothing in return,” Sinatro said.

Mayor Shari Cantor. 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Twenty years ago today … we know where we all were, we think about who told us something so shocking and horrific was happening on American soil,” Cantor said, recounting how her husband and brother were both traveling that day and it was hours before she confirmed both were safe.

“I don’t think any of us will ever forget certain visuals of that day,” Cantor said, images like firefighters running into burning buildings. “The courage and the strength to do that is just awe-inspiring and really earth-shattering for so many of us to remember and watch.”

The country was brought to its knees, Cantor said, “but what happened out of that horror was a real unity and strength, a strength that we all felt in a really fundamental way. … The terrorist attack was designed to rip this country apart but it had the opposite effect in the immediate aftermath. We showed our best self.”

The strength, courage, respect, unity, and compassion are things we need to remember, Cantor said. “Today let us honor and remember those who lost their lives, and so many of our first responders who ran into such life-threatening situations and so many that lost their lives …” she said, urging everyone to share the stories.

“What happened that day is that it changed America forever but it pulled us together in a way I don’t think we have seen,” Cantor said.

Town Manger Matt Hart. 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Hart also spoke to the crowd. “Courage, strength, and wisdom, there’s a lot to be said … and a lot to think about,” he said.

“Twenty years later I’m sure a lot of us are thinking about where we are as a nation,” Hart said. He recalled how 9/11 brought us together.

The three observations Hart said he wanted to share are: “I firmly believe that we are living in a very consequential time. I’m not sure we realize the magnitude of it,” noting the pandemic, climate change, the struggle for equity and inclusion, and the partisan divide.

“From an emergency management perspective …we have made tremendous progress over the past 20 years. We are much better prepared,” Hart said.

The third observation, Hart said, “What we do in state and local government … is very, very important. … It’s also so important in our day-to-day life.”

How we respond will shape the world that our children and grandchildren live in, Hart said. “What we are doing today to improve the lives of our children and grandchildren, to make the world more safe, more fair and equitable, more livable, and more sustainable is really the best way we can seek to honor the legacy of those who are lost and who willingly gave their lives on 9/11.”

Police Chief Vernon Riddick. 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Police Chief Vernon Riddick said he had prepared remarks, but instead decided to speak from his heart.

“Much has been talked about the divided states of America, but we’re still the United States of America,” Riddick said.

“There’s one thing that has not changed – the resolve, the dedication, the commitment of your first responders,” he said. “They tried to take us down, but it didn’t happen.”

The resolve we have will not allow that to happen, Riddick said. “The men and women who died on Sept. 11, 2001, the first responders, the people in the towers, their lives cannot be in vain.” The men and women who went toward those towers, still would have responded even if they had known the towers could have collapsed any moment.

He urged the community not to squander the opportunity to make a difference. “My challenge … we are not the divided states of America. Those lives were not in vain. Take a stand, make a difference. 9/11 did not stop us. 9/11 propelled us.”

Fire Chief Greg Priest. 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Fire Chief Greg Priest said what he will never forget about 9/11 is the ‘pure unity’ that followed the tragedy.

“I draw your attention to the most-frequently used mantra for 9/11 which is ‘Never forget,'” Priest said. “The common understanding is that we should not forget the loss of life and the heroism that was shown by responders and bystanders.”

But what he asked people to do is not just to remember, but to think about how we can use that term, “never forget,” and decide how it can be meaningful to us today, to ensure that the lives of those lost made a difference. “Decide what you would not like to forget about 9/11,” he said.

“What I do not want to forget is the pure unity. United in attempts to save those who might be left but also against the evil that would commit such an act. … There was comfort in clinging to hope but more comfort from the unity of purpose. There was no dissension, no egos, no race, no politics, no finger-pointing, and no masks, just unity,” Priest said.

Before the ceremony ended, and the four fives sounded on the bell, Klein presented the town with an image of the 9/11 Memorial, built by the Jewish National Fund in Israel in 2009. It’s the only other memorial outside of the United States that has all the names of the victims, she said.

Dana Klein of the Jewish National Fund presents an image of a 9/11 Memorial in Israel to Fire Chief Greg Priest and Police Chief Vernon Riddick. 9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

9/11 20th Memorial Ceremony in West Hartford. Sept. 11, 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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