WEST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County marked the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center with a ceremony at Eagle Rock Reservation, at which the names of the 57 county residents who died in the attacks were read. Among the speakers were Deborah Calimano, a flight attendant with United Airlines; U.S. Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Donald Payne Jr.; Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura; and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez. Family members of those lost read the names.
“I’m paying my respects to my fellow crew members, the flight attendants and pilots who lost their lives in the attack,” Calimano said at the ceremony. “The unsung heroes of the first responders were those pilots and flight attendants. They were the professionals in the line of duty who contacted the ground and provided valuable information to the authorities. They were the first line of defense, trying to defend the integrity of those airplanes and trying to keep the passengers safe, but they lost their lives while doing so.”
Twenty-five flight attendants and eight pilots died in the four planes: two that hit the World Trade Center towers; one that hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; and one that crashed in a field outside Shanksville, Pa.
“For my airline family around the world, it’s a wound,” Calimano said. “Our wings will always be heavy on this day.”
Fontoura talked about the 37 police officers who were lost in the attacks, some of whom he had worked with in the Newark Police Department and who had moved on to the Port Authority Police Department. He also spoke about the 343 firefighters who died that day.
“When you go through training, you are reminded that there may come a time when others are running away from a situation and you are expected to run into it,” Fontoura said at the ceremony. “Folks expect that of us. If you have a problem with it, you may step away now. As far as I know, none of those heroes exercised that option. That tradition continues.”
He encouraged people at the ceremony to find the sense of unity that he felt in the country in the days and weeks after the attacks, which he feels has been lost.
“The unity that we experienced after that was unprecedented,” Fontoura said. “I have never seen anything like it in my career and in my lifetime. Somehow, we’ve lost that. I would encourage all of us to encourage our neighbors and everyone in this country to get back to those days when we were all just one. That would be my hope for all of us.”
Sherrill said she was at her post in Norfolk, Va., at the time of the attacks, when she was serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.
“I’ll never forget what a perfect, beautiful day it was,” she said at the ceremony. “I’ve never seen such a perfect day on Sept. 11 since. The juxtaposition of that day and the beautiful blue sky and the crisp feeling of fall in the air, and the horrific attack that we experienced on that day has never left me.”
First responders from New York, New Jersey and other places in the country aided in recovery efforts, and Sherrill remembered them in her speech.
“First responders flooded in from all over the country to save lives and to recover our loved ones from the rubble, and far too many of them lost their lives,” she said. “Too many continue to lose their lives due to exposure to the pile. It’s been 20 years since they left this earth, but they’ve never left our hearts and our minds.”
Booker, like Fontoura, lauded the first responders who ran into the scene of the attacks while others were running away when he spoke at the ceremony.
“When we say remember, it is not just a cognitive exercise, it is a moral mission,” he said. “We must also remember not just what happened to us, but how we responded. Those first responders, when others were running away, they ran to. We must remember that on one of the worst days of American history, we showed our best. In the darkest of hours, the United States of America brought forth our collective light.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Booker said the memorial at the reservation is a special place for county residents to grieve.
“Essex County has done a worthy job in remembering,” he said. “We had such a tragic loss — 750 people from New Jersey died. This has really been such a sacred space to grieve and remember. It’s heavy, but important.”
Nineteen years after the memorial opened at the reservation, its designer was at the ceremony to mark the anniversary. Patrick Morelli lived in Cedar Grove at the time the memorial was created and wanted the memorial to be a place for people to reflect.
“I wanted to go from the cycle of grief to rebuilding and renewal,” Morelli, who lives in Albany, N.Y., now, said in an interview at the ceremony. “I hope when people come here, they can renew themselves spiritually and emotionally. It’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic