WEST ORANGE, NJ — On a Tuesday morning almost 15 years ago, Patricia “Pat” Schoeler sat in her kitchen in West Orange, enjoying a cup of coffee after breakfast. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the newscasters on TV reported the events of the day. Then, suddenly, it happened. Terrorists had attacked the United States, killing thousands in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
Schoeler wasn’t quite sure it was real at first, as she watched the World Trade Center burn in news footage. Soon, however, she was convinced that the horrors were actually happening. She called her longtime friend Marie Stopfer, and together they went to West Orange’s Eagle Rock Reservation, which features sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, to watch the catastrophe unfold. Seeing that it was already full of horrified people, they descended to Fairmount Terrace and witnessed the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, from there.
Schoeler, a native of Bloomfield who has lived in West Orange for 16 years, was deeply and permanently affected by the devastation and heartbreak of 9/11. Already an avid writer, recording her thoughts in her journal daily, Schoeler was immediately inspired to document the attacks and their aftermath.
“When 9/11 happened, I just started writing everything down,” she said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “I wrote what I saw and what I felt. I started doing it every day, twice a day.”
Schoeler found that her thoughts naturally flowed from her pen in the form of poetic verse, and she ran with it. She wrote poem after poem, every single day, until she found that she had created a poetic history of the attacks themselves and the turbulent events of the months that followed them.
Schoeler had Stopfer read them and her longtime friend was greatly moved by Schoeler’s works.
“I told her that people should see the poems,” Stopfer told the West Orange Chronicle, “because they are so beautiful.”
With Stopfer’s continued encouragement and editing expertise, Schoeler had soon published her Sept. 11-inspired poetry in a book, “The Day America Cried! So Many Innocents Died 9/11/01.” The collection of poems covers everything from the attacks themselves to the rescue and recovery efforts that lasted for months and from the United States’ bombing of Afghanistan to the grave illnesses that began to plague so many Sept. 11 survivors and first responders. Throughout the book, Schoeler expresses the lasting grief of a nation and the patriotic resolve stemming from that grief.
It was Schoeler’s own lasting grief and patriotism that led her to continue to visit Eagle Rock Reservation, which had quickly become a makeshift memorial to the victims of Sept. 11. Soon, she learned that the county was planning to construct a permanent memorial there.
Putting pen to paper once again, Schoeler wrote another poem. She hoped that it might be of use during the dedication of the new memorial. Stopfer, the former West Orange municipal clerk, passed the new poem to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., who not only used it in the program for the dedication ceremony but also had it engraved on a special plaque for permanent display at the site.
The Essex County Eagle Rock Sept. 11 Memorial was officially dedicated Oct. 20, 2002. As of June 2016, Schoeler’s work is prominently displayed for all to see.
The Essex County Eagle Rock Sept. 11 Memorial honors all connected to the tragedy with “dignity and grace,” as stated in Schoeler’s poem. In addition to the poem, the memorial features a “Wall of Remembrance” with the names, ages and hometowns of all Sept. 11 victims engraved on a 120-foot granite wall; a large piece of the World Trade Center foundation; a flight crew memorial; a police officer’s memorial; a firefighter’s memorial; an EMS tribute; a new search-and-rescue dog statue and a “Memorial Grove” of trees dedicated to different groups of people lost in connection with the tragedy, among other elements. The memorial is surrounded by grassy areas and a gazebo, with a view of the Manhattan skyline.
This year and every year on Sept. 11, there is a solemn service of remembrance at the memorial, beginning at 8 a.m. Schoeler writes a unique poem each year for the service program, and makes sure to arrive by 7:15 a.m. for a good seat. She encouraged the public to attend the service — to mourn, to listen, to appreciate the bagpipes, chamber music and song and, most of all, to heal.
“It’s just so beautiful here. So peaceful, so serene. The reverence that is here is amazing. It’s like coming to church,” Schoeler said.
For more information about the Essex County Eagle Rock Sept. 11 Memorial, visit http://www.essexcountyparks.org/_media/_data/EssexResource/911-brochure-final.pdf. For additional information about this year’s memorial service, call 973-621-4400.
The following is the poem written by West Orange resident Patricia Schoeler and displayed as it appears below at the Eagle Rock Sept. 11 Memorial:
“A place to come to, a place to reflect
To feel some peace is what you’d expect
An unobstructed view of the New York skyline
Where before September 11, 2001 everything seemed fine
Then the unthinkable happened that affected us all
Terrorists attacked America; we watched our Twin Towers fall
A plane in Pennsylvania; the Pentagon in Washington, DC
These horrors played out for all of us to see
The results of which wreaked havoc and pain
And life as we once knew it, would never be the same
As Americans we’ve united as never before
Because of the things we were forced to endure
This Memorial is a place for families to go
Because not everyone has been recovered, this we know
To see loved ones’ names listed all together
In a tribute that is meant to last forever
Just know you are not alone in this special place
Your loved ones are honored with dignity and grace!”
Photos Courtesy of Cynthia Burks and Susan Anderson