WEST ORANGE, NJ — Seventeen years after the terror attacks at the World Trade Center, Essex County residents gathered at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to commemorate the nearly 3,000 lives lost in 2001. With a foggy view of the New York City skyline, residents and elected officials read the names of the 57 Essex County residents who died in the attacks.
“Many of us were drawn here not knowing what was going on,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said in a speech at the event. “There’s not a day that passes that you will not find people here. It was like it was yesterday for us, and we have a fervent prayer that the world finds that peace is better than war.”
Surrounded by Essex County police and firefighters, as well as police officers from surrounding towns such as West Orange, Montclair and West Caldwell, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura thanked first responders who risked their lives in 2001.
“We like to remind ourselves when we enter the fire academy or the police academy or the EMS training that when there is a situation when everyone is trying to get out, you are going in,” Fontoura said. “And we say if you’re not OK with that, step back. There’s no shame in it, but step back. No one has ever stepped back.”
Fontoura thanked the first responders who were in New York during the attacks, and assured those attending the ceremony that the Essex County departments would continue to protect the county’s residents and the memorial site at the reservation.
“With your help, we will assure that this does not happen again,” he said. “We dedicate ourselves to this and making sure this remains a safe place for us to come.”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal was also at the ceremony, his first time at the memorial. In his speech, Grewal said that, even 17 years later, it is still challenging to find the words to describe the feelings of that day.
“It is still difficult to find adequate words of reflection,” he said. “There are no words to describe the horror of that morning. There are not enough words, plaques or memorials to console the families of those lost and those who were injured. There are not enough words to describe the efforts of the first responders who ran in to save others.”
Grewal described the life of N.J. State Police Lt. William Fearon, a Cedar Grove resident who was diagnosed with cancer related to the attack’s search and recovery efforts. Fearon died in 2016, and though Grewal said that he never had the chance to meet Fearon, he has met his wife and children.
“I know he lived his life with no fear,” Grewal said. “We should live free of fear of other and fear of each other. There are things that we can do and things that we must do. We must encourage public safety at every turn. Thank you to our first responders for their service on that day and every day since.”
After Grewal spoke, Stephen Adubato Jr., a television personality who hosted the ceremony, asked that residents applaud the first responders who were at the reservation for the event.
“We don’t applaud often at this, but please join me in a hearty round of applause for our first responders,” Adubato said.
He also said the ceremony gives residents an opportunity to talk about the attacks, something that he knows is difficult to discuss.
“My daughter, who will be 8 in a few days, asked me about today and I realized I hadn’t talked about it a lot,” Adubato said. “I know we are afraid to let our children be afraid. This gives us a chance to remember, and all of us to continue to talk about it and honor those who lost their lives.”
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. described his efforts to build the memorial at the Eagle Rock Reservation 17 years ago, when he was president of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders. He wanted it to be completed within one year, because he was afraid that if it wasn’t built quickly, people would forget the event’s importance.
“What I’ve noticed is that the memorials around the state aren’t done the way they once were,” DiVincenzo said at the event. “I want to assure the families of the victims that we will continue to have Essex Remembers. It’s for all of us and for our children and grandchildren so that they don’t forget what happened.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who was involved with much post-9/11 legislation, also spoke at the event. He described his efforts to sponsor the Zadroga Act, which gave benefits to Ground Zero workers who died from health problems likely caused by toxic exposure during the recovery process, and spoke about his time on the committee that created the Department of Homeland Security.
“We lost the innocence we had on that day,” Menendez said in his speech. “We are reminded of that when we go on a trip and see airport security. We are reminded of that at an event with SWAT teams. It was a loss of innocence, but I fear that we also lost something else — it was that spirit that we had. Americans once came together from all walks of life. I hope on this day of remembrance we can capture that spirit that I think we so desperately need right now.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic