By Jim Newell
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had a profound impact on the nation, an event so engrained in the American psyche it’s one of those days where everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
It also brought to the forefront like never before the dangers that first responders face when rushing toward a tragedy.
Nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11, including 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority Police Officers and 15 EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians). Patriot Day is held in memory those who died during attacks in New York and Washington DC and a jet crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Robert Smith, retired Orion Twp. fire chief, wants to make sure that everyone remembers that day and the sacrifices that were made.
“We’re doing this to make sure that, even during a pandemic, people don’t forget,” said Smith, the event director for the Patriot Day ceremony. “People have a tendency to move on and forget. This was something that changed our world. It changed our lives forever. And I don’t want this to get political. People just have to come back together.”
Smith said the community has been supportive (“Everybody who comes pays their respects”) of the event over the years. Typically, between 300-350 people attend the Patriot’s Day Ceremony, Smith said.
Because of COVID-19 precautions, guest to the ceremony will have to follow safety protocols.
“We’ll enforce social distancing and we’ll require everyone to wear a mask,” Smith said.
He added that the Miracle League Field can accommodate up to 200 people with proper social distancing and if more people show up, they can spread out outside of the field.
“We will have a PA system so everyone will be able to hear,” Smith said.
First Responders from the Lake Orion Police Department, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, firefighters from the Orion Township, Oxford, Brandon Township and possibly Independence Township fire departments and area paramedics will attend the ceremony.
Chris Elliott will be this year’s keynote speaker. Elliott was a paid on-call firefighter with the Orion Township Fire Department on Sept. 11, 2001, and is a nurse practitioner who has been on the frontlines of the pandemic.
“Chris is in the fray of all of this so I wanted him to touch on what it’s like for a first responder because we’ve accepted doctors, nurses and a whole lot of people as first responders for this pandemic,” Smith said. “Here we are in a national crisis and the first responders, without regard to their own lives and safety, are going in to help everybody else.”
A representative from the police, firefighters and paramedics will lead The Pledge of Allegiance, and representative from each branch of first responders will comprise the color guard and post the Stars & Stripes, Smith said.
The ceremony features musical performances by Kathy McMinn (“The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”) and Charlie Frady (“God Bless the USA”).
“There’s two reasons to hold the ceremony every year: one, we’re trying to keep honoring those people who passed away that day, and also to keep it in everyone’s mind,” Smith said. “Anyone under the age of 20, they don’t know it other than what they read in history books or what we talk about. So, I don’t ever want it to not be an important event.”
Smith added that first responders in 2001 were trained to fight fires, but “not after a jet plane went through a building.”
“It’s a very, very important date in our history. Those responders that went in (to the World Trade Center) that day…this was an unprovoked attack on civilians. And this is something we can’t ever forget.
Smith, who served seven years in the Air Force, four years in the Army Reserves and two years in the Navy Reserves, said that while military personnel are trained for attacks, most first responders are not.
“They had no training up until that point to do something like that. But they didn’t stop and say, ‘Hey, chief, what do we do?’ They went in blindly because they knew that there were people in there that needed to be saved,” said Smith, who was a firefighter for 32 years.
While the Patriot Day ceremony is to remember those first responders lost on 9/11, Smith points out that many more have died since then.
“This ceremony is to pay tribute to that day…but we’re still losing an unusual number of first responders every year. And all they’re out there doing is their job,” he said.
“Nineteen years ago, everybody had their flag on their front porch. There was a complete embracement of people coming together to show their support and patriotism. We still need that today.”
Last year, rain forced organizers to relocate the Patriot Day ceremony to inside the Orion Center. Due to the pandemic, Smith said that they cannot safely move all of the attendees inside, so if it rains the ceremony will likely be canceled.