By Jim Newell
The Sept. 11, 2001 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 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington DC and Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Robert Smith, retired Orion Twp. fire chief, wants to make sure that everyone remembers that day and the sacrifices that were made.
“It’s a very, very important date in our history. I’m very passionate about this. Brian (Penz) and I both served in the military. We’re proud of that heritage, but this is my passion. Those responders that went in (the World Trade Center) that day…this was an unprovoked attack on civilians. And this is something we can’t ever forget,” Smith said.
A Patriot Day ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Orion Veterans Memorial, 312 S. Broadway St., on the corner of Odanah Street and M-24.
Brian Penz is an Orion Veterans Memorial board member and served eight-and-a-half years active duty in the Navy as an operations specialist.
“I think it’s important that we realize that these first responders put their lives on the line that day. Where would they have been, where would New York City have been if they had not done what they did?” Penz said. “It’s important not only that we recognize what happened but how important they are in our everyday lives and that they are not forgotten.”
Smith, the event director for the Patriot Day Ceremony, added that first responders in 2001 were trained to fight fires, but “not after a jet plane went through a building.”
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.
Smith said the community has been supportive (“Everybody who comes pays their respects”) of the event over the years. He estimates that there were about 300 people who attend the ceremony in 2018.
“I don’t exact numbers, but when I see the Memorial full, I’m happy. And it was full last year,” Smith said.
First Responders from the Lake Orion Police Dept., the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, firefighters from the Orion Twp., Oxford, Oakland Twp. and Brandon Twp. fire departments and area paramedics will attend the ceremony.
Oakland County Sheriff Deputy Jennifer Eriksen will be this year’s Keynote Speaker.
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 and Charlie Frady. Former Oxford firefighter and Oxford police officer Jeff Siarto will sing the national anthem, Smith said.
“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 17-18, 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.”
Penz comes from a family of veterans and has school-aged children who didn’t experience the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Having kids to be able to experience what it means to be a fireman or a police officer or EMT…it really does take a village to take care of our society and look after one another. Our first responders are there to protect us. My kids aren’t old enough to know, they didn’t experience that when it happened. To actually hear a veteran or a first responder speak, and how important it is to know firsthand the accounts of what happened that day. I think it speaks volumes to our society that we really don’t honor them enough. It’s important to have firsthand knowledge of your past.”
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. “Eighteen 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.”