By Jim Newell
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had a profound impact on the nation, an event so ingrained 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.
Robert Smith, retired Orion Twp. fire chief who now works in the Oakland County Court system as a sheriff’s deputy, wants to make sure that everyone remembers that day and the sacrifices that were made.
“We’re doing this to make sure that 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.”
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, D.C. and a jet crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Smith said the community has been supportive (“Everybody who comes pays their respects”) of the event over the years. Typically, between 200-250 people attend the Patriot’s Day Ceremony, 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 20 or so, 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.
First Responders from the Lake Orion Police Department, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and firefighters from the Orion Township and Brandon Township fire departments and area EMTs will attend the ceremony.
Art Schrah will be this year’s keynote speaker. Schrah is a retired Orion Township firefighter and Oakland County Sheriff’s Office fire investigator.
Schrah went to Ground Zero in New York City days after the terrorist attacks to help with rescue and recovery, Smith said.
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Michael Warren is the special speaker for this year’s ceremony.
Orion Township Fire Chief Rob Duke, Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Orion Township Substation Commander Lt. Dan Toth and Lake Orion Police Chief Harold Rossman will lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
Jeff Siarto, a retired Oxford firefighter and police officer, will sing the National Anthem and other patriotic songs. There will also be a special remembrance, “9/11 Do You Remember?” narrated by Siarto with music by Dave Fesliyan.
Representatives from each branch of first responders will comprise the color guard and post the Stars & Stripes, Smith said.
“I’m very passionate about it and I’m worried that if we forget about it we will become complacent,” Smith said.
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, adding, “People are dying from the effects of that day: asbestos, dust.”
Smith also wants people to put their differences aside, political or otherwise, and come together.
“Twenty 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.”