Across this country on Saturday, Americans paused to remember the tragic events that unfolded 20 years ago — the more than 2,600 who were killed in the World Trade Center attacks, the 184 who died at the Pentagon, the 40 who perished in Pennsylvania.
They remembered the 343 firefighters and paramedics who died in the effort to save others. They remembered the shock of how something like this could happen in America. They remembered where they were and what they were doing when two planes hit the World Trade Center towers on that Monday morning.
Some gathered for memorial ceremonies, others reflected during a moment of silence. Everybody else old enough to remember the day almost certainly had it on their minds in some way.
“I think about the 343 — that’s what I focus on. … I think about the 343 firefighters that lost their lives that day and all of the people that they saved.”
Those are the words of Tom Miller. He’s been a firefighter for 32 years now, the last 5-1/2 as Philomath Fire & Rescue’s chief.
Miller was among the local and regional first responders that participated and attended a 9/11 Memorial Ceremony at the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo grounds on Saturday morning. The program featured a reading of 9/11’s timeline with details that are difficult to revisit, including perspectives from those who lived through it.
Constance Labetti, an employee who worked on the 99th floor of the South Tower, described American Airlines Flight 11 heading toward the World Trader Center’s North Tower. As read by Philomath Police Chief Ken Rueben:
“I just stood frozen. I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I just stood at the window. I could see it coming closer and closer. I could see the AA on its tail. I could see the cockpit. I could see inside the cockpit, the tinted windows of the cockpit. That’s how close I was. I could see on the side some of the windows of the passengers were pulled down. And then it just bellowed into Tower One.”
Miller, Rueben and Mayor Chas Jones took turns reading excerpts from the detailed timeline. The program also included Ken Saul on trumpet playing the National Anthem as flags were raised on two lumberjack poles that were meant to represent the Twin Towers. Saul later played “Taps” to close the ceremony.
Former mayor Eric Niemann and Frolic & Rodeo board president Darrell Hinchberger provided remarks. Pastor Jim Pierce of the College United Methodist Church offered a prayer for the fallen. Oregon State Army ROTC and first responders were on hand for the presentation of the colors. Boy Scouts Troop 161 led the Pledge of Allegiance. Garrett Gerding and family had a truck filled with watermelons to give away to first responders.
Among those in the crowd watching, the memories of the horrific day had to be on their minds.
Miller was on a roof in Denver on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In those days, he worked as an electrician for his day job and served as a volunteer firefighter.
“There was a period of time before I got to see the TV — I didn’t get home until around 3:30 or so in the afternoon,” he said. “I had visions in my head of what was going on until I saw it for myself. And I saw those guys going up and down the stairs and thinking, ‘those guys are really going to pay the ultimate sacrifice.’”
Being a longtime firefighter, Miller was asked what he believes the first responders must’ve been thinking in that unthinkable situation.
“You just react and you don’t really think about yourself,” Miller said. “That’s what we signed up for. We signed up to serve the community and to serve one another and to put others first. We will give our lives for somebody else.”
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