Pleas for unity accompany Reading tribute to 9/11 victims, first responders

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Sep. 11—Berks County's emergency workers and elected officials delivered side-by-side messages on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Honor and preserve the memories of the victims and sacrifices of first responders for younger and future generations — but remember, too, the unity U.S. citizens felt in the wake of 9/11.

"Although we have vowed to and will never forget the events of that fateful day, to me it also means we should remember how this great nation of ours came together in those most tragic of times and truly became one," Reading fire Chief William Stoudt Jr. told an audience gathered Saturday in City Park.

Stoudt presided over the annual 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony, during which a bell tolled at the precise minute 20 years ago when each of the four planes used in the attacks crashed.

The names of all 403 first responders who lost their lives in New York were read aloud to the scores in attendance at the Volunteer Firemen's Memorial bandshell.

In addition to memorializing the fallen or sharing recollections and experiences from that day, several of the nine speakers used the opportunity to implore people to recall the sense of community and togetherness they felt after the attacks.

"We should also never forget tomorrow," said Reading police Chief Richard Tornielli, referring to the day after the attacks as "the day when our country came together to support and protect each other and heal."

"While we never need to experience another Sept. 11 again, we could really use another Sept. 12."

Calls to put aside differences

Though some speakers didn't delve into the specific reasons behind their messages of decency, State Sen. Judy Schwank took aim at the current political climate dividing people, lamenting, "Somehow we've lost our way."

Schwank invoked the passengers of Flight 93, a group of strangers who banded to thwart one of the hijackers' attacks, ultimately causing the plane to crash in a field near Shanksville, Somerset County, before it could reach another target.

"In our hyperpolarized society, it's easy to get caught up in politics and attack our neighbors as if they were the enemy," she said.

"We must push past our differences and rededicate ourselves as fellow Americans all rooted in the common mission to uphold the fabric of our democracy and to continue making America a shining beacon of liberty and freedom."

Similar calls to action were more ambiguous, but no less poignant.

"Remember those most horrible of times, as the clouds of dust and debris rumbled through the streets of Manhattan, how we watched the citizens of that great city help one another find shelter, assist with the injured and the many displays of care and compassion that they had for one another regardless of race, color, ethnicity and religious beliefs," Stoudt said.

Reading Mayor Eddie Moran became visibly emotional as he recounted being near the World Trade Center in New York the day of the attacks.

As difficult as what he witnessed was, the willingness of people to help others without giving it so much as a second thought remains impressed upon him.

"I personally saw things that I wish I could forget," Moran said. "There were things that I just don't like talking about.

"But what I will not forget is our first responders jumped at the chance to help others. What I will not forget is how complete strangers selflessly assisted their fellow human beings without words, just actions. Humanity, service and decency were alive and well that day and still inspire me and all of us 20 years later."

Message for youth

Several speakers also noted the importance of observing 9/11, not only to honor those who lost their lives or are still experiencing illnesses or have disabilities as a result of the attacks — but for a demographic that was either too young to remember it or weren't born yet.

"One-third of the population that we have today were not even alive," said Berks County commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, remarking that footage of the incident might seem like something out of a Hollywood movie to kids and young adults. "It's incumbent on us to remember those sacrifices and those lives lost."

Even for State Rep. Manny Guzman, who was in seventh grade at the time, the comparison of video from the attacks to a feature film was apt.

Yet as part of a generation that's already lived through a terrorist event, two wars and a now global pandemic, the enormity of the attacks is not lost on younger folks, Guzman said.

"As an individual, as a millennial who has grown up during this very tumultuous time in American history, I can tell you that we are traumatized," he said. "We understand the death and the tragedy that not only occurred on 9/11, but that continues to occur today with the countless deaths that are happening due to COVID-19.

Despite experiencing the events at two distinctly different periods of their lives, the two elected officials seemed to share some common ground in their words.

"We have a lot of tough times ahead of us, but I know that as Americans we are strong, we are united and I believe that our best days are ahead of us," Guzman said.

"This is another time and opportunity for us to have a rebirth of kindness toward our fellow man," said Barnhardt. "Let's start that today right here at City Park."

Credit to first responders

What the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was about most of all was the people who lost their lives at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon near Washington and in Somerset County.

"We still mourn the nearly 3,000 who lost their lives, including our first responders who thought nothing of going into those dangerous towers that ultimately collapsed," Moran said.

At a second memorial held outside the Berks Military History Museum in Mohnton, there was a morning vigil during which names of the fallen were read beside a permanent memorial made with a section of Ground Zero steel.

Speakers in Reading thanked all first responders, some pondering the daunting task that firefighters in particular faced after planes slammed into what were the two of the tallest buildings in the world.

"It was hard to imagine the punishment the crews were going to encounter when they reached their destination to begin the battle," Stoudt said. "Even with the resources available to the largest fire department in the nation, they were up against a fire of such magnitude that you knew there would be significant injuries and loss of life.

"Not only to the civilians, but to the firefighters making their way up the stairs."

Ultimately 343 members of the New York City Fire Department lost their lives, along with 23 New York police officers and 37 Port Authority officers. Countless others fell ill after participating in rescue efforts. But Stoudt said first responders understand the jobs they have to do.

"I have heard many current and retired firefighters say about the actions they took that day that they would do them all over again," he said.