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Have we forgotten? Reflecting on 22 years since 9/11

As 9/11 becomes a historical event to younger generations, it’s up to us to pass on the lessons learned and keep the memories of those we lost alive

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Dignitaries place a wreath at a 9/11 Fallen Heroes Memorial after it was unveiled outside the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. The memorial includes a beam from the World Trade Center Tower 2.

AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

In the days, weeks and months following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the country’s mantra and pledge at the time was “we will never forget.” And yet, 22 years later, we do seem to be forgetting the enormity of the day and the grief, determination and resolve that followed.

Reiterating the lessons of 9/11

As a firefighter with more than a few years in the fire service, I see constant reminders of that day in our preparations, emphasized by how far we’ve come in mass casualty, heavy rescue, emergency preparedness and incident command since then. Yet, as I look at our new classes of fire recruits, I realize most of them were toddlers or younger on that fateful day. How do we teach the same level of resilience when they have not experienced it themselves?

There are reminders, of course. Many Americans have seen televised commercials of the work done by Tunnels to Towers (T2T), which offers assistance to the families of the firefighters and police officers who died on 9/11. T2T has done a tremendous job helping not only 9/11 families, but also the loved ones of first responders and military members who suffered either a line of duty death or severe injury.

The public is also reminded of the sacrifices made on 9/11 thanks to the memorials established across the country. There are more than 2,000 memorial sites, in both small towns and large cities, honoring those who answered the call on 9/11. Some mark the location with a simple plaque, while others showcase a piece of steel from the World Trade Center collapse. At the site of the attacks in Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, professionally designed memorials include reflecting waters and other poignant reminders of the sacrifices made.

Making a point to ‘remember’

As I travel each day to our own fire headquarters, I pass Memorial Park, which honors all branches of our Armed Forces, as well as our police and firefighter line-of-duty deaths, with a small but conspicuous hunk of World Trade Center steel arranged as the focal point of the park. Each day, 10,000 or more cars, busses and commercial vehicles pass through this intersection, yet sometimes, while I wait for the traffic signal to change, I wonder how many of us look over to “remember.”

I’ve visited many such places in our travels, from the simplicity of Patriots Park in Patriot, Indiana, a small town with a population of 205, to memorials at all three sites of the attacks. But on this, the 22nd year of honoring those who gave their all on 9/11, I’d like to reflect on the poem “One” by Cheryl Sawyer that is etched into the memorial near downtown Indianapolis:


As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,

We became one color.

As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning buildings,

We became one class.

As we lit the candles of waiting and hope,

We became one generation.

As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the inferno,

We became one gender.

As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,

We became one faith.

As we whispered and shouted words of encouragement,

We spoke one language.

As we gave blood in lines a mile long,

We became one body.

As we mourned together the great loss,

We became one family.

As we cried our tears of grief,

We became one soul.

As we retold with pride of the sacrifices of heroes,

We became one people.

We are:

One color

One class

One generation

One gender

One faith

One language

One body

One family

One soul

One people

We are the Power of One.

We are United

We are America.

Stay safe and remember!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.