Remembering 9/11: 'We'll always remember where we were'
The strength, solidarity and support Americans showed one another 20 years ago following the 9/11 attacks persevere today as the country confronts new crises like the coronavirus pandemic and catastrophic weather events, according to West Linn Mayor Jules Walters.
Walters, local first responders, a doctor and nurse, two United Airlines flight attendants, an Alaska Airlines pilot, members of the U.S. armed forces and dozens of community members gathered at the Willamette Park boat launch Saturday, Sept. 11 to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks, honoring those who lost their lives on that day and those who continue to serve in the face of new emergencies.
Dean Suhr, a West Linn man who has organized the 9/11 Honoring Those Who Serve Event for the past several years, intentionally expanded his definition of "first responders" this year so the ceremony could include honors for those who have served the community during the pandemic, like grocery workers, delivery drivers and medical professionals as well as the public works and utility crews who braved February's ice storm to continue working.
"Every one of you in some way is a first responder at some point," Suhr said. "Now, you're not putting yourself in the same kind of risk necessarily as the police officers when they're flying into the dark to some call. But when you are hugging your loved one when they're scared or uncertain, you're doing something that is taking care of those around you."
Sarah Lawton, a long-time United Airlines flight attendant, spoke of the difficulty returning to work after the attacks.
"I had just returned to flying two weeks before 9/11 after the birth of my daughter and I almost quit because I was terrified to go back," she said. "My friends encouraged me not to quit. I stayed and in my mind, I dedicated my first flight back to my daughter."
Lawton said she came to speak on Saturday for her friend and colleague who died working on United Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Captain Wayne Ayers, an Alaska Airlines pilot, veteran and former firefighter, also spoke of the deeply personal emotional toll of that day. He said he initially refused to speak at the ceremony.
"My first response was 'not a chance' because for 20 years, this was personal," he said.
He recalled turning on the TV on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and knowing he'd be headed back to war.
Suhr, the event's organizer, said 9/11 became one of life's milestone markers.
"We'll always remember where we were in that instance," he said.
Today's kids don't remember 9/11, Suhr said, but they remember its impacts. For them, the coronavirus will likely be the first big milestone marker in their lives, just as 9/11 was for the generation before them, Suhr said.
In order to bridge this generational gap, Suhr has strived to teach today's youth about 9/11, inviting them to speak at the ceremony for the past several years and organizing the Yellow Ribbon Project on the West A Street Bridge, just down the road from West Linn High School.
Each year, Suhr and other community members tie thousands of yellow ribbons to the fence along the bridge above I-205 in honor of the people lost on 9/11 and those sacrificing to serve today. He invites families and students to tie their own ribbons to the fence and reflect on why they are doing so.
During the event, an aide from the office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden presented Walters with an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol building in recognition of the city of West Linn's exemplary service and commemoration of 9/11.
The ceremony concluded with the symbolic 3-3-3 tolling of the bell on Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue boat. Steeped in firehouse tradition, this particular set of three bell tolls signals the loss of a firefighter, Suhr explained.
Walters and Ayers, the Alaska Airlines pilot and veteran, also laid a wreath of flowers on the Willamette before community members tossed flowers of their own into the water.
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