Despite hundreds gathered Wednesday aboard the USS Midway to remember first responders who perished on 9/11, retired firefighters feared their fallen buddies would be forgotten.
“The crowds are thinning and thinning and thinning,” said retired New York firefighter Anthony Cuomo after the memorial for first responders and airline employees who died Sept. 11, 2001.
“What I’m seeing is basically what’s happened to Pearl Harbor,” said the 55-year-old 9/11 survivor. “Pearl Harbor happened. Everyone said that no one was ever going to forget, and through the course of time everyone’s forgotten. And you notice that on Dec. 7 — there’s no one there anymore.”
Added Cuomo, a cousin of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: “What’s happening here, in just 18 years, is the same thing.”
About 500 paused to honor fellow firefighters, police, pilots and flight attendants who lost their lives as a result of the hijacking by terrorists of airplanes flown into the World Trade Center towers, Pentagon and downed in a Pennsylvania field.
“Life marches on,” Cuomo said, “and the young people care more about what’s happening in the now. Not that they don’t care. They don’t know. If you don’t know, you don’t have the ability to have the heartfelt feelings that — ‘Oh, my God! All these people died that day.’”
As guest speaker, Army Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Pauly sounded the same alarm.
“The greatest casualty is being forgotten,” said the veteran associated with the Wounded Warrior Program. “I challenge you to get involved in your community and service others.”
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Through service, he said, Americans can honor those lost.
“And through service, we can truly become a nation that never forgets,” he said.
Colin Stowell, chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, remarked that so many of today’s emergency responders are too young to remember the events of 2001.
People must “help keep the memory of their ultimate sacrifice at the forefront each and every year,” Stowell said.
And deaths from the September attacks still haven’t stopped.
Post-9/11 deaths now exceed the number of those who died on that day in 2001, a firefighter reported.
New York police who worked in Lower Manhattan are dying at a faster rate than firefighters who worked on the pile, he told the crowd.
About 50 police officers who were responders that year are dying annually in contrast with 20 firefighters a year succumbing to the effects of working there.
About 85% of the people who worked on the pile were fireman and about 10 percent were police and others, the retired firefighter reported.
Some of the former New York firefighters in attendance, who now make Southern California their home, are in their early 80s. Some retired before 2001, but lost friends that day.
Santo Granica, 82, spoke of his feelings as the program was about to begin.
“It’s very personal,” Granica said. “I lost two or three guys. … And yeah — very emotional. But what are you going to do? We can’t let anybody forget.”
Former New York fireman John Sottile, 83, of Escondido talked about people like New York fire Chief Ray Downey — “one good buddy” — who saved the life of Capt. Alfredo Fuentes. Downey advised Fuentes to remain outside a tower. And then Downey lost his own life going in.
He recalled off-duty fireman Mike Weinberg who rushed from golfing in Queens to rescue his sister, who was in one of the towers.
Weinberg died while his sister survived, Sottile said.
Sottile’s son, also a firefighter, was off-duty that day.
And while the former firefighters tell stories still fresh in their memories, tears are just below the surface. It’s evident that 18 years hasn’t been long enough to heal wounds.
“It’s even hard for me to come down here today,” Sottile said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“Came here to support these guys. They do a great job. I’ll stay for a while — see how I feel,” he said. Sottile sat along the railing, watching the service from the side.
“Amazing Grace.” That is Cuomo’s trigger.
“I hear that (song) and my eyes start to well up,” Cuomo said. “When I hear taps — again my eyes start to well up.”
Cuomo says “Amazing Grace” was played at every firefighter funeral he attended — all 167 of them.
“That’s why I wear the dark sunglasses when I come to these events,” he said. “So people don’t see. We’re supposed to be strong for everybody. But — we march on.”
Another Retired firefighter, Jerry Bresnan, talked about Wednesday’s remembrance.
“We as retirees in the fire department of the City of New York put this show on every year,” he said. “We cannot go through a day without thinking of the brothers we lost. I mean, with 343 men — it’s not an everyday situation.
“And we pay homage to those men, and their families, each and every year as we’ll never, ever forget,” Bresnan said.
After Wednesday’s service, Cuomo recalled his role Sept. 11, 2001. He worked with EMS Battalion 17 in the Bronx:
It was a very hard day. I didn’t think I was ever going to make it home. And then it took a lieutenant from my battalion to actually come down to the scene and order me off the scene — to go home and spend time with my family. I just felt like I couldn’t leave.
We got down there and we were going through the rubble and going through the buildings and I can still hear all the security alarms going off in all the buildings.
Between that and the screaming and then all of a sudden there was an air of silence. And then we heard as we’re going towards Building 7, we heard people screaming: Get out! Get out! Get out! It’s coming down! It’s coming down!
I just didn’t think I was going to make it. And then it came down. We were all covered in dust. And what seemed to be an eternity — which I find out later wasn’t. It was maybe 10, 12 minutes of the dust blowing by you and the cloud kept moving.
And I thought: Is this it? Am I gone? And then people started moving. Everyone was gray. There was no colors. Like everything was in black-and-white.
Looking to the future, Cuomo said: “But now the game’s up to the young guys. And when I say my prayers, I just hope that their life — that they don’t have to ever go through what I did.”
“The Washington Heights riots,” he continued. “The first World Trade Center bombing. All of these things that I experienced — I hope that no emergency medical personnel from New York City ever has to go through that ever again.”