I remember exactly where I was that morning 16 years ago. “Good Morning America” (GMA) with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer filled the emptiness of the hotel room where I was attending the 2001 Texas Travel Summit in Austin. A lull in the usual pleasant GMA banter caught my attention.
Chills ran up my spine. Something big and bad was happening. Time seemed to stop. I sat on the edge of the hotel bed, riveted to Charlie’s and Diane’s faces as they told America that the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City had just been hit by a jet filled with passengers. Minutes later, Charlie and Diane watched in horror with the rest of us as, in real time, a second passenger-loaded jet rammed into the towers. The nation reeled in despair and confusion as we learned that the planes were intentional weapons meant to kill and destroy.
America under attack. I could not wrap my mind around it. I felt afraid, disconnected from normalcy, unable to comprehend what was happening to my country. Shaking with dread, I went downstairs to find hotel guests wandering in a sense of panic, our Summit attendees clustered in the main ballroom, glued to a giant screen televising multiple news stations. It was real. This was actually happening.
It was September 11, 2001. The Texas Travel Summit never formally convened. Chaos descended on the hotel’s front desk as guests tried to get out of Austin or extend their stay after all flights nationwide were indefinitely suspended. All around me, people were crying. I was crying. I wanted to go home. Like everyone, I called my family. Grief, fear, shock and panic were palpable in the air.
It was a day of infamy, one of the worst days in my memory, in the memory of anyone old enough, as we watched the twin towers melt and thousands of our fellow Americans dive, crash or burn to death.
Since then, I have visited New York multiple times, never without stopping to pay homage to those who perished on 9/11. Across America, we swore never to forget the nearly 3,000 Americans who lost their lives, 343 of which were firefighters.
The Denton Firefighter Museum has since treasured a piece of the debris from that day. The burned, warped piece of an I-beam from one of the towers has held a prominent place of honor in the museum these past 16 years.
In a March 27, 2016 Denton Record Chronicle article by Rhiannon Saegert, Denton firefighter Michael Ventrca explained its importance. “We sent a couple guys to New York to work on the pile. They were members of the Texas Task Force One that went up there. This is our monument, and we have an actual piece of the World Trade Center right here,” he said.
Tomorrow, on the 16th anniversary of that infamous day, Denton will celebrate a new public art display, a grand monument that incorporates that revered I-beam piece. The 9/11 Firefighter’s Memorial Bell Tower will be officially unveiled at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, September 11, in front of Central Fire Department and the Denton Firefighter Museum at 332 East Hickory Street.
Aside from 9/11, the bell in the new public art tower is especially significant for historical-minded Dentonites. It is the bell from the first Denton fire department in 1884. The bell was housed in three separate firehouses in Denton, including the recently former City Hall West, which originally served as a firehouse as well as City Hall.
The public art tower is a 30-foot tall design of steel with “343” etched in one side and “Courage, dedication and service” etched into the other side, honoring the firefighters who gave their lives at Ground Zero. It was co-designed by Millie Giles, City of Denton Public Art Committee member and UNT art professor, and David Robinson, an architect with Kirkpatrick Architecture Studio.
In addition to an honor guard, and Denton’s pipes and drums corps, tomorrow’s event will feature guest speaker Bill Spade, retired New York firefighter and sole survivor of his rescue unit on 9/11.
Since the event coincides with Public Safety Day, attendees can expect emergency preparedness vendors, fire station tours, vehicle and equipment demonstrations, children’s activities, and food, all free to the public.
I know many people who are young enough that they don’t remember September 11, 2001. This forever memorial to that dark day will remind us to tell the story for generations to come.
There are monuments and remembrances that are sad, even bad. They resurrect in our hearts and minds pain we wish had never happened. But happened they did. And, we must remember. As Winston Churchill once quoted poet George Santayana, "Those that fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it."
I love America. I am thankful for our first responders. I am immensely proud of this new public art that will attract visitors and remind us henceforth to never forget.