By Rich Acritelli
Nineteen years ago, this Sept. 11, the U.S. was attacked in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and over the farm fields of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Long had it been since our people endured such a threat to the national security of America. In a matter of moments, a horrified generation of citizens watched a dangerous threat oppose this country. But, almost immediately, there came an unyielding spirit of patriotism that matched every serious historic event that gripped our people.
‘If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.’
—Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl
The above quote was from the wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl, who lost his life due to this terrorism in what was known as the “plane that fought back.” Regardless of race, ethnic group, religion or economic class standing, years ago during and after this assault on our soil, all people in this country helped each other during this time of sorrow. People sent goodwill packages to the rescue workers, firemen, and police officers that spent endless days searching for survivors and the remains of citizens from the World Trade Center. Yellow ribbons were wrapped around trees and porches, patriotic bumper stickers were on our cars and trucks and Walmart was unable to keep up with the massive requests to purchase American flags. Through this national hardship originated an immediate willingness to help others, to serve at home and abroad. People looked at the flag with an intense sense of pride.
But in our current times, the political, economic, social, racial and ethnic tensions have divided this outstanding country. Today, on both sides of the political aisle, there is a noticeable resentment that threatens to weaken the foundations of a country that was always an example towards others. Regardless of our citizens’ differences, our people could always count on supporting each other through the darkest of times. To friend and foe alike, American has been a true source of strength and determination since 9/11. For in this country it was not that long ago that people lined the streets to wave to rescue workers and give them a needed boost as they headed towards Ground Zero. There were the sad periods when people, especially those from the North Shore, attended funeral services for those local graduates and citizens that were killed from these attacks. This also marked the point where there has been continued fighting and presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world, where our residents served with distinction to protect the freedoms of this nation against terrorism and its supporters.
Local residents widely recalled important memories of when America was united some twenty years ago. Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore fondly recalled the unity that was demonstrated on the North Shore. Weeks after the attacks, there was an outside assembly program at the Rocky Point High School football field. The American flag that was flown at Ground Zero was presented by parachuters jumped over a packed crowd. Years after this event, Cognitore still gets chills from this program that brought these people together to cherish a flag which survived the earliest moments of the War on Terror.
Miller Place resident Anthony Flammia is a retired 24-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. As a motorcycle patrolman, Flammia spent over 300 hours at Ground Zero where he assisted in the rescue and the recovery efforts. He has tirelessly championed local, state and federal legislation to aid the thousands of rescue workers and citizens that have been severely inflicted or died from the 9/11/01 related illnesses. As a devoted member of the FEAL Good Foundation, Flammia’s mission has been to help many people from this period that saw all people, from all different backgrounds come together. Flammia recalled the devotion that his fellow officers showed to each other at this time and he stated, “It did not matter if your skin color was white, black, orange or purple. We all helped each other, and we bled blue.”
Marty Viera was a 1988 graduate of Rocky Point High School and a former lifeguard at Smith’s Point that currently serves at the New York 106th Air National Guard base at Westhampton. As a combat rescue officer, Viera has spent numerous days away from home in deployments at home and abroad. During 9/11, Viera was an eighth grade science teacher in New Jersey who was in the process of joining the military. Once the nation was hit by terrorism, Viera felt helpless that he was unable to help our people and he quickly pursued a career in the service. Always an upbeat military officer, Viera is proud of his training and combat experiences with his fellow service members who are devoted to live by the creed of this Rescue Wing, “These things we do, that others may live.”
John Fernandez was a talented student athlete that graduated from Rocky Point High School in 1996. “Spanish Lightning” went to the West Point Prep School for one year and moved onto graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York in 2001. As a young second lieutenant, he was completing training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when terrorism hit this nation on 9/11. For Fernandez, this was an extremely personal matter for this local officer, as he recalled watching the destruction of the Twin Towers, he immediately ascertained that our country was at war against Al-Qaeda.
By 2003, Fernandez entered Iraq with some of the first American forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This Shoreham resident is an upbeat father of six children that was severely wounded overseas and has the constant reminders of Second Gulf War. For many years, Fernandez worked for the Wounded Warriors where he had seen incredible acts of comradery between the city rescue workers and veterans. Years after 9/11, Fernandez observed these groups bond together through a special source of unity that was based in service. Fernandez explained that this “shared sacrifice” brought these proud Americans together that fought both on foreign battlefields and amongst the debris of Ground Zero.
Almost two decades ago, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) vividly remembers the dark moments of terrorism and its aftermath within the city. Recently Toulon recalled, “I was working for the New York City Department of Corrections as a captain assigned to the Firearms & Tactical Unit, and I remember my first thought was to secure and protect the range because the range had many millions of rounds of ammunition and thousands of firearms. As an EMT, I was then sent to respond to the scene like so many other first responders. Everyone who responded and volunteered at the site of the attack was hoping to save lives, and I was sent back to my post at DOCS because it quickly became obvious there were few survivors that day. I was able to contribute several years later in the helping to build a lasting memorial in Nesconset to all the heroes, the first responders, and all those that perished due to the 9/11 related illness. The 9/11 Responders Remembered Park was a labor of love for me and so many others who came together to recognize the sacrifices of all those who responded to Ground Zero.”
During the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” At the turn of this new century, America on a beautiful, sunny, late summer day was changed forever. It seemed like yesterday that airplanes were re-routed to Canada, national airports grounded all flights, harbors were closed, and there were numerous security inspection checks through bridges and tunnels. But Americans came together in a positive spirit to overcome the unknown, while these current times are complicated, our citizens, including those on the North Shore, do not have to look far to recall the way that all groups of people came together during after 9/11. As in any part of our long history, the citizens of the U.S. has always proven to be a resilient people, able to rise up and defeat all daunting obstacles in its way.
Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.