Hundreds of people across the Bay Area -- including firefighters,
airline personnel and family members of victims -- paused today to honor
the thousands of people who died five years ago today in the terror attacks
of Sept. 11.
At dawn, 350 firefighters stood at attention across San Francisco,
honoring a moment of silence for their peers who died responding to the
attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
About six hours later, 100 people, mostly pilots and flight
attendants, gathered at San Francisco International Airport to remember the
crew members who died when terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them
into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
Among those who died was 45-year-old Betty Ong, a flight attendant out
of Andover, Mass. She was working on American Airlines Flight 11, en route
from Boston to Los Angeles, when hijackers took control and slammed into
the north tower of the World Trade Center, killing all 92 people onboard
Cathie Ong, Betty Ong's older sister who lives in Bakersfield,
delivered a moving narrative of how the death of her sister -- whom she
called her best friend -- has affected her life.
"Life has moved on for many people," she said. "For me, it feels like
it happened only yesterday. For me, there is no such thing as a first,
second, third, fourth or fifth remembrance. Every day is a remembrance. I
feel like I am stuck in a time capsule."
Cathie Ong thanked other flight attendants and pilots for resuming
their roles following the terror attacks.
"I'm very proud of all of you for continuing to put your uniforms on
and get on the big bad bird and for keeping all of us safe," she said.
Even five years later, the terror attacks resonate deeply with people
who lost their peers, said San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and
United Airlines flight attendant Heather Lauter-Clay -- regardless of
whether they knew them personally.
"Today is very important," said Lauter-Clay, who organized the SFO
ceremony and took five years off after 9/11 to help flight attendants and
crew work through the aftermath of the attacks. "Our grief is so immense.
We carry this every day. For better or worse, it's part of who we are now."
The tragedy also affects public safety employees, Hayes-White said.
"It still touches us very clearly -- I don't think a day goes by
that we put on our uniforms and we don't reflect on the people who lost
their lives on 9/11 and the public safety professionals who give their
lives every day," she said. "When we leave in the morning we never know how
the day is going to unfold. When we leave our families in the morning, we
hope we are coming back but we never know."
San Francisco firefighters stood in front of the city's 43 fire
stations this morning in their dark blue dress uniforms and read off the
names of the 343 New York firefighters who died that day.
The department hadn't read the names since the first anniversary of
9/11, and five years later, said Hayes-White, it was still a fitting
tribute for those who "gave the ultimate sacrifice."
At Fire Station 7 on 19th Street, 29 men and women -- including
Hayes-White and her command staff -- stood at attention at 6:55 a.m. The
station, one of the city's largest, was emptied of its engines and
ambulances for the ceremony, and the large red vehicles sat idle on the
street while Lt. Fred Calonico rang a fire bell 45 times, signifying the
fire code "555" three times.
"(Bells) used to be the only way we could communicate," explained Lt.
James Blake, who led the assembly. "Five-five-five meant there had been a
death in the department."
As some firefighters lowered their heads and others stared straight
forward, Blake lowered the station's flag to half-staff. One firefighter
wrapped his arm around another as she wiped tears from her eyes.
At 7:07 a.m., as the sky turned from gray to blue, the firefighters
began reading the names.
"This is a day to celebrate the people who chose safety as their
career," Hayes-White said later.
The quiet, early morning ceremony didn't attract much attention from
residents of the Mission District station, but one woman, Susan Morehead,
stood by a fire truck, dressed in a red shirt imprinted with the Fire
Department of New York emblem.
"I'm just a New Yorker, and I had a lot of firefighter friends and I
wanted to pay my respects," she said.
Hayes-White said she had been working at Fire Station 7 years ago when
news of the World Trade Center attacks was first reported.
"It brings back a lot of painful memories, but we look toward the
future with renewed vision and energy," she said. "I think it was a day
that changed all of us."