Just as we must never forget Canadian Veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice in war, we must never forget those first responders who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City.
That was the clear message from Graham Gowe, a captain with the Penticton Fire Department and Penticton Fire Chief Larry Watkinson during a special ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park Tuesday morning.
A group of 20 members of the Penticton Fire Department were joined by roughly 20 members of the BC Wildfire Service for the memorial ceremony marking the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers at the World Trade Centre.
“We are here to pay our respects and not forget 17 years ago on Sept. 11, the catastrophe of the twin towers in New York,” said Watkinson, who has been Penticton’s Fire Chief for the past three years.
Gowe, who has been a full-time firefighter since 1988 after serving seven years as a volunteer, gave a heartfelt speech honouring all those who died that day and the thousands who have died since due to health complications all these years later.
Gowe has organized the Sept. 11 memorial service in Penticton for the past several years.
“On this 17th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, we come together to pause and remember those who lost their lives and pay tribute to those rescue workers who put their lives on the line that day and every day,” said Gowe solemnly. “It’s hard to believe 17 years ago a series of co-ordinated terror attacks were carried out on the United States.
“Over 3,000 lives were lost, with more than 6,000 injured and it’s estimated that some 18,000 people have developed fatal and debilitating illnesses as a result of the exposure to the toxins and debris that were spread over lower Manhattan.”
A total of 411 emergency workers, including 343 New York City firefighters, who responded that day died as they attempted to rescue people and fight fires, he said.
“Seventeen years later, we continue to lose more and more first responders due to related illnesses and diseases,” he said. “They say some 2,000 firefighters have died to date due to the related illnesses and diseases and that death toll eventually will surpass the number who were killed that day of the attack.”
Sept. 11, 2001 will be forever associated with the bravery and sacrifice of first responders, he said.
“Images of ordinary people choosing duty in the face of death will forever be etched in our memories,” he said.
Nearly every adult who lived through the horrors of that day remembers with great clarity what he or she was doing and it will remain the defining moment of their lives, he said.
The images of burning building, twisted wreckage and knowledge so many had been killed and injured will never be forgotten by those old enough to remember, he said.
“Yet, in spite of the enormity of that event, time has a tendency to erase memory as the future runs away from the past,” he said.
The passage of time has dulled those memories, but ceremonies like this must be held to honour all those who died and were injured and ensure they will never be forgotten, he said.
“The terrible events of 9/11 are starting to fade in memory and are rarely talked about … 9/11 is moving to history books, even though it remains fresh in the minds and hearts of everyone who lived through it, especially those who lost loved ones,” he said.
No words or gestures will ever erase the pain and memories of that day, said Gowe.
“It is a historical marker forever engraved in our hearts and minds,” he said.
For all old enough to remember, the phrase “9/11” will evoke pain, anger and sadness for as long as we live, he said.
“The world as we knew it changed forever,” he said.
In the past few months alone, there have been several tragedies in Canada where police officers and firefighters have been killed in the line of duty, he said.
More than 850 law enforcement personnel have been killed in the line of duty in Canada since 1867 and more than 1,300 firefighting personnel have been killed on duty since the first recorded fatality in 1848, he said.
There have been 165 wild land fire service personnel killed in the last 70 years and 11 BC Ambulance personnel killed on the job over the past 30 years, he said.
The men and women with the BC Wildfire Service deserve recognition for battling some of the worst wildfires in the province’s history the past two years, he said.
“Between the weather, the flames, and B.C.’s mountainous terrain, fighting these fires is exhausting and hot work,” he said. “Not only are our firefighters fatigued from the long days and tours, it takes a toll on them emotionally and physically. Thank you for everything that you do.”
Firefighters today are confronted with a more dangerous work environment than ever before, but the goal remains to save lives and protect property “sometimes at a terrible cost,” he said.
Major Tim Leslie from the Penticton Salvation Army and the chaplain for members with the Penticton Fire Department gave a brief prayer before adding how important it was to hold ceremonies like this for all those who risked and lost their lives on that horrible day 17 years ago.
“We pause to honour the memory of those who gave their lives in the service of humanity in New York City on 9/11,” he said. “Those first responders knowing the danger before them, stepped into the peril in order to help others escape.
“We honour their courage and commitment to the people they served.”