LOWER MAKEFIELD >> In the quiet embrace of the Garden of Reflection, hundreds gathered on Saturday to remember and reflect two decades after the events of Sept. 11, 2001 shook the nation.
During morning and evening ceremonies, family members joined friends and members of the clergy as they shared poetry and offered thoughts and words as they remembered the 2,977 lives taken 20 years ago in an act of terrorism.
“For all Bucks Countians this is indeed a scared time because we watched some of our residents go off that day and did not return,” said Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, speaking during the morning ceremony. “7,300 days ago we got up the same, but within a few short hours the world would turn upside down. Most of us can remember the feelings we had. Their was anxiety. There was abject fear. We were walking through a sense of shock together.
“But over and over again we were grounded in the recognition of what happen to us was minimal compared to all the people who lost someone that day. In the days and weeks that followed, those grieving families became our emotional leaders. We watched as they got up each day and put one foot in front of the other. It is from them that we learned we could do this. We have held those grieving families in our prayers, revered their strength and we learned that we could do anything because they did.”
The toll of a fire bell, rung by Yardley-Makefield Fire Police Officer Larry Schwalm, split the morning air marking the tragic, unspeakable events that unfolded that day - the planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the collapse of the World Trade Center and the crash of Flight 93 in a field in Western Pennsylvania.
The bell tolled again - one toll each for the 18 from Bucks County killed that day, their names read aloud by Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie during the morning ceremony and by Eric Stark, Michael Smerconish and Jim McCaffrey during the evening Remembrance in Light.
And it tolled again for the 2,977 lives taken that day and whose names are remembered on the etched glass panels embracing the twin fountains of the Garden.
One of the names etched in glass belongs to Joshua Reiss of Lower Makefield who was working on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center when tragedy struck. He was a 23-year-old bond trader working at Cantor Fitzgerald.
“It’s difficult to believe that 20 years have past since our lives were irrevocably changed forever,” said Joshua’s mother, Judi. “His last words to me were, ‘You know I love you guys.’ I laughed and said, ‘We love you, too.’ Then came the morning.
“As we all finally accepted in our heads that our loved ones were gone, we knew we needed to begin a new normal. Finally I made the decision to do what Josh would want and in his case, that meant revenge. But to me the best revenge is to live a good and purposeful life. No terrorist can defeat that. I ask you to go out each day and do one good purposeful thing because that is the American spirit.”
The evening ceremony bathed the garden in soft flickering candlelight as the community again came together for a Remembrance in Light ceremony, a 20th commemoration combining sight, sound and light.
The Rev. Doug Hoglund, pastor of the Woodside Presbyterian, opened the stirring and emotional evening by challenging the nation to come together in unity.
“Out of the fires of this day we heard amazing stories of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary, selfless, sacrificial acts - office workers, Pentagon personnel, airline passengers, flight attendants, police officers, firefighters, first responders. They suddenly found themselves on the front line and they stepped forward to answer the call.
“Often at the cost of their lives, they rescued, saved, comforted,” said Hoglund. “They did not care about the color of a person’s skin, the origin of their ancestry, the faith they professed. Let us follow their example.
“Despite our differences let us unite and work together,” he said. “From these heroes, let us take inspiration to be a nation where division and prejudice disappear, where all people are welcome and all lives matter, where the hungry are filled, the addicted recover, the unemployed find work, the homeless have a roof over their head and hopeless people come out of the shadows and into the light.
“Join me to honor our fallen heroes. Let us live the pledge that we make to our flag - one nation, under God, invisible with liberty and justice for all.”
USMCR Col Tom Armas, who was serving as a special agent with the US Secret Service two decades ago at its New York City office, was among the many who responded to the World Trade Center when the planes hit.
As the towers collapsed he evacuated civilians and saved lives without regard for his safety and was later honored by President George W. Bush for his valor. After 9-11, Armas joined the U.S. Marines and deployed around the world in the War On Terror, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We need to tell this story every year, every day so it does not happen again. We should come to places like this every year to honor the fallen and to re-pledge that we are not going to let this happen again.”
On 9-11 Armas was working out in the gym at 7 World Trade Center, the New York field office, when he heard a loud explosion. As the agents emptied the building and came outside they looked up at the towers. “You knew this was something more,” he said.
The agents, who are medically trained, set up a field location on West Street and immediately went to work. Armas went inside the North Tower working his way up to the 27th floor and then to the 44th. They worked their way back down to the mezzanine, helping to bring people out.
“And then all hell broke lose. You hear a trickle, then all the sudden the south tower collapsed into the mezzanine area and all went black. I grabbed people, they hung onto my belt and we found our way out. It was an absolutely horrific day.”
The attack inspired hundreds of people to serve their country, including Armas, who joined the Marines. “Everyone wanted to do their part," he said.
“When I think of the United States two words come to mind - optimism and resilience,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the future is going to be great. But we must be resilient and dogged in our chase because optimism without resilience is a daydream. You must work for it. You must support your hometowns. You must volunteer. Be a member of your community. Don’t be a bystander.
“We are the greatest nation in the world. We are optimistic. And we are resilient because I will tell you no matter where in the world, no matter what happens if we get hit, if we get pushed, me and a million of my friends will get on planes and boats and go anywhere, anytime to defend this great nation,” he said. “I know our police officers and our firefighters will do the same. Anytime, any place, anywhere, we will go. No questions asked. We will serve this great nation.”
To commemorate the events of 9-11, seven torches were lit along the garden pathway, each representing a pivotal moment from Sept. 11th, and a wreath was laid honoring all the lives lost on that fatal day, including those who died from disease from working recovery and cleanup at Ground Zero.
As the song, “Mansions of the Lord,” filled the air, the torches were lit by pilots, members of the military and first responders, including Yardley Borough Police Chief Joseph Kelly and Yardley-Makefield Fire Company President Larry Newman.
Retired FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney was on duty at the FAA on 9-11 when he ordered a ground stop of flights around the nation and shut down U.S. air space, undoubtedly saving thousands of lives.
“On that day at the command center, I watched United 175 make a sweeping left turn and crash into the south tower, a shocking moment that elicited a gasp from everyone in the room," said Sliney. "And that was the catalyst that turned my thinking from hijacking to terrorism. And that was the instance that I ordered a national ground stop.”
There were 5,000 aircraft in the air at the time.
Sliney said wherever he thinks of 9-11 he sees the sight of the towers crashing in on themselves and the billowing clouds of smoke and debris that enveloped Lower Manhattan. “It was apocalyptic,” he said.
Then there are the images of the brave first responders who raced to the scene and were later combing through the wreckage of the devastation looking for survivors.
“9-11 also evokes for me pride in that all Americans came together after that uniting in a common mission to rise from the ashes, to rebuild and to hold responsible those who had brought that terror upon us. I say that mission has been accomplished as has been the mission of this garden, which is to honor the lives and the legacy of those that were lost and to pay tribute to those whose heroic actions inspired us all.
“A generation has past and I believe our mission now and I believe our duty is to teach the new generation the lessons and the history of 9-11 and to set them on the path to teach successive generations and I’m confident that we will fulfill this mission,” said Sliney.
Following reflections by Monsignor Michael Picard from St. Andrews Church in Newtown, a fire bell tolled 18 times as Eric Stark, Michael Smerconish and Jim McCaffrey read the names of the 18 Bucks Countians who died on 9-11.
McCaffrey also paused to remember Grace Godshalk and former Bucks County Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick with a moment of silence.
Grace was the mother of William Godshalk who was killed at the World Trade Center. She served for 35 years as a Lower Makefield Supervisor and was instrumental in securing the site for the garden memorial.
Fitzpatrick, who served in Congress for 12 years, helped secure federal funding for the completion of the garden.
A stirring performance of "Hallelujah" filled the night air as Matthew Schuler, who appeared on Season Five of the Voice, performed his signature song. Following his performance, Pastor Mukeesh Cheedie from Redeemer Lutheran Church in Penndel delivered words of faith and inspiration.
As the Council Rock High School South Vocal Ensemble sang, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” the twin fountains of the garden rose heavenward in an emotional and dramatic moment and a tribute to the souls lost on that tragic day 20 years ago.
Candles flickered like a thousand fireflies as the gathering took a Remembrance Walk into the garden where many paused, said a prayer and placed red carnations next to the name of the husbands, wives, sons, daughters and friends who never came home.