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With talk of heroes and calls for unity and remembrance, Ocoee marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Saturday, September 11, 2021


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

2,977 American flags dot the lawn of the Withers-Maguire House in Ocoee — one for each life lost on 9/11. The Camaraderie Foundation, which provides no-cost mental health counseling to post-9/11 veterans, service members and their families, provided the flags for the memorial.

The morning was cool as a handful of people, elected officials and police officers gathered on the lawn of Withers-Maguire House in downtown Ocoee to mark the day 20 years ago when al-Qaida terrorists took over four airliners. They took down the two World Trade Center towers, crashed a third into the Pentagon and drove a fourth into a field in Shanksville, Pa., claiming nearly 3,000 American lives in the process.

Starting the hour-long ceremony, the police and fire departments’ honor guards presented the colors, stepping crisply along the walkway lined with 2,977 miniature American flags — one for each life lost in the terrorist attacks. Officer Duane Hunt sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The lineup of speakers included Deputy Fire Chief Tom Smothers, who recalled that it was 9/11 that inspired him to become a firefighter. He spoke nostalgically of the unity and national pride that bound the country together as Americans after the attack, regardless of faith, race or economic background; he urged attendees to find that sense of unity and American pride again.

Police Chief Saima Plasencia spoke of the ordinary people whose extraordinary acts of courage on 9/11 made them heroes, like flight attendant Betty Ong on American Flight 11. Ong calmly described the hijackers and where they’d been seated to authorities as the plane was being hijacked, giving investigators invaluable information that led to them piecing together the plot.

It wasn’t hard to notice that apart from Chief Smothers and the fire rescue honor guard, other firefighters were largely absent from the city event. Firefighters have expressed low morale in the department, and their union is in protracted negotiations with the city over its contract.

Former New York City firefighter and 9/11 first responder Jimmy Brown gave a short keynote speech that leaned into faith, family and surviving 9/11-related mental health issues, but made some surprisingly political comments.

Mayor Rusty Johnson and Commissioner Larry B. Brinson Sr., a Marine who was stationed at the Pentagon on 9/11, also attended the event as did State Representative Kamia Brown and Melissa Myers who is campaigning for Brown’s seat as Brown makes a run for the State Senate.

After the event Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen, who represents District 2, said she was pleased with the turnout. “I’m proud so many people came out to remember.”

But Commissioner Richard Firstner, of District 3, worried that even now, just 20 years later, 9/11 is fading in importance. “Unfortunately for the children of today, it’s ancient history to them," he said. "Pearl Harbor occurred 10 years before I was born, and before I could realize what happened, it was just a page in the history book. It didn’t have the same impact on me as 9/11 did. That’s why the saying Never forget is so important. We swore that we would never forget. My main concern is that everybody in America never forgets what happened.”

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