Tears gently rolled down cheeks in the standing-room-only assembly.
Among them was the Survivor Tree, a seedling from Ground Zero planted as a living reminder of resilience, survival, and rebirth through community strength.
The Stanhope community came together in Lake Musconetcong Park on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to remember that fateful day 20 years ago.
Councilwoman and co-chair Diana Kuncken welcomed attendees and led them to remember all those lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa.
“The day that changed our lives forever,” she said.
As a community, Kuncken said, they especially remembered Joseph Vilardo of Stanhope, who died at age 42 while working on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center when a hijacked jetliner hit the building Sept. 11.
The assembly was honored to have the Vilardo family present with them that day, she said.
Stanhope Mayor Patricia Zdichocki recognized the many honored guests, survivors, and government officials in attendance, including the American Legion Post 278 and American Legion Ladies’ Auxiliary.
“We never forget that nearly 3,000 lives were taken from us 20 years ago today,” she said. “Family and friends are still affected by the events of that day.”
She continued, “We do not give into fear. People spent their final moments helping others. They gave their lives so that others could live. First responders and citizens risked their lives to help others. We honor the courage of those who put themselves in harms way to save people they didn’t even know.”
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) spent almost 10 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy. She said 749 New Jersey residents died on that day, with more than 90 in her district.
“We gather here today to fulfill our commitment to never forget,” she said. “We all remember where we were that day. The absolute horror that took place.”
But, she said, “There is a different side — coming together as a country. The patriotism. The unity. The compassion shown that day. 9/11 represented the best of who we are as Americans when we are under attack.”
Zdichocki said Stanhope received a portion of the steel beam recovered from the towers as a reminder of the lives lost in the attacks and the rescue workers and volunteers, who worked for countless hours and long days in the hope of finding someone still alive in the rubble.
Sherrill and Zdichocki presented a 9/11 memorial wreath to Stanhope Police Chief Steven Pittigher, Stanhope Fire Chief Mike Donahue, and Ambulance Squad Captain Derek Kuncken, who placed the wreath on the 9/11 memorial dedicated to Vilardo.
They then continued to the Survivor Tree. Zdichocki explained that following the attacks, a severely damaged tree was discovered at Ground Zero with snapped roots and burned and broken branches.
After years of care, she said, the Survivor Tree recovered and gave rise to the sapling donated by the Survivor Tree Seedling Program. This tree, she said, is dedicated to those who were lost, the courageous first responders, and survivors. They then unveiled the plaque at the base of the tree.
The ceremony concluded with the American Legion Post 278 playing taps, Catherine Barry leading attendees in singing “God Bless America,” and bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.”
“It is really important that we come together every year to really remember the sacrifices of 9-11, but also how it created such unity in this country,” said Sherrill. “That’s something we need to take away from that time. And as we bring Afghanistan to a close, and as we recover from the pandemic, and some of the horrible flooding we’ve had throughout the region, how important it is that we all come together to handle these challenges as Americans.”
Co-chair Tammy Araujo said it was a great honor for Stanhope to receive a sapling of the Survivor Tree. That day, she said, they remembered all who were lost.
She, too, remembered Joseph Vilardo and noted the presence of his family. Also, she said, it was good for the community to come together in a time like this, with an overflowing crowd. She said it showed the community’s strength.
Mayor Zdichocki said she was honored to have Sherrill help in unveiling the tree. She also expressed her appreciation to the many attendees.
“I am very, very happy to do this,” she said. “We have a great town. It may be small, but it has a very large heart.”