‘The blue skies turned to darkness on that day’

Newton. The community gathered at Sussex County Community to remember 9/11 on its 20th anniversary, to find meaning, and to teach a new generation about a day of unbearable tragedy, great unity, and tremendous heroism.

| 13 Sep 2021 | 01:49

Dr. Jon Connolly altered his opening remarks as he took the podium at Saturday’s 9/11 commemoration. During the Pledge of Allegiance led by local Scouts, he’d noticed something.

“In scripture, somewhere it is written that the voice of God will be heard,” said Connolly, who is the president of Sussex County Community College, where the ceremony was held. “Today is just like that Tuesday morning back in 2001. It’s completely calm, and the sky is blue. But during the Pledge of Allegiance just now, a curious wind came through and ruffled the American flag. Then it was gone.”

That momentary breeze was noticed by others too. It never returned during the ceremony, held at the college’s 9/11 Memorial.

Connolly then focused on another symbol, the Callery pear tree that became known as the Survivor Tree after living through the attacks at the World Trade Center. It was found severely damaged at Ground Zero in October 2001, its branches burned and broken and its roots snapped. But it was alive.

The tree was removed from the rubble and taken to a nursery in the Bronx. After its recovery, it was returned to the Memorial at Ground Zero in 2010. It grew new, vibrant limbs from its gnarled stump and thrived.

“We were lucky enough to get in touch with that nursery which had grown trees from the original one’s seedlings,” Connolly said. “It was planted next to our 911 Memorial here at the college and symbolizes how, despite the horrible attacks, America survived.”

The ceremony was a poignant remembrance of the terrorist attacks on their 20th anniversary. It began with audio from the morning of 9/11, including newscasters’ reports, schoolchildren talking about their teachers’ reactions that day, and the tolling of bells.

The Police Pipes and Drums of Morris County played a powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” starting with bagpipe music that rose to a crescendo with drums. Amelya Race, a student at High Point Regional High School in Wantage, sang the National Anthem to a completely silent, reverent crowd. All heads were bowed, all hands were on hearts. As she finished, right on cue, the New Jersey State Aviation Unit did a helicopter flyover.

Father Michael Rodak from St. Jude the Apostle Church in Hardyston delivered the invocation.

“Evil was brought down by those who hate, and the blue skies turned to darkness on that day,” he said. “But there is solace in the midst of sadness.”

The master of ceremonies, Warren Slahor, an officer with the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department, recapped the timeline of where and when the four planes were hijacked and when and where they struck:

● American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

● Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., the World Trade Center’s South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175.

● American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked at 9:37 a.m. and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.

● American Airlines Flight 93 flew in the direction of Washington, D.C., and was the only plane not to reach its intended target thanks to its heroic passengers, who attempted to regain control from the hijackers. The plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., at 10:03 a.m. Its intended target was purported to be either the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

‘Embrace every moment’

The keynote speaker, Jay Christy, the veterans services coordinator at Sussex County Community College, spoke about moments.

“That very specific Tuesday was a day like any other,” he said. “That morning, people took the train or bus into the city and hugged their loved ones as always. Death happened so fast that they never had a chance to understand the significance of those last moments.”

Christy had been in training when the attacks occurred and was told by his superior, “I can’t tell you exactly what happened but prepare to go to war.”

Then, as he got choked up from the lives lost, Christy addressed his children.

“Today, I get to do something none of those people we lost never got to do,” he said. “Ella and Hunter, never let a moment pass without knowing the value of it: don’t take for granted these brief periods of time.”

Then to the crowd he said, “Embrace every moment in the memory of those who perished.”

The address was followed by an awe-inspiring performance of “God Bless America” by retired Newton police officer Arthur Sibblies.

A wreath-laying followed with representatives from the police, fire, EMS, military, and civilian corps stepping forward to place their wreaths on the 9/11 Memorial. Newton VFW Post #5360 fired a 21-gun Salute. Bob Caggiano, a former member of the Air Force and a member of Bugles Across America, performed “Taps.”

Special thanks was given to Dave Manser, owner of New Image Landscaping, his son Daniel, and the others who volunteered their time to renovate the 9/11 Memorial at the college with new pavers and landscaping in time for the ceremony.

Members of the Ogdensburg VFW Post 10152 retired the flag. The Rev. Robert Griner, canon at Christ Episcopal Church in Newton, delivered the Benediction.

“And may God grant you grace to risk something great for something good,” he said.

Lesson for a new generation

Sheriff Mike Strada praised those who coordinated the event. “It was a great turn-out and an important way to remember what happened 20 years ago.”

“We were very honored to be a part of this,” said Bill Garrison, a leader of Cub Scout Pack 85. “It’s so important to keep this memory alive and share what happened with our children.”

The ceremony touched on the shock, sadness, anger, resolution to rebuild, and the desire for justice that surrounds 9/11. Vehicles from the fire department, police, sheriff’s office, and EMS circled the lawn. An atmosphere of somber remembrance and reflection filled the air.

The remembrance ceremony is an annual event organized by Sussex County PBA Local #138 and held on the college campus. The 9/11 Memorial and Survivor Tree are located at the top of the entrance hill, in the field to the right of the Performing Arts Building.

“And may God grant you grace to risk something great for something good.” The Rev. Robert Griner, Christ Episcopal Church