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New Sept. 11 memorial unveiled in Palm Harbor during solemn ceremony

PALM HARBOR

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Anamaria Morales looked for her boy.

"He was my savior kind of son," she said. "You know, the one that really takes care of you."

At Palm Harbor's new Sept. 11, 2001, memorial Thursday morning, she found his name raised in gold on the granite wall. Emergency Medical Services Lt. Ricardo J. Quinn died 11 years ago, among 343 New York firefighters responding to the infamous terrorist attacks.

Morales, 75, of Dunedin, reached up and ran her fingertips across the letters.

"I don't have to go to New York. His name is right here," she said. "I can come whenever I want to."

Behind her, a 6-foot-long, 150-pound twisted steel beam from the World Trade Center hung between twin pillars of Georgia granite, above a reflecting pool and eternal flame.

It's hard to spot, but when the steel arrived last year from New York, a dusty footprint remained on the beam.

About 1,000 people flocked to Curlew Hills Memory Gardens for Tuesday's remembrance ceremony and dedication of the new memorial. Curlew Hills collaborated with Ozona Elementary School and Palm Harbor Fire Rescue to build the privately funded memorial on the cemetery grounds off Curlew Road.

The Palm Harbor event was just one honoring those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. In Clearwater, all the city's firefighters lined up outside fire stations, the lights on their trucks flashing, and stood at attention just before 10 a.m. Tuesday. Outside a Clearwater real estate agency, employees waved flags at passing cars.

While marking the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attack, those who attended the Palm Harbor ceremony swapped stories of where they were when it happened, who they knew who died, and who they heard had been saved by running late for work that day.

The fear that once gripped them has in part subsided, leaving room for pride and remembrance to rise. But as the years pass, people say they are trying to defy a new fear: that people will forget.

"I cried just as hard 11 years later as I did that day," said Tracey Nelson, 43, of Palm Harbor, while her husband searched the memorial for the name of a firefighter who was once their daughter's basketball coach.

At the podium, Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Chief James Angle paused. He remembered a Brooklyn firefighter who often dropped by his former station in Fort Myers. The man always brought pastries. They talked about graduate school. They wrote a book together.

Then 11 years ago, their worlds changed.

"The important thing to me," Angle said, "is that he's still here. And every Sept. 11, I call him on the phone —"

He choked out the last words and turned to grab his friend, New York Fire Battalion Chief Michael Gala Jr., in a fierce hug.

"With each year that passes, it doesn't get any easier or harder for me," Gala said, "because it feels like yesterday. And then I realize it's been 11 years."

In his thick New York accent of dropped R's and drawn-out A's, Gala urged the refrain of "never forget." He repeated it to remember and be inspired by the first responders who died.

"With this memorial," he said, "the people of Palm Harbor are saying they too will never forget."

After his speech, Gala stood while the flag was raised, then lowered to half-staff behind the memorial. Bagpipes played and bells tolled. Kids too young to have lived through what he did sang that they were "proud to be an American" while adults around them mouthed the same words.

He knows it's the same routine nearly every year since that day. But in a moment to himself, Gala still ducked his head, wiping his nose once, twice, before looking up again.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Curlew Hills Memory Gardens is located at 1750 Curlew Road in Palm Harbor.

New Sept. 11 memorial unveiled in Palm Harbor during solemn ceremony 09/11/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 9:24pm]
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