Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

At stop in Tampa, Sept. 11 memorial teaches to 'never forget'

TAMPA — The phrase "never forget" is inextricably linked with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

But as time passes, more and more children grow up without learning about those events a dozen years ago, said John Hodge, operations director for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

To educate children and preserve the memory of New York City firefighter Stephen Siller, Hodge and Siller's brother, Frank, created the "9/11 Never Forget" mobile exhibit. The public can tour it during a stop in Tampa.

The exhibit unfolds to 1,000 square feet and gives a detailed look at what happened that day, in part telling the story of Stephen Siller, who although off-duty at the time, ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel carrying 65 pounds of gear to the World Trade Center towers, where he died.

The exhibit includes pieces of steel and aluminum from the site, as well as an audio recording of the last known transmission between rescuers shortly before the south tower collapsed.

It debuted on Sept. 11, 2013, outside Fort Bragg, N.C., where Hodge saw firsthand what limited knowledge some children have of the attacks.

"Many of these kids had no idea why they had a parent off fighting a war," Hodge said.

The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation also sponsors a run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and hopes to bring a similar run to Tampa. Proceeds of the run go toward building smart homes for injured military veterans returning from war.

Marine Sgt. Mike Nicholson of Tampa moved into one of those homes in January after he lost three limbs to an explosion while on patrol in Afghanistan.

"You see these images and you hear these stories and it's humbling," Nicholson, 24, said. "Everyone calls the guys in the military the heroes, but these guys are the real heroes. These guys went into a burning building and dropped everything to go help these people. … I went through hell in Afghanistan, but nothing like that."

Tours of the exhibit are given by New York firefighters with first-person experiences from that day.

Retired Battalion Commander Jack Oehm gave tours Wednesday to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Fire Chief Tom Forward and others.

Pausing in front of a picture of a 12-story heap of rubble, Oehm recalled how he and other firefighters passed buckets of debris down the massive pile, slow digging in search of survivors.

"We knew the chances of finding anyone were slim, but we had to have hope," Oehm said.

While Oehm finds it rewarding to share such stories, it also wears on him. He tries to avoid watching the monitor that shows news clips from that day, including the second jetliner crashing into the towers. Oehm's battalion lost 20 firefighters.

"It's emotionally draining, and I do tear up," he said.

The exhibit includes a history of the World Trade Center before going into a timeline of what happened on Sept. 11 and the aftermath.

"We want kids to know that there are people that walk the face of this earth that were really true American heroes," Hodge said. "By the time they leave here if they know nothing else, they will know that about the emergency service workers who responded that day and those are protecting and serving us overseas."

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