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At 9/11 memorial service, a plea for a return to unity

Speakers focused on the unity, strength and resolve demonstrated by Americans on Sept. 12, 2001.
From left: Seaman John Stevenson, BM3 Nicholas Jennings, Seaman Barrett Yarbrough and MK2 James Heck with the U.S. Coast Guard, stand together during a remembrance event on the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, at Tropicana Field on Friday.
From left: Seaman John Stevenson, BM3 Nicholas Jennings, Seaman Barrett Yarbrough and MK2 James Heck with the U.S. Coast Guard, stand together during a remembrance event on the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, at Tropicana Field on Friday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 11, 2020
Updated Sep. 11, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — In front of a massive American flag suspended by two fire trucks in honor of the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the morning on everyone’s mind was Sept. 12.

In shock and fear, reeling from the loss of thousands of lives, Americans came together that morning in unity, said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Chief Jim Large. It reminded him of a firehouse the moment the bell rings, when firefighters spring into action as a team toward a common goal.

The attacks, when hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington D.C., and in a field outside Shanksville, Pa., were “our nation’s bell, and we responded as one,” said Large, who spoke in front of the suspended flag in the Tropicana Field parking lot Friday morning, one of several speakers in a Sept. 11 Patriot Day ceremony.

“Today, only 19 short years later, I suggest that there are those who have forgotten,” Large said.

The ceremony, to honor the service, sacrifice and memories of the 2,977 people killed that day, poked at the tender spots of the American moment, otherwise consumed with battling a pandemic and wrestling with historic and ongoing racial injustice, and contending with a divisive election that has polarized Americans.

It was, after all, a public gathering, one of the first in St. Petersburg since the COVID-19 outbreak hit Florida. There were several announcements for attendees to spread out in the vast parking lot and to wear a mask, as required on Tropicana Field property.

“We could sure use some of the unity and resolve that Americans summoned following 9/11 as we work to end this global pandemic,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman. “Both challenges show that we shine brightest when we put aside our differences and we work together.”

The event, while not overtly political, was, by nature, a rallying cry in support of first responders. That includes police officers, many of whom lost their lives 19 years ago running toward danger, and who have recently been the subject of intense scrutiny over their policing of Black communities.

The service, organized by local nonprofit Remember, Honor, Support, drew upwards of 100 people, including public officials, first responders, veterans, bikers and a troupe of drill team Santa Clauses, who led an educational exercise on the Pledge of Allegiance. It was one of several 9/11 remembrances across the Tampa Bay area on Friday.

Greg Mertz, a retired special agent in charge of the Tampa field office of the U.S. Secret Service, recalled visiting the Sarasota classroom with then-President George W. Bush on the morning of Sept. 11 and seeing the second jet hit the trade center’s south tower on live television.

He, too, lamented the present state of affairs.

“Nineteen years ago, we had a common cause and a common goal,” he said from behind the lectern. Now, we have politically divisive rhetoric, he said. We have a biased news media. “We have people burning our cities and calling themselves peaceful protesters."

While Mertz watched on television as the second plane collided with the south tower, Anthony Mauro saw it from below, he recalled to the Tampa Bay Times. He had been in the south tower working on the observation deck when the north tower was struck and how he peered into the wreckage. He and his colleagues left, the descent taking 15 minutes. The south tower was struck minutes later.

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“That’s why I’m here,” Mauro said.

The ceremony included moments of silence at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m., the moments the two World Trade Center tower were struck, then ended with a playing of Taps.