By Tim Kelly
A visitor to Tuesday night’s Ocean City September 11 remembrance event expressed surprise at the large crowd in attendance at the Ocean City Tabernacle.
“You must be new around here,” said a firefighter standing nearby. “This is Ocean City. We don’t forget things like September 11.”
Indeed, Ocean City delivered a stirring event to remember the thousands of victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon building outside Washington, D.C., and on a hijacked plane in the skies above Pennsylvania.
Also remembered and prayed for were friends and family members of the victims, with special mention to the hundreds of police, fire and emergency management services personnel killed while trying to help others affected by the attacks.
Keynote speaker, the Rev. Stephen J. Connor of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, gave his reflections of that terrible day, as well as its aftermath.
He told of a day following the attacks when he was brought to a white tent outside the wreckage of what used to be the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
“I will never forget the smell of the smoldering fires,” he said. “And then a golf cart pulled up and a man jumped out and said, ‘Father, I have a shoe with a foot inside.”’
“As prepared as I thought I was, I was not. I was not prepared for something like that,” Connor recalled.
Connor said everyone else in the tent was looking at him and the other priest who was there with him. They did what priests do.
“We took out the holy water and said a prayer for the person and prayed for comfort for the person’s loved ones,” Connor said. “Then we turned the remains back over to the forensic people to do their jobs.”
Over the course of the next few days the ritual began anew, Connor said, with the arrival of more golf carts, more pieces of bodies, more prayers. But he never fully grasped the enormity of the tragedy, he noted.
He also attended to survivors.
“So many people would ask me, ‘Why am I alive?’ as they told me their stories of survival and loss,” Connor said. “One first responder said a group of four men began running when someone yelled that one of the towers was collapsing.
“Two of us went to the right, and two went to the left. Those who went to the left were killed. Why not me?” he continued.
Connor said “Why not me?” was a phrase he heard over and over during the course of working with survivors and family members of victims.
Connor also spoke of presiding over dozens of funerals, including those of friends and associates as well as complete strangers.
One of the funerals was for a flight attendant on one of the doomed airliners. The victim was not scheduled to work that day, but she stood in for a friend. The friend was inconsolable at the funeral, Connor said.
These memories still haunt Rev. Connor, 17 years after the actual events. However, he had strong words for the terrorists and other terrorist organizations that would perform similar acts against the United States.
“If we live in fear (the terrorists) win,” he said. “If we emphasize what divides us, they win. Or if we judge each other by what God we worship or what is the color of our skin or who we love, they win.”
In addition to Connor’s speech, several other inspiring and moving moments took place during the event.
James Smith, chief of the Ocean City Fire and Rescue Services, performed the “Striking of the Four Fives,” a bell signal used for generations of firefighters to indicate one or more of their number had been killed in the line of duty.
The presentation and retirement of the colors was done flawlessly by members of the Ocean City Boy Scouts Troop 32. Then, members of the Morvay-Miley American Legion Post 524 led the audience in the flag salute. The national anthem was sung by the Chorus of St. Augustine Prep School, as directed by Matt Wolf.
The invocation was given by Rev. John Jamieson, chaplain of the Ocean City Fire Department, and the benediction by Pastor Jay Reimer, CEO of the Ocean City Tabernacle.
Ocean City Police and Fire Department representatives laid a wreath at the front of the auditorium, which will eventually be placed at the 9/11 memorial statue in front of the Fire Department headquarters building.
Then, in performances that brought tears to the eyes of many, Jeff Tuthill played “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes and Julia Mary Wilson sang “God Bless America.”
“This is a noble and appropriate way to honor (the victims and their loved ones),” Pastor Reimer said.