By MADDY VITALE
Walter Perez was a television reporter in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. What began as a typical day, heading out to cover a school strike on a beautiful, sunny day, turned into one of tragedy, terrorist attacks, and a monumental task of covering it.
Perez, a reporter with 6abc Action News, was the guest speaker during Ocean City’s “A Day to Remember” ceremony at the Ocean City Tabernacle.
In a heartfelt tribute to those lives lost, Perez, the lead reporter for his former station in New York during 9/11, told of how the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil affected him, what he saw and how he covered it.
Over the years, Perez was asked to speak about his experience during 9/11, but could not because emotionally it was too hard, he said.
Video courtesy of Just Right TV Productions
He recounted for the audience that when he got the call that a plane hit the World Trade Center, he and the photographer headed to the scene.
They thought it was a small plane that hit the Trade Center, but just south of Times Square they could see a big plume of smoke.
One of the towers was going down and Perez was reporting on it.
Just a couple blocks from the scene, he viewed something that 18 years later, is still hard to talk about.
“I started seeing things,” he explained to the crowd. “I started seeing people jumping. I was close enough to see the colors of their ties and dresses.”
For Perez, who left the New York news market, in part, he said, because of what he had seen during 9/11, the tragic day also showed unity.
“Police, fire, people came,” Perez said of the response. “It was the best of humanity and the worst of humanity at the same time.”
There were many times during the experience he did not know if they would survive.
“I was on the air when the North Tower dropped and my photographer and me just started running. Everything was going in slow motion,” Perez said.
Then Perez sat on a carless highway. He had to call his mother and his wife, Rita, who had just given birth to their first child two months earlier.
He was able to reach them, but only after many attempts because all of the phone lines were tied up.
When Perez made it back to the station he was met by applause and tears from co-workers. And for the next month or so he led the team on countless stories of heroism, survival, loss and love.
But above all, he told the captivated crowd, there was a sense of strength and resolve.
“For a little photograph in time, we were unified as a country,” he said.
His generation learned about the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Perez said he can now tell people about how he lived through 9/11 and saw things he wishes he could forget.
Throughout the ceremony other poignant words were spoken about remembering and strength.
Mayor Jay Gillian told the audience to remember to be kind to one another.
The country has learned from what happened, he said. No matter what political party or belief a person has, we all share a love of country.
The united America, as was evident especially in the months and years after the attacks, shows a forever changed country, he noted.
“Be kind,” Gillian said. “It’s so easy to be nasty and mean. We just need to be kind.”
He spoke of how he traveled with his family to New York to visit the 9/11 museum. He could not put into words what he felt because the magnitude of the loss affected him.
“To see how many people came out today. This is the unity we need,” he said.
The program also included the Striking of the Four Fives, a fire service tradition noting the death of a firefighter in the line of duty.
The audience was silent as Fire Chief James Smith walked up and performed the somber service of sounding the bell.
The Ocean City Boy Scouts Troop 32 presented the colors and led the flag salute.
And the National Anthem and God Bless the USA were performed by the St. Augustine Prep Men’s Chorus.
The invocation was performed by Reverend John Jamieson and the benediction was done by Pastor Jay Reimer, CEO of the Tabernacle.
Reimer put his arms around Police Chief Jay Prettyman and Fire Chief Smith in honor of their service and other emergency personnel and gave solemn words of remembrance of the lives lost in 9/11.
God Bless America was performed by Julia Mary Wilson
This year the program included a video of the Laying of the Wreath with the music Amazing Grace accompanied by Atlantic City Fire Department Sandpipers at the Veterans Memorial Park across the street from the Tabernacle.
Michael Hartman, director of special services and emcee for the event, called the memorial for the wreath a special place that people should visit.
“Know it is there,” Hartman said of the memorial. “And it is a special place.”