Commemorating the attacks on the World Trade Center 17 years ago this week, veterans, elected and school officials, scouts, civic leaders and family members gathered in Wantagh on Sunday to remember the 13 residents who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
An American Legion Post 1273 member somberly yet melodically played taps on a bugle as dozens stood silently, their heads bowed, their hands over their hearts as they faced the American flag.
“Once again, we must make it a priority to never forget or allow our fellow citizens to forget that horrible day,” post Commander George DiBetteto told the gathering. “Sept. 11, 2001 — the day that has changed our lives forever.”
Rain moved this year’s Patriot Day ceremony into the Legion Post’s hall, but it didn’t dampen the spirit of the day. One by one, elected officials representing Wantagh on the town, county and state levels offered their personal remembrances of that tragic day, of the response of the nation and its citizens and the lessons we must continue to carry from it.
“It’s a day where we saw the worst and best of humankind,” said State Sen. John Brooks, of Seaford. “A day that we must always remember. And for those not old enough to remember, we must ensure that they understand the events of that day — how our nation suffered a tremendous loss, and how we came together to build a stronger and better nation.”
County Legislator Steve Rhoads, a member of the Wantagh Fire Department, reminded the audience that the only knowledge today’s high school seniors and those who will come after them will have about that day is “what they study and what we tell them.”
“The most enduring lesson we can teach about 9/11 is that evil exists,” Rhoads said. “We live in a time of ‘moral relativism,’ where the lines between right and wrong, good and evil are too often blurred. We must never be afraid to recognize evil for what it is, call it by name and be willing to fight together as one against it. Patriot Day is our opportunity to … take the time to make sure that our kids and grandkids understand what happened that day, and why it’s important that we must be vigilant and united in defense of our values and way of life.”
Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen stressed how important it is to continue to share stories about where we were when the attacks occurred and how we were affected. She told the gathering that she was living in Manhattan and on her way to work when the north tower was struck. She said she went home and gathered on her terrace with neighbors, viewing the event like it was a movie.
“When you talk to someone else who was there, [you’re reminded that] it was a very real event for our nation that day,” Gillen said. “It’s important that we reach out to families who are suffering still, either with a loved one sickened from 9/11 pollution or ones who’d lost a loved one. They are still suffering. Their pain never goes away. Share a story with them about their loved one, let them know they aren’t forgotten.”
Some who attended the ceremony were infants on Sept 11, 2001. One of them was Matt Seaman, an Eagle Scout with Wantagh Scout Troop 656. “Events like this remind us that bad things can happen to this country,” he said afterward, “and how we have to be on the lookout and protect the best interests of the country.”
Troop 656 Scoutmaster Rob Treland said that attending and recognizing events like this one come naturally to Seaman and other scouts, because Scouting makes good citizens. “These are the type of young men who understand what it is to be a good citizen,” Treland said. “They’re patriotic. They love their country.”
Treland was a New York City firefighter with Brooklyn Ladder Co. 166 in September 2001. Though he wasn’t working that day, he said, every firefighter headed to the scene. He spent about six months at ground zero, he added, saying that he hopes people don’t forget.
“The most impressive thing I remember is how the country pulled together,” Treland said. “I remember how there was no road rage, people were letting drivers in front of them, being nicer to each other. It didn’t last long, though … I’m afraid that it’s going to be like Pearl Harbor, where it’s just [remembered] as a date. We’re seeing smaller and smaller turnouts.”
Representatives of various community groups who came to the American Legion presented wreaths. They included the Wantagh Chamber of Commerce; the district Board of Education; the Boy Scouts; the Wantagh-Seaford Homeowners Association; the Republican Club; the Daughters of the American Revolution; Ashley Bailey, Miss Wantagh 2018, and her Court; and the Wantagh Preservation Society.
DiBetteto closed the service by saying “We must remain strong as a nation, never drop our guard.”
The ceremony was also marked by a 21-gun salute by members of the American Legion Firing Squad. A Legion color guard opened and closed the service, and a member read aloud the names of the 13 Wantagh residents who perished in the attacks.
Two of them, Kevin Donnelly and Lee Fehling, were New York City firefighters and members of the Wantagh Fire Department. On Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, they were honored with street names. Lt. Kevin Donnelly Way and Lee Fehling Way are now the entrance and exit for Wantagh Fire District Station 6 on Jerusalem Avenue, which serves as a firefighters training center.