Sept. 11, 2001 was the shock.
Sept, 12, 2001 was the start of the realization that our lives, our country and our world would be forever different. Over the coming weeks, 15 years ago, we would discover just how different our world would be.
Anthrax came to Boca Raton when a man died opening a letter.
We discovered that at least seven and possibly nine of the 19 terrorists were living in Delray Beach. Another three were living in Boynton.
They were at our library. They lived in the Hamlet, went to a local gym, were seen poolside at Laver’s and filled a prescription for cipro at Huber’s Drugs. One of our officers, Tom Quinlan, responded to a call about a dog bite and later learned that the bite victim was ringleader Mohammed Atta.
I worked in a building a few yards from the AMI headquarters in Boca at the time of the anthrax scare which came a week after the attacks. Bob Stevens, who worked for the National Enquirer, was the first victim of anthrax when he opened a letter containing deadly spores.
It was a surreal scene. Nobody wanted open their mail.
At the time, our Fire Chief Kerry Koen had encouraged city commissioners to ride on fire trucks and hand out treats to children on Halloween. The year before the event was a smashing success. Children throughout Delray Beach were excited to see the big red engines.
But in 2001, the event was a little different and as soon as it got dark, the department started getting calls from people who thought the sugar that spilled from lanterns holding candy was anthrax and the same engines that elicited cheers and laughter were now called to investigate whether there was a deadly toxin in our city.
But Delray Beach was a strong community back then. You don’t really know that until you’re tested.
A few months prior, the city had won a second all America city award becoming the first city in Florida to do so.
At that time, the civic fabric was strong and there was unity. And Delray had a knack for turning challenges into opportunities. The City had confidence. There was just a feeling that whatever was thrown our way, collectively we would figure it out.
Dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 was a huge challenge. But we had a great mayor at the time, David Schmidt. He was an attorney, soft spoken, polite and professional. But he was also resolute, very smart and exhibited strength in a way that was calming. I sat next to him on the dais and I liked him. But watching him closely– seeing how he handled different situations –turned me into an admirer. David handled adversity with dignity and strength. We were blessed to have him as our mayor during that trying time.
As a community we gathered at Old School Square and at the Community Center to pray and to mourn and to just be together with our neighbors. We sent some personnel to ground zero including Russ Accardi a high ranking member of our fire department.
It was in these difficult moments that we found strength in each other. And that is community. It’s heart. It’s love. It’s caring and I think –because we are Americans –it’s also about taking action–doing something to make things better.
And so Skip Brown, a police officer, and himself a wounded Vietnam veteran, formed the nation’s first Homefront Security volunteer program.
At the time, we had well over 1,000 active volunteers at our police department. Many more at our Fire Department too. From this pool of dedicated citizens, largely retirees, Skip formed a special unit and tasked them with patrolling our public assets: water plant, sewer plant, city hall, library, parks, Old School Square Etc.
They wore sharp uniforms that included a beret. They looked amazing. Many –maybe most –were veterans, many were World War II veterans–well into their 70s but very much representative of the “greatest generation.”
They really were different.
Selfless. Tough but kind. Service oriented. Resilient. Wired to give back, to serve and protect, as our Police and firefighters are.
We took great comfort in seeing these men and women around town. They were trained to report suspicious items and their presence lifted our spirits when we needed them lifted.
I lost a childhood friend on Sept. 11. His name was Michael Boyle and he was a firefighter, like his dad. He was off that day campaigning with his best friend for a city council candidate. But when they heard the call, they heeded it and rushed to the scene to be with their brothers and sisters. Mike was never seen again. He was 37 years old.
Last year, my wife and I went to the new 9/11 museum. Since opening in 2014, 7 million have visited. More than 28 million people have visited the memorial in downtown Manhattan. We found Michael’s name along a reflecting pond. One of 343 firefighters lost that day.
This weekend as we marked the 15th anniversary of the attack, I read a bunch of articles and saw a great documentary on Flight 93 on PBS. In two of the stories I read, one about Marisa Di Nardo, the other about Welles Crowther, a 24 year old who lost his life going back up the stairs to bring others back to safety there were parts of the story that noted that both had premonitions, Marisa about her death and Welles that he would be part of “something big.” And I wondered if my childhood friend Michael experienced something similar. I’m not sure we will ever know. Or if it really matters, or maybe it matters a lot. Maybe we are supposed to listen to that inner voice or feelings.
There’s a sculpture inside our main fire station on West Atlantic that honors the 343 firefighters lost that day. It was dedicated in the wake of the tragic day. Last week, on Facebook, my friend Skip now retired in Alabama, posted pictures of his Homefront volunteers. Some are gone now. But I remember them and so do others. They comforted a community that needed to be comforted. President Bush, Governor Bush, Mayor Guiliani and others acknowledged their work with visits and words of praise. Media from all over the world covered their service. And that’s all great stuff. But the larger message is one of community. One of love, service, commitment and courage; about rising to the occasion when the rain comes.
We find ways to cope, both individually and as a community when tragedy strikes. We find solace in family, friends, religion, country and community. And that’s what I’m reflecting on this 15th anniversary.