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Local Firefighters Declare 'We Will Never Forget' 9/11

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Colleen Reynolds
Retired Bloomington Fire Capt. Mark Esme leads a traditional firefighters toast at the Firefighters Memorial Ceremony on Saturday at Miller Park in Bloomington.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, another “Day of Infamy” 20 years ago that has left rivers of tears and two decades of sorrow, is being remembered with a variety of events. Many of them, such as the Firefighters Memorial Ceremony on Saturday at Miller Park, were solemn affairs.

Bloomington firefighters and the Honor Color Guard of American Legion Post 635 in Normal and Post 56 in Bloomington hosted the 9/11 remembrance ceremony near the Firefighters Memorial at the park on Bloomington's west side.

Keith Throop from American Legion Post 635 led with prayer for all those who lost their lives and their loved ones, and for today's first responders who put their lives on the line every day to keep communities safe.

Local pilots staged a flyover, flying north to south and then east to west. Throop explained they would be tipping their wings as a signal to follow them to heaven. After a flag-raising by local firefighters and the singing of the National Anthem, Bloomington Fire Chief Eric West stood behind a podium in front of the Firefighters Memorial bell
with an eagle perched on top.

West thanked people for bringing children to the Firefighters Memorial Ceremony.

“Because we can never forget (the 911 terrorist attacks) as long as we live, but if we don’t pass it onto the next generation and the next generation after that, I guarantee you, it will be forgotten,” he said, pointing out that anyone over 25 remembers where they were and what they were doing on that fateful day.

He recalled how the country was stunned by the horrific and heartbreaking images they were seeing, but West also witnessed what he called ”inspirational, heroic and selfless acts of the first responders and some others,” and recalled a renewal of unity and patriotism that immediately followed 9/11.

“There were no divisions among old and young, male and female, Black and white, Republican, Democrat, conservative Republican, or some other meaningless demographic that separated us. Instead, our goal was united — to persevere and defend our values and our way of life.”

Jerry Vogler of American Legion Post 635 introduced members of the Legion’s Honor Guard who, in honor of the 100th anniversary of its creation, simulated the walk of the sentry who guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

The tomb is dedicated to the deceased U.S. service members whose remains have not been identified.

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Retired Bloomington firefighter Jerry Troxel plays at the memorial service.

Other ceremonial rituals followed, including a trumpet tribute to the five military branches, military rites for the fallen, including presentation of folded flags to firefighters and police representatives, a three-round rifle volley, taps and retired Bloomington firefighter Roger Troxel’s bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace."

Troxel is a member of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois (AFFI) Honor Guard and, as a firefighter, went to New York City following 9/11. He and a group of 40 other firefighters from central Illinois attended four funerals of firefighters who died that day. They also visited with members of Engine Co. 21 near Ground Zero and went to Ground Zero, the remains of the World Trade Center, where most of the Sept. 11 victims perished after terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers.

During the trip on Nov. 5-7, 2001, Troxel witnessed coffins being escorted on fire trucks to the sound of mournful bagpipes wailing.

“It was just so moving to see the engine moving down the street, with the casket on it, and the pipes and drums were playing them down the street. I always cry and I thought, ‘Maybe if I’m 'playin, it’ll keep my mind busy.’” It took a while, but several years later, Troxel learned to play the bagpipes so he could become a part of the AFFI Honor Guard.

He said the firefighters he talked with were still in shock because the piles of rubble from the collapsed World Trade Center buildings were still burning and the reality of what happened still hadn’t set in.

“It was such a horrific thing and being there, and in the dust, and tasting the air, it was just horrific," said Troxel, who keeps a scrapbook that, includes stories from a Pekin Journal newspaper reporter who went on the bus trip with the firefighters.

Today, he can travel to any firehouse and feel welcome because there is such a strong brotherhood among the men and women who race toward the danger when others would retreat. “We look out for each other,” Troxel said.

Retired Bloomington Fire Capt. Mark Esme agreed.

After the official ceremony ended, Esme led his fellow firefighter comrades in a toast from a flask and declared to the 2,996 civilians, firefighters, Port Authority police officers, and EMS workers who perished, “We will never forget!”

Esme said the toast is a tradition from the Scottish, Irish and Welsh heritages. For years, those immigrants made up a bulk of the police and fire services in the country because they were considered lowly jobs. He said after battles were fought and won, soldiers would gather around a cairn, or pile of stones, to celebrate the victory and the loss of the fallen, and make a toast to them.

“We gather in the same way, usually at a funeral service and toast the person," he said. "It’s a private thing with the family of firefighters. We don’t even let in the family of the fallen.”

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