Public safety personnel from across Clayton County will come together Sunday at 6 p.m., for a memorial ceremony to observe the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that both shocked, and changed, America.
The ceremony will feature honor guards from all over the county that will post colors, and guard an artifact from the World Trade Center that was delivered, in April, to Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services. The 5-foot piece of twisted steel is to be a part of a public display at the county’s fire training facility.
Clayton County Police Deputy Chief Tim Robinson said he is honored to participate Sunday, because the event shows the solidarity between public safety and the community. "The attacks on 9/11 were a national tragedy, and changed forever the way we view the world in general, and specifically public safety," he said. "It brought us together as a nation."
As the two hijacked planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, hundreds of rescue personnel did what they are trained to do –– rush into burning buildings to render aid and help victims to safety. Not all of them made it out. The official count shows that of the 2,819 killed in that attack, 23 were police officers, 37 were Port Authority officers and 343 were firefighters and paramedics.
Two other terror attacks using hijacked commercial airplanes were made that day. One plane hit the Pentagon, killing 184 people. The other crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa., killing 40.
Clayton County Fire Chief Jeff Hood, who coordinated the local ceremony with other public safety department heads, said rescue agencies have come to benefit from lessons learned that day. Public safety agencies have come together to establish an open line of communication for a better working relationship, he said.
"On 9/11, I was in a new position with the fire department, as deputy chief of operations, and after that day, the way that the fire department responded to emergencies and mitigated incidents changed," said Hood.
Clayton County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Garland Watkins will also attend Sunday's ceremony. He said he remembers well the phone call he got from his sister that Tuesday morning, telling him to turn on the television. "I could see everything beginning to unfold, the second jetliner flying into the second tower," he said. "Immediately, we in law enforcement started getting calls to come back to work."
Like most Americans, Robinson said he will never forget the rush of emotions once he realized what had actually happened. "I remember watching the television and thinking maybe the first plane hitting the tower could be an accident," he said. "With the second one, I realized it was not an accident. I was saddened and overwhelmed at how large the incident was and how many died, especially in public safety. It's hard to replace that many years of service."
Robinson also remembers the atmosphere as tense and anxious. Rumors swirled about other potential targets and all methods of public transportation, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, raised the level of security.
"At that time, and for about a month after, we immediately provided 24/7 security at the airport," said Robinson. "We didn't know what might happen next. Everyone was on heightened alert."
Watkins also remembers officers creating a perimeter around the airport and checking every single person, because "the airport must be protected and defended at all costs."
The attacks and resulting deaths of so many public safety officers also helped public safety agencies better understand their public role. "The events of 9/11 really make us in law enforcement understand our role in protecting the community," said Watkins. "In years past, we'd come to work and try to be proactive, but were mostly reactive to events. Now we understand the role we play in critical incidents. Law enforcement and public safety officers put their lives above all others."
Since 9/11, law enforcement officers have started to see how something as simple as a car abandoned at the side of the road could pose a danger to the public. Ordinary objects are no longer taken for granted as being safe. "Normally, we'd see a car left on the street, flag it to let the owner know they need to move it," said Watkins. "Now, we really check out stuff like that thoroughly ... The public should set aside their personal offenses when they have to wait in a line for security, or have their belongings checked. It's all about the preservation of life."
Representatives from all local agencies are expected to attend the event at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro. Guest speakers will be Gary Kelley, deputy director of Homeland Security-Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Fister, whose last assignment was commander of Air Force special operations.
Kelley is no stranger to Clayton County. He was first a police officer with the county department. Kelley then spent 18 years in the District Attorney's Office. In 2004, he was assigned to law enforcement security details for the G8 Summit in Sea Island, and in 1996, the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Fister is a retired three-star general. Since leaving active duty 15 years ago, he has served as National Director of the Officers Christian Fellowship in Colorado. He lives in Florida with his wife, Melissa.
The ceremony will also include a choir of combined church groups from around the county.