As hundreds gathered in Jonesboro, Sunday, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, thoughts turned closer to home and the men and women who risk their lives every day to protect lives and property in Clayton County.
The ceremony was held at First Baptist Church, where public safety officials came together recently to honor the life of slain sheriff's deputy Rick Daly. Daly, 55, was killed by gunfire in the line of duty, when he was shot during a July 20 traffic stop.
Gary Kelley, who worked 18 years as an investigator in the Clayton County District Attorney's Office before being named deputy director of Homeland Security/Georgia Emergency Management Agency, was one of three guest speakers Sunday.
"We find hope in heroes," said Kelley. "We celebrated the life of Rick Daly in this very church. He was willing to sacrifice his life for you and me. He was not just a number, but a husband, father, son, brother and friend. Why do heroes do what they do? Out of love for their fellow man and for the greater good."
The ceremony was organized by Clayton County fire Chief Jeff Hood, who reiterated the 9/11 motto, "Never Forget," as he recalled lives lost in the two World Trade Center towers.
"We will never forget the sacrifices made that day," said Hood. "We will never forget the first responders who rushed into those buildings, never to be seen again. We commit ourselves to your safety and freedom and protecting the God-given right to every man, woman, boy and girl to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Hood sat with other Clayton County chiefs and public safety leaders and their families during the somber ceremony. The church choir led the group in resounding renditions of several hymns and patriotic songs, including "America, The Beautiful," and "Amazing Grace."
After Hood addressed the assembly, Dave Wilkinson, a former agent with the U.S. Secret Service, shared his memories of that day as he and others protected President Bush. Wilkinson is now president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation.
"We went for a jog, and then to an elementary school for the first event of the day," said Wilkinson. "When we pulled into the school, we got word of the first plane hitting the first tower. Like everyone else, we thought that was an accident."
The second plane hit the second tower after Bush and the agents entered the Sarasota, Fla., school. Years of security training immediately kicked in, he said.
"Never did we think we'd ever have an event of that magnitude," he said. "I am proud of everyone who provided assistance that day. When we were told Flight 93 was heading to the White House, all the security teams were in place, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to the United States."
Ten years later, Wilkinson said the experience taught him several things. "We're resilient people; we will never bow to terrorism and we can never be too prepared," he said. "Obviously, we will never forget 9/11 and the heroes of 9/11. But we should never take for granted our heroes, locally, the first responders who go out every day to keep us safe."
Retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Fister was the last speaker. "I got the news driving to work 10 years ago," said Fister. "I remember being dumfounded, unable to grasp the situation at the time. I understand the anger and frustration felt that day, it was a dark hour."
Although Fister said Americans are safer today than they were 10 years ago, It would be a mistake to think the worse is over.
"Today, Iraq and Afghanistan are just the tips of the iceberg," he said. "There is a lot going on, folks. We cannot be complacent."
The ceremony ended with a tradition more than 200 years old –– the ringing of a fire bell three times in three successions to mark the end of duty for the day.