People across Loudoun on Saturday paused to mark the 20-year anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 that set off a new era in the United States and around the world.
America responded to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 with collective mourning, long airport security lines, sweeping new surveillance measures, and 20 years of war. On Sept. 11, 2021, only weeks after the last American troops left that battleground, people in Loudoun remembered the day that started it all.
In Leesburg, town and county leaders gather Saturday morning at Freedom Park, which is home to the town’s permanent 9/11 memorial.
Mayor Kelly Burk delivered the keynote remarks.
On that day 20 years ago, she was a special education teacher preparing for the end of a first period class when the school secretary burst through the classroom door and yelled to keep students in class when the bell rang to signal the class change. Burk thought it simply some kind of prank until she saw the tears in her eyes.
“We had two students who had lost their parents, and one of them was in my classroom. So, our school changed forever,” she recalled while battling through her own tears.
“While most of us don’t remember the names of the people who died at the Pentagon or the Towers, or the fields in Pennsylvania, we remember the acts that forever changed our country. We remember the first responders, the fire fighters, the police, the building workers, the airline passengers,’ Burk said. “We remember the towers falling down, the plane in the field and the hole created in the Pentagon. We remember now and we must always remember. We must never forget those who lost their lives that day.
“We need to recognize the changes that impact us here in 2021. We are a different country now than then. We are a stronger country. We’re more resilient, a country that values our first responders, our workers, our civil servants. While we may not remember their names, we must always remember the actions of those dedicated, brave individuals who lost their lives in that terrible attack,” Burk said.
The ceremony also included the singing of the National Anthem by Emily Gruessing, Cal Everett’s performance of Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), a wreath-laying, a ringing of the fire truck bell, and the playing of Taps by Fire Lt. Thomas Kane.
In Purcellville, the ceremony included reflections and remembrances from Deputy Chief of Police Dave Dailey, who served at the time with Arlington Police Department and who quickly found himself the nighttime incident commander at the Pentagon, overseeing emergency operations as the county reeled and first responders labored first to make people safe, and then to look for clues and clean up the rubble.
He recalled how his morning plans were canceled that day when, waiting to take one of his children on a morning bike ride, he switched on the TV and saw the news that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Like Americans across the country, we watched on live TV as another one struck the other tower. Soon he was driving a coworker in his van from Loudoun toward the Pentagon as most traffic flowed the other way, out of town.
“I think that drive was representative of the ethos of our military and our first responder communities, that they exhibit every single day when we’re under attack, when shots are fired, when buildings are burning,” Dailey said. “We run into the fray, not because we’re heroes and not because we have a death wish, but because people need help and someone has to do it. I think we’re wired just a little differently.”
Since he was the last to arrive on scene, Dailey was put on a 12-hour overnight shift overseeing operations at the Pentagon. He recalled the stories of some of his coworkers from those days—like Isaac Ruiz, a former Army Ranger who was stationed on perimeter security and then forgotten in the fray, only remembered when he radioed in 30 hours later asking for relief so he could grab some water and use the bathroom. He said he’d figured there were more important things going on, he was warm and dry, and nobody was shooting at him.
Another, Richard Cox, told Dailey that the plane the hit the Pentagon flew over his head so low that he could see the rivets—and the faces of the passengers looking out the window.
That cleanup also left many of those first responders with lasting health problems. Dailey recalled the story of one of his colleagues, Harvey Snook, who developed a rare form of cancer after his time cleaning up the wreckage. He told Dailey he had a job to do.
“He went on to tell me if it wasn’t him, that it would have been you or somebody else in my shoes,” Dailey said. “He said, I don’t think I could live with that. I wouldn’t wanted that to happen. Sadly, this was the last conversation I had with Harvey.”
Dailey also recalled the volunteers who showed up to feed and care for first responders during that time, and the American flags that appeared hung from homes and highway overpasses in the days afterward.
“I’ve learned three valuable truths. Number one: divided, we’re vulnerable. United, we’re unstoppable. And when things are at their worst, Americans are at their best,” Dailey said. “In closing, it’s important for those of us who lived through 9/11 to remember that we’re the torch barriers, the keeper of the flame as we age and more of our population only knows of 9/11 from history books. We must ensure that the stories of loss, of strength, of pride and of patriotism from that fateful day, our ‘day that will live in infamy,’ are never forgotten.”
And Scouts from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society—a community that often faced suspicion and prejudice after 9/11, before any of those Scouts were born—read prayers for peace from religions around the world.