The hundreds of people streaming into Point Lookout Park on Monday morning for a ceremony to dedicate the Town of Hempstead’s permanent 9/11 memorial passed through an arch at the front entrance, formed by two fire engines’ tower ladders and a massive American flag. The Point Lookout-Lido Fire Department erected the arch.
Behind the memorial — an elevated, gently sloping walkway upon which the names of the 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are etched on granite plaques — was another arch with an equally large American flag.
Orange sunlight slanted across the park as people gathered around the memorial. Many family members and friends of victims attended the more than hour-long dedication ceremony, along with elected leaders and fire volunteers from across the South Shore — from Wantagh to Freeport, Elmont and East Rockaway, among many other communities. Volunteers from the Merrick Fire Department served as the color guard.
Seated in the front row were representatives of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum, along with religious leaders of area congregations. Among them were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and members of other religions. A variety of prayers were offered during the ceremony, which began promptly at 7:30 a.m.
Behind the lectern was the Kellenberg Gregorian Consortium, which performed at points throughout the ceremony.
Work on the memorial, which includes a rusted, 30-foot-long steel beam from the Twin Towers, began in May, at a cost of $1.3 million. The names of first-responders who die in the future of 9/11-related illnesses will be added to the granite plaques.
Town officials estimated that more than a thousand people attended the dedication ceremony.
Since the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Hempstead has hosted one of Long Island’s largest annual memorial ceremonies, always on the town’s Point Lookout beach, one of the locations where people assembled to watch the World Trade Center as it burned, sending black smoke billowing from Lower Manhattan into an azure sky.
Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino served as the master of ceremonies. He spoke at length of the bravery demonstrated by Ronnie Gies, of Merrick, a lieutenant with the elite Rescue Squad 288 in Queens. Gies, Santino said, showed no fear as he rushed into the burning World Trade Center to save others.
Members of Gies’s family — including his widow, Carol, and sons Tommy, Ronnie and Bobby — were on hand. Santino had a message for terrorists: “You will never defeat the Gies family. You will never defeat the United States of America.”
Ronnie Gies Sr.’s “love and courage are alive today” in his three sons, Santino noted. All three have served with the Merrick Fire Department; Tommy and Ronnie Jr. joined the FDNY.
The town’s memorial, Santino continued, “will live on for our children’s children.”
The supervisor also spoke of Ray Pfeifer, who died in May of cancer related to his duties during the rescue and recovery efforts after the attacks. Pfeifer, Santino said, “walked to his death at ground zero.”
Pfeifer, of Hicksville, a 35-year volunteer with the East Meadow Fire Department, lobbied hard for passage of the Zadroga Act, federal legislation that provides for the long-term health care of 9/11 responders. Numerous firefighters and police officers have been diagnosed with an array of diseases because they spent months working amid rubble of the Twin Towers, breathing in a highly toxic brew of carcinogens and pathogens. Pfeifer died after a multi-year battle with kidney and bone cancer.
“Ray’s legacy lives on today” in the 9/11 responders who are receiving health care under the Zadroga Act, Santino said.
Bobby Gies spoke as well. “I cannot explain how honored I am to be here today,” he said. The town’s memorial “is the most peaceful, beautiful monument.”
Gies implored parents to bring their children to the memorial and show them the long-felt after-effects of terrorism. No textbook or tablet, he said, could teach them what they will learn at the memorial.
“Explain to them what we all went through,” Gies said. Allow them to cry if they wish, he added.
Pfeifer’s sister MaryEllen McKee followed. “My family and I are humbled and grateful” for the memorial, she said. “Thank you for honoring all those who gave their lives … Never forget. Never give up.”
Rabbi Charles Klein, spiritual leader of the Merrick Jewish Centre, spoke of the terrible days after the 9/11 attacks. “It’s good that we are here together today … We need the closeness of community,” he recalled telling his congregation shortly after the attacks.
“The images” of the attacks “will never leave us,” he said. “On Sept. 11, life changed, but we love this country.”