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Hundreds gather to remember 9/11 victims

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“Since he was a little boy, he always wanted to be a firefighter,” Wantagh resident Sean Hunter said of his late brother Joseph Hunter, a member of New York Fire Department Squad 288 in Queens who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Of the Town of Hempstead 9/11 memorial in Lido Beach, Hunter said, “It’s a way for us to memorialize him and honor his memory, but to be with other families who also have lost and share that loss with each other.”

Eighteen years after the attacks, Sean Hunter was among hundreds of people who gathered at the Point Lookout Town Park for Hempstead’s annual 9/11 Sunrise Memorial Service on Wednesday. The service, which is among several on the barrier island, paid homage to the victims and first responders who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks or who have suffered from illnesses related to that day. The town hosts the memorial every year near the beach where people spontaneously assembled to watch as the World Trade Center burned across the water to the west.

Gillen started the ceremony with the story of Welles Crowther, also known as “the man with the red bandana,” because of his heroic effort to save 18 people during the 9/11 attacks, all while wearing a red bandana –– which his father gave him as a young boy –– across his face to keep out smoke and debris. Crowther died that day, but his story and the story of many who died on 9/11 live on.

“We all have stories of loss, of courage or heroism that stem from 9/11,” Gillen said. “Perhaps the most important thing about gathering here today, and in services like this held across our country, is to make each of us know that no one has to bear this weight alone.”

She was joined by town and Nassau County officials, local and New York City police officers, firefighters and clergy members to honor the victims of the attacks. Among those on stage with Gillen were Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Councilman Bruce Blakeman and retired FDNY Lt. Michael O'Connell.

O’Connell is an advocate for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which covers the medical costs of 9/11 first responders. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease known as sarcoidosis, in which tiny collection of inflammatory cells grow on the lungs, which forced him to retire in 2007. He and several other first responders have since fought for healthcare and compensation for the 9/11 community.

“Today I am 43 years old and I am still battling,” O’Connell said. “I was 25 years old on 9/11, 32 years old when I was first diagnosed, and I am very lucky to still be here to tell my story because so many of my friends aren’t.”

Hempstead Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman spoke about his nephew Tommy Jergens, who was a New York City court officer and died during the 9/11 attacks. Blakeman said that his nephew just wanted to serve his country and wear “really cool” uniforms.

“Tommy was giving first aid to a woman in the lobby in the south tower when his lieutenant ordered the court officers to pull back and abandon the rescue,” Blakeman said. “Tommy reportedly said he wasn't leaving until he successfully evacuated that woman.”

Blakeman said Jergens died as the building collapsed on him and many other victims. Jergen’s brother, Joey, became a firefighter two months after 9/11 and is now an FDNY lieutenant.

After the town ceremony, mourners wrote messages to victims, dropped them in a “memory box” near the memorial wall, and placed white carnations around a 30-foot-tall steel beam that was recovered from the World Trade Center site.

Gillen also thanked the Baldwin, Hempstead, Rockville Centre, Lido and Point Lookout fire departments for providing flag arches at the ceremony and acting as the color guard.

Thousands of memorials will be held across the country, including a remembrance gathering at the Recreation Center in Long Beach, a 9/11 memorial on Virginia Avenue led by County Legislator Denise Ford, a ceremony on West Park Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard led by the Long Beach Fire Department and a paddle-out sponsored by Skudin Surf and The Surfrider Foundation. A separate memorial will also be held for Hunter’s brother, Joseph, in South Hempstead, of which he was a native.