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Stories of Sacrifice and Service

“We will never forget.” Brooklyn BP Eric Adams

Why We Remember Ground Zero and Beyond

By Bernice Elizabeth Green

Since September 11, 2001, anniversaries of the destruction of the World Trade Center have been, in the words of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, times “to remember and to reflect,” but he also noted that for thousands the mind is always within reach of that day. Everyday.

Autumn Parker holds her daughter, Sonia Counts, turning 2 next month, as they listen to stories of the child’s great uncle Vernon Richard, a firefighter who died during recovery efforts at Ground Zero, September 11, 2001. Photo: Bernice Green
Autumn Parker holds her daughter, Sonia Counts, turning 2 next month,
as they listen to stories of the child’s great uncle Vernon Richard, a
firefighter who died during recovery efforts at Ground Zero,
September 11, 2001. Photo: Bernice Green

And so it was last Tuesday, September 6, when BP Adams hosted the second annual day of 9/11 Remembrance Service – held five days before the actual 15th anniversary of the tragedy — with the city’s top brass, citywide leaders and local residents, at Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn. Adams said the event honors those who lost their lives on that tragic day; those –who contributed to the city’s vast and valorous recovery and rebuild efforts; those who participated in New York City’s largest rescue effort ever. And their families.

The poignant and humbling scene of some 150 people seated in the Rotunda with broadcast and print media quietly covering in the background, played against the backdrop of crisp flags inside, the parlor level lobby space overlooking monuments to freedom in the Borough Hall courtyard and nearby, a looming Brooklyn Bridge. Screen monitors’ live shot of Borough Hall’s cupola with the American flag waving reminded all that fifteen years ago from that high vantage the collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers across the East River could be observed easily.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton speaks compassionately about Ground Zero. Photo: Bernice Green
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton speaks compassionately about Ground Zero.
Photo: Bernice Green

NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton was the keynote speaker for the September 6 program. Joining Commissioner Bratton was James P. O’Neill, NYPD Chief of Department, who succeeds Bratton later this year; Benjamin Tucker, NYPD’s First Deputy Commissioner; Daniel A. Nigro, FDNY Commissioner; and Col. Peter Sicoli, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Hamilton. They faced victims’ family members, but it was evident through their poignant comments that “hit home,” these chieftains of law and safety were members of a solace-seeking family, as well.

Before Bratton spoke, two members of the seated families spoke about their respective last conversations with victims of September 11. Evelyn Zelmanowitz talked of the late Abe Zelmanowitz and the events that took place as he attempted to evacuate the Towers, and how “he would never desert a friend.”

Vernon A. Richard, II, son of the late firefighter Captain Vernon Richard, described the special bond he and his father enjoyed (“He taught me how to tie a tie, and what it means to be a man, a ‘big guy’.”)

Adams, who served in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during 9/11, spoke of terrorism’s enduring impact on Brooklyn and New York City. He also spoke about finding peace in memories.

NYPD Commissioner Bratton, FDNY Commissioner Nigro, NYPD Chief O’Neill, all delivered moving remarks about associates, friends, staff, who were maimed or stricken while, or due to their work “searching for the living and the dead,” at the Towers’ Wall Street site.

(But) “We move forward,” he said speaking of New York City’s service departments. “We do what we must … (for the sake of) serving others. It is what we do.”

As he offered his condolences to families, he paid homage to NYPD and FDNY family members who lost their lives. He spoke of their “quiet heroism,” “resolute courage” and how the lives of all New Yorkers, “who everyday” the NYPD goes forth to protect “are worth fighting for.”

Commissioner Nigro also saluted the families and “the memory of the first-responders and rescue personnel and all those who died after 9/11, of illnesses caused by exposure to the toxins in the Ground Zero debris.”

Commissioner Tucker recounted how he and his wife left their residence, four blocks south of the Towers, on the morning of September 11. Everyone in the vicinity of Ground Zero looked the same, he said. “There was no time to see differences.”

Chief O’Neill said that every time he sees a clear sky, a police car going by or a fire truck racing to a rescue, it brings him back to September 11.

“When people answered the call of duty and went out without hesitation, it was the largest rescue effort in NYC history. Twenty-five thousand were evacuated,” he recalled, citing the heroic efforts to save lives. Chief O’Neill painted a real picture of the scene: some first responders killed in the terror attacks used their clothing in a desperate attempt to muffle victims’ flames. “Through piles of debris and acrid smoke, they were searching and digging,” he said, adding “these rescuers showed where ‘courage resides and character was forged.’

He also talked of how they found remnants of lives, including wedding rings. He remembered those who have illnesses – and those who have passed on — because of their intense recovery efforts. “These stories of the amazing men and women among us are part of New York City’s history, part of its greatness.”

One speaker acknowledged that the “hole” will never be closed completely, but he also offered hope in the form of the future when grandchildren will always know of the sacrifices of the men and women who pushed against the tide to go back into those buildings. “It’s about never leaving a man or woman behind,” he said.

Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo deconstructed the awesome complexity of mourning and celebrating at the same time. “This is a wakeful celebration,” she said, adding that “the importance of remembering is critical as it gives us energy to move on.

“Due to their connection to the birthing process, women understand the sacrifice and the pain and, therefore, the value of life perhaps more than anyone. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives so it is important to remember that what we have (life) is valuable.

“What a gift we have: (to be able to) enjoy the freedoms of this country. It’s important that we remember the individuals who died, and our responsibility (to them) to move forward.”

There was one person in the room who was not on the roster of speakers, and she did not have a family member at Ground Zero on that day. Her story – one of the “millions of stories that can be found in New York” – was born some seven years before 9/11.

In a corner of the Rotunda in the shadow of the marble stairs, Vida Toppin-Ebrahim listened, engrossed, tears welling.

The Panamanian immigrant mother of three lost one of her two sons, accountant Paul Toppin, in 1993. She explained to Our Time Press that “Paul died as he tried to protect a friend.” After he and the friend walked away, the perpetrator shot Mr. Toppin in the back.

A former long-time resident of Lafayette Avenue near Nostrand in Bedford Stuyvesant, Mrs. Ebrahim now lives in an assisted-living residency near the Barclay Center. She also is a member of the nearby Evelyn Douglin Senior Center.

She travels with a walker and uses public transportation to get to various Brooklyn senior programs, including Borough Hall workshops, such as crocheting.

Whenever she hears about events like BP Adams’ “Remembrance Service,” she drops what she’s doing to attend. “I come to be with the families and hold the mothers’ hands so they know they are not alone,” she told us. “I know how they feel. Holidays are not another day: especially Mother’s Day, Christmas, birthdays…”

“I know how a mother feels when a loved one goes out, you expect them back, but they never return. It never heals. Like the police commissioner said, there’s a hole. Twenty-three years ago, and it is like it happened yesterday.

The horror of it all plays over and over with Mrs. Toppin. She cries when she remembers the day the hole opened in her life: “After my son told him to ‘grow up,’ the killer shot him. The young man who shot my son was only 16! Only 16!” She feels sad for the mother of her son’s killer.

“And it all came back again with the murder of that student at the college. The same thing; he was helping a friend.”

In connection with the 9/11 Remembrance, Ms. Toppin told Our Time Press about a staff person at her senior center. “She lost a relative on September 11. They never found his body. At least, I could bury my Paul.”

In addition to BP Adams, Bratton, Tucker, O’Neill, Nigro and Cumbo, event participants included Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, FDNY chaplain; Dr. Rabbi Alvin Kass, Chief Chaplain, NYPD; and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, FDNY chaplain. Abe Friedman, Borough Hall’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, offered the welcome. FDNY Chief of Department James E. Leonard, and United States Army Garrison (USAG) Fort Hamilton Commander Colonel Peter Sicoli also shared their thoughts and reflected on that fateful day.

During the morning event, moments of silence were observed for the respective times the South and North Towers collapsed. A flag above the Borough Hall Rotunda was lowered and a Remembrance Wreath placed.

Following the singing of God Bless America, and closing prayers, BP Adams’ guests – greeted by Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna — attended a reception in Borough Hall’s Community Room. A Remembrance Wreath, placed outside the building by Adams and victims’ family members, will stay in place through September 11.

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