By Dermot Connolly
Speakers at Oak Lawn’s annual Patriot Day commemoration held Friday at the Patriot Day Metra station remembered the nearly 3,000 people who died in terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and commended the first responders and others who continue to put their lives on the line today.
In addition to village officials and veterans, other participants included Oak Lawn residents Andrea Zumhagen, who sang the Star-Spangled Banner; her daughter, Krysten, 11, who read a poem about Sept. 11; and Garrett Murphy, another student who led Mayor Sandra Bury and the whole group in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“ The beautiful memorial in front of us today reminds us that our time on Earth is precious and short,” said Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, looking at the monument made of steel beams salvaged from the World Trade Center towers.
“ This memorial stands as a testament to those lives lost. It also tells the story of strength, and the heroic efforts of first responders and others who died. They are a shining example of selflessness and public service. The first responders with us today carry on with that tradition,” she said.
“ This memorial reminds us of our resilience, and our ability, once the dust has settled, to rebuild into something stronger,” said Preckwinkle.
Fire Chief Zack Riddle recalled how as a young Chicago firefighter ending a 24-hour shift on Sept. 11, 2001, he met with his father, William Riddle, the fire chief in Sycamore, Ill., at the time, after they saw the plane strike the second tower.
“ We knew our family’s lives would be forever changed,” he said.
With his father being a Vietnam veteran, and Riddle a captain and company commander in the Army reserves, “We knew what was coming,” he said. “Two months later I would be deployed to Iraq, where I served two combat tours of duty.”
Recalling the 343 firefighters, 71 police officers and 80 paramedics who died on Sept. 11, Riddle said, “We remember them. We celebrate their lives, it is their sacrifice to make our purpose crystal clear. “
“ Make your foxhole a little bit better each day, as they say in the Army, or leave the job a little bit better for the next guy, as we say in the fire department,” said Riddle, encouraging his audience to become leaders in whatever path they choose in life.
“ It is hard to believe that it is almost 20 years since Sept. 11,” said Police Chief Dan Vittorio, who was a K-9 officer when the attacks happened. He noted that his daughter was 3, and his son, who was an infant, is now training to be a police officer.
“ Many more people have passed since then, due to the health effects of working at the scene,” he noted.
“ I remember a great sense of patriotism and goodwill toward first responders,” said Vittorio, asserting that police officers in many cities are unfairly maligned now.
“ It almost seems these officers are being characterized by the actions of one bad officer and that is not fair. I am confident that today’s officers would still put their lives on the line as they did then,” he added.
Brandt Reed, commander of the Johnson-Phelps VFW Post and a Gulf War and Iraq veteran, recalled the “chaos and confusion in the streets” on Sept. 11, followed by “Americans and first responders coming together and help out. It was amazing to me. We must never forget. God bless the families of the souls that were lost, and the individuals who are dying to this day because of the after-effects,” said Reed.
Village Manager Randy Palmer said that in addition to the first responders and military “without whom we would not be standing here today,” public works employees and construction workers who helped with the recovery should not be forgotten either.
Police Captain Art Clark, commander of the Oak Lawn Emergency Operations Center, said the 2,585 people who just went to work or got on a plane and never came home, were heroic as well.
“ They found themselves in extraordinary circumstances and helped others, or found time to make that last call home — or in the case of Flight 93, took on the hijackers to ensure that that plane would not kill more people,” said Clark.
He compared them to frontline workers today during the COVID-19 pandemic — from medical staff to store employees, and lunch ladies at schools preparing meals for children learning at home.
Clark was instrumental in getting the steel beams at the memorial when the NY/NJ Port Authority made it available.
“ I knew Oak Lawn would be a good place for it. I was fortunate to see them delivered before I was deployed to Iraq,” he said.
“ Monuments are important because they honor the dead and teach lessons to the living,” said Clark, expressing admiration for those who grew up in the post 9/11 era and become first responders, knowing all the risks.
“ I take comfort from these beams. They are weathered, but like us they are still standing and working together,” he said.