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9/11 Memorial dedication: 'The people of York Co. never forget'

At almost exactly 9:11 a.m. Sunday, 10 years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a huge American flag tied between two fire ladder trucks during the dedication of the York County 9/11 Memorial came loose on one side.

Hundreds of area volunteers and their families were at that service. Hundreds more from the public were there.

When that flag came loose, that massive symbol of America and those who serve it and love it and their neighbors, volunteer firefighters rushed to tie it back up. The service continued.

Nothing stops firefighters, ever.

Not even the death of 343 of them on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, and the deaths of 68 more cops and emergency medical technicians also there to try to save those inside the towers that awful day. Not the deaths of almost 3,000 people at the hands of evil.

As the flag was tied back up atop those ladder trucks, a 10-year-old kid named Clayton Ballog who had said earlier he either wanted to be in the Navy, a fireman or a lawyer, said, "I want to be a fireman."

His buddy, Thomas M. Moody, 9, looked at a big picture that had all 343 firefighters who died on it, and he found a firefighter named Thomas C. Moody right after Thomas C. Moody's name was read aloud.

Thomas M. Moody, age 9, is deaf and uses sign language. But he can talk, and anyone can understand with some patience. Thomas M. Moody, who wants to be a policeman when he grows up, put his little right hand to his head and saluted.

"Heroes," he said.

That is what Sunday was all about. It was a giant salute to those who died on 9/11, a salute from those in York County who are heroic right here.

Volunteer firefighters went to New York in February and brought back a 14-foot steel beam from the World Trade Center, then spent six months raising money for a monument to set the beam atop. Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attacks and three days after the monument was finished, they dedicated the monument at the York County Fire Training Grounds to those who died.

During the 90-minute ceremony, FDNY radio traffic was played from that day 10 years ago, which allowed all those who came to hear what the firefighters were seeing and doing on 9/11. Those radio calls rolled out of speakers, Sunday, loudly reminding all of those firefighters and other first responders barreling up the World Trade Center stairways to try and save people.

The crowd was somber, and very quiet, when these words of New York radio traffic caused even stirring babies to fall silent: "The World Trade Center has collapsed! Urgent! Urgent! Everybody get out!"

But everybody did not get out a decade ago.

Peter Vega, an FDNY firefighter whose parents live in Rock Hill, did not get out. Mario Santoro, an EMT whose parents live in Tega Cay, did not get out.

Three buddies of Fort Lawn's Richard Hulse, who was a firefighter in Long Island, N.Y., 10 years ago, did not get out.

Hulse, who lives in Chester County and is still a volunteer firefighter, saluted those men Sunday and tried not to weep.

Almost 3,000 people died 10 years ago.

That's why so many came out Sunday morning, to make sure those people are remembered.

"I worked with so many of them," said Tom O'Neil, a retired FDNY firefighter who now lives in York County. O'Neil read aloud many of the 343 firefighters' names Sunday. O'Neill responded to the World Trade Center 10 years ago on his day off, digging through the rubble to try to find survivors, his firefighting brothers or anyone else. He worked for days that turned into weeks.

Sunday's ceremony meant so much to O'Neil. He tried to smile as strangers thanked him and hugged him and shook his hand. He took a minute to pose for a picture with those little kids, Clayton Ballog and Thomas M. Moody, and those little boys who want to be a fireman and a cop hugged O'Neil, who sure was a fireman.

Dennis Kirby furnished the New York flag for the ceremony, and he sat silently as all 343 names were read. He knew some of those names.

"I knew a few of the guys that died, and I worked with their fathers and uncles, too," said Kirby, another retired FDNY firefighter who lives in Rock Hill.

So many area first responders were at the ceremony Sunday, and with them came those families who watch the first responders leave for fires and danger.

Jake Hargett, one of Bethesda's volunteers, held his twins, Aydan and Sophie, age 3, in his arms as those fallen firefighters' names were read.

"Fireman," said Aydan, which his dad is.

Katherine, Hargett's wife, said every time her husband gets a call for a fire, she tells him to be careful. Then she prays until he gets home.

Tara Evans, a firefighter's wife and mother of five, stood with her husband, Smyrna volunteer Bobby Evans. She pointed at Hunter, age 9.

"He wants to be a fireman, too," she said, at a ceremony in honor of firemen and cops and emergency responders who never came home to their kids.

But firefighters still go. The firemen and the police officers go out at night and on holidays and into danger, for strangers.

They do it for the rest of us.

Leon Yard, one of the organizers of the memorial, assistant chief for the Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department, tried to read the fireman's prayer during that ceremony. He was a trooper, and he got through it, but when he got to the part about if a fireman has to lose his life, may God "protect my children and my wife," his voice bent in half, and every firefighter there Sunday held his spouse or kids as tight as his arms could squeeze.

Jake Hargett held those twins, and his wife looked at him and knew that her husband, today or any day, will go into a fire again to help somebody else. Even if it means not coming home to his own family.

The event was somber and beautiful, and yet unbidden, not part of any program: Near the end, the whole crowd stood up and waved the little American flags in their hands.

One of them was Herbie Lowery, a Rock Hill firefighter who looks like a burly pirate with a bushy moustache. Lowery, who has helped save kids and parents in fires, held that flag aloft in his thick fingers, and there was no doubt that he will again charge into a burning building and save somebody as his wife who sat next to him Sunday prays Herbie will come home to her.

Right near the end, Bob Davenport, a Bethesda volunteer who was a main force behind the memorial getting built, found out that a 9/11 survivor was in the audience. Davenport did what firefighters do: He acted. He brought her right up to the microphone.

Carrie Graham, who now lives in Rock Hill, was in an elevator at the 44th floor in the north tower when it was hit. Graham somehow survived that day, and she thanked York County and its firefighters Sunday for honoring those who did not survive and for their service to their communities.

"I am overwhelmed, and I thank you so much," Graham said, as the crowd stood and clapped for her.

After that, Graham embraced O'Neil, that firefighter from New York City, and they cried together a little bit because even with a great ceremony, beautiful and touching, Sunday's 10th anniversary was about so many people dying. Even when so many of those deaths were heroic.

Davenport ended the ceremony in a fashion that firefighters do, quick and to the point. Firemen do not mince words. They knock down doors and save people and fight fires.

Davenport said the monument was built, a public memorial, for one reason: "Because the people of York County never forget."