She stood atop the bridge early Thursday morning, 13 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, crying in the morning light as the sun rose and cars and trucks honked to show their support.
Standing on the Patriot Leonard A. Farrington Memorial Bridge, she held an American flag with such resolve and strength because her son died three years ago fighting in a war in Afghanistan that was fought because of the 9/11 attacks.
Marine Staff Sgt. T.J. Dudley of Fort Mill was the last York County native killed in action in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Robyn Dudley honored her son on that bridge as York County people have done on Sept. 11 for the past 14 years.
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“I needed to come out here and show my respect for all who died,” Dudley said. “It is hard. It does hurt. But I have to do it.”
The flag waving started the day of the attacks with Len Farrington, a World War II veteran, standing on his old spindly legs on the Sutton Road bridge over Interstate 77 outside Fort Mill, waving his American flags to show terrorists that America does not bow or bend or break.
For years he did it alone. A few years ago, other volunteers joined his efforts. Farrington died in 2012 at the age of 89. Last year, the bridge was named in his honor for what he did so many times.
On Thursday, Robyn Dudley carried on the legacy, along with so many others.
Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11. Thousands of troops have been killed and wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that came after.
“I hope people don’t think it is their duty to think about all the people who died for America, but they do it from their hearts,” Robyn Dudley said. “Every person out here is here to honor all those men and women who died. My son was one of them.”
Next to Robyn Dudley stood Betty Farrington, Len Farrington’s widow. She is 87, but still she stood there waving the actual flag that started it all in 2001.
“To be out here as an American and honor the people who died in 9/11 and after, that is what Len always wanted people to remember,” Farrington said. “It is an honor to stand here today as an American.”
Riverview Volunteer Fire Chief Sam Lesslie showed up in his fire truck from the station just down the road. Lesslie talked of the 343 firefighters and so many other heroic people who died in the attacks and the aftermath. Lesslie has volunteered to help people, just like those 9/11 heroes, for more than half a century.
“These people out here today waving these American flags today show how great this country is,” he said. “We stand together.”
A worker from the nearby Love’s Travel Stop walked from the convenience store to the bridge, handing out free bottles of water. A stranger touched by what regular American people do on 9/11.
On both sides of the bridge – and on bridges up and down Interstate 77 – stood people who wanted to show respect for the dead from 9/11 and all that has come after it. No government told them to do it. They belong to no political party.
They are white and black and Hispanic and Asian and Native American and other nationalities. They do it because it is the right thing to do.
“I can’t join the Army, but I can sure stand here and show all that we can all be Americans together and love our country together,” said Alice Crocker, who some would call a senior citizen. “I can wave a flag. This is America here today.”
The Rolling Thunder veterans advocacy group now organizes the 9/11 flag tributes that Len Farrington started, and several of its members stood tall on I-77 bridges – from Gold Hill Road in Fort Mill to the Gaston Farm Road overpass in Chester County. There were flags at the Eden Terrace bridge and the Anderson Road bridge and several in between.
“Rolling Thunder is honored to carry on the legacy that Len Farrington started, which is to honor the 9/11 victims and show that America stands united,” said Ron Reagan, the local chapter’s president.
As Reagan held a flag with his left hand, his right hand remained fixed in salute, even as his arm ached.
Raelene Cavanaugh, with her Vietnam-War-veteran husband standing nearby with a flag, talked of her late father, a Marine who survived Iwo Jima in World War II. She, too, proudly held a flag.
“America is a great place,” Cavanaugh said.
Doug Higginbotham came all the way from Pennsylvania to be a part of the tribute.
“I met Len Farrington after he started this,” he said, “and I come every year now to make sure to do my part on 9/11.”
As traffic moved north and south beneath the flag-wavers, drivers honked their horns and flashed their lights in support.
Onto the Len Farrington bridge walked two tiny kids – Delilah Zybko, 6, and her brother, Drexel, 9. Their mother, Victoria, brought them, and they grabbed American flags and waved them. The honking horns and flashing lights were wild for them, and the adults on the bridge stood and clapped for them.
“I’m here for 9/11” said Delilah.
“We are here to honor all who died on 9/11, and in wars, too,” Drexel said.
From across the bridge, Robyn Dudley looked over at these two kids and began to cry. Trucks honked. Drivers crossing the bridge in traffic stopped to snap pictures and shoot video.
Dudley then held her American flag even higher, on a bridge in Fort Mill near where her son grew up before he left to fight a war on the other side of the world.
A war where he died fighting for the rest of us.