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Area residents reflect on 'that horrible day'

Retired New York fire captain Ed Smith of the FDNY Retirees of the Lowcountry tolls a bell in remembrance of those who perished --  including 343 New York firefighters -- in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America during a 10th anniversary Sept. 11 memorial service on Sunday morning on Hilton Head Island.
Retired New York fire captain Ed Smith of the FDNY Retirees of the Lowcountry tolls a bell in remembrance of those who perished -- including 343 New York firefighters -- in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America during a 10th anniversary Sept. 11 memorial service on Sunday morning on Hilton Head Island. Jay Karr/The Island Packet

On Hilton Head Island beneath a cloudless, bright blue sky reminiscent of that fateful day 10 years ago, Cecelia Meyers, wife of a now-retired New York City fireman, recalled the day she "hit the lottery."

It was the day her three sons -- two firefighters and a cop -- and her husband, a Manhattan Borough Commander for New York City's Fire Department, came home.

Others were not so lucky.

On Sunday, Meyers and her husband, Harry, members of the FDNY Retirees of the Lowcountry, Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue crews and about 75 area residents gathered for a day of commemoration on the dock behind Chart House Restaurant on Hilton Head to recall the terror attack on the World Trade Center.

Sunday's ceremony honored the nearly 3,000 who died in the collapse of the towers, including the 343 New York City firefighters who died responding to the attack. The event was organized by the FDNY Retirees of the Lowcountry, which has between 35 and 40 members on Hilton Head and in Bluffton, organizer Ed Smith said.

'A horrible, horrible day'

On that bright Tuesday, Cecelia Meyers said she raced home from work and immediately began to try to call her husband, who was working as operations chief at the scene.

He didn't pick up.

"It was a horrible, horrible day," she said. "All I could do was watch TV. I was hoping that no one would pull up to the front of the house with that news."

And, as with the family members and wives of other missing fire fighters, Cecelia Meyers waited, and prayed, for some good news.

It finally came.

"It wasn't until late that night that I heard they were OK ... I can't describe the feeling," she said. "It was hard. My sons had a friend, he was a groomsman in one's wedding a few months before. He died that day. Now it still breaks my heart."

In the following weeks and months, the family attended the funeral services of dozens of the men's fallen comrades, she said.

Ten years later, Harry Meyers, who retired in 2006, recalls the outpouring of support from citizens in the aftermath of the attacks. He described the kindness of New Yorkers who left water and food on street corners for fire crews as they worked 18-hour long shifts for weeks after the attack looking for survivors -- and then bodies -- in the rubble.

"It was like being stuck in a vat of talcum powder, but you had to force guys to take a break," he said. "The biggest need was water. And then all of a sudden people just started dropping off all these cases of water and food. They would just leave it and not expect any thanks."

'Never forget'

On Sunday, New York City fire fighter Ed Smith, who was retired at the time of the attack but responded as a volunteer, said he remembers the smells -- decomposing bodies, rotting food, burning fuel and chemicals.

"None of us will forget the heat, the flames, the choking dust, the smoke, the sounds and the smells," he said during the ceremony.

Smith said despite the number of deaths, fire crews and ordinary citizens managed to evacuate nearly 25,000 people from the towers before they collapsed, an effort he called "the most successful rescue operation ever."

Many firefighters, however, dwell on those who were lost.

"They have the thought, and I did too when I was working, that if there's four people in a building and they can only get to three, it eats them up," he said. "They beat up on themselves. It's ingrained."

And what has he learned?

"Our focus today is to never forget, but I feel some Americans are," Smith said. "Remember how we were right afterward, Americans were unified and shared a singular goal. We were together and we flew our flags."

"And now we've gone back to our bickering," he said. "If we forget 9/11, we most surely will have to relive that most horrible day."

Follow staff writer Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LcBlotter.

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