‘A day that was meant to break us’

Members of the Albuquerque Police Department Honor Guard fire a salute at Civic Plaza on Saturday afternoon to commemorate the first responders who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attacks 20 years ago. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

As bagpipes wailed “Amazing Grace,” helicopters passed overhead and a gunfire salute boomed within Civic Plaza, there was pain still being felt.

Twenty years after the 9/11 terror attacks, Rosy Macarah is still searching for answers. Her husband, Matthew, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is still waking up from nightmares.

“We suffer as a nation. We continue to suffer. We’re still in the process of healing in the here and now,” she said, tears sliding down her face. “… I’m hurting. I’m still in pain. That day brings up so many memories. … I look back and I’m, like, ’20 years later – what have we done? What has changed?'”

Bernalillo County Fire Department member Phillip Sanchez speaks with 7-year-old Santiago Garcia Urioste during a ceremony honoring first responders killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Santiago’s mother, Erin Urioste, said they attended to pay their respects. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
The atmosphere was filled with conflicting feelings as Macarah and dozens of others endured the sweltering heat Saturday afternoon to attend the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony in Downtown Albuquerque.

State and local leaders, along with ranking firefighters and police, addressed the crowd as the names of the thousands killed in the attacks scrolled on the pavilion screen behind them.

It was one of countless commemorations around the country as America marked the 20th anniversary of the attacks, which left nearly 3,000 people dead.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said that two decades ago, America witnessed tragedy and heroism “on a scale that none of us had ever seen in our lifetimes.”

“We remember it was a day that was meant to break us, but it was the bravery and the selflessness of our first responders that so clearly, immediately, reaffirmed the strength of our nation,” he said. “We did endure, we are changed and we will not forget. We continue forward, we rebuilt, we faced and overcame new challenges, and we will always, as a country, come out stronger.”

Keller said he believes the anniversary has taken on new meaning.

“Today, 9/11 doesn’t represent fear; it doesn’t represent a wounded nation trying to heal. Instead, it’s a reminder of heroism that was seemingly unimaginable but, in fact, is very real,” he said. “I see it here with us today, and I know that you carry it in your hearts.”

The crowd was flanked by cadets from the Albuquerque Police Department and Albuquerque Fire Rescue. Behind the crowd, 343 sets of firefighter gear were spread out on the pavement to symbolize the first responders lost in the attacks.

A giant American flag waved lightly in the breeze, strung up between the ladders of two fire trucks on Third Street. People in the crowd could be seen wiping away tears with wadded tissues. Others clapped for those speaking and recorded the event on smartphones.

In the hours before the ceremony, AFR firefighters ascended the equivalent of 110 stories in the stairwell of a Downtown bank building in memoriam of New York City firefighters who lost their lives in the World Trade Center, while Bernalillo County firefighters stood at attention for 343 minutes before 343 sets of bunker gear as a ceremonial bell was rung on the hour.

Some attendees, including Camille Diaz, dropped small notes into the empty firefighter gear.

The Albuquerque Fire Rescue Honor Guard stands at attention during the singing of the national anthem on Saturday afternoon in Civic Plaza. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
“It was a thank-you for their services, and to look over the other fallen firefighters,” Diaz said. “To look over the firefighters that continue to do what they do.”

At the Civic Plaza memorial, Macarah sat without her husband.

She said that the anniversary – along with the recent Afghanistan withdrawal – has been hard on him and that he can’t watch the ceremonies on TV for more than a few minutes.

Macarah said the family spent much of the war wondering whether he would come home. Now, she said, there are feelings of anger, disillusionment – wondering “Was it worth it?”

“That sacrifice is near and dear to my heart, because at the end of the day, we left and nothing happened,” she said. “And we left people suffering. There’s a lot of mixed feelings. It’s heartbreaking, and that tells me that we haven’t healed from it.”

Ortencia Gallegos called the ceremony “a great honor” to those who died in the attacks and the war that followed, a sacrifice that “hits close to home” because her husband served in Vietnam.

Bagpiper James Lamb plays as he walks among 343 sets of firefighter gear outside Alvarado Square in Downtown Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon in remembrance of the 343 New York firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
Gallegos said she remembered her son calling and telling her to turn on the TV. She said that one tower had been struck and that within minutes she saw the second plane hit.

She collapsed onto her bed “devastated.”

“I started crying, because I thought to myself, ‘All those people that are going to die in that building. What are they thinking? Are they thinking of their families at home?’ ” she said. “You’d never think this was going to happen to us.”

Gallegos said the country needs to regain the unity that came after the attacks and over the years has dissipated.

“Today, at this time, we are all tearing at each other’s throats, to tell you the truth,” she said. “This incident had nothing to do with politics. And yet right now that’s what’s going on. It’s ‘Who’s Republican? Who’s Democrat?’ They should be thinking of us, protecting us.”

Journal staff writer Elizabeth Tucker contributed to this report.


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