ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If there were a theme song – other than the national anthem – for the city’s 15th anniversary 9/11 memorial ceremony, it would be Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”
Charles Banks – a retired CIA executive, sometime country music performer and the keynote speaker for Sunday’s ceremony at Civic Plaza – said Jackson’s gentle song about an ordinary man’s reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks is one song he can’t sing because he gets choked up when he tries.
The question posed by the song’s title was on the minds of most of the several hundred people who attended Sunday’s late-morning ceremony. For some, it seemed difficult to believe that 15 years had elapsed since that terrifying day. For others, just children in 2001, 9/11 feels like ancient history. But everyone who is old enough to recall the day remembers where they were.
Lynnette Rodriguez-Giannelli, just 17 on 9/11, was with other family members in the kitchen of their Staten Island, N.Y., home, waiting to see if her father, a firefighter with Brooklyn, N.Y., Engine Co. 279, would come home. He didn’t that day. Or the next. Or ever.
“This is my first time speaking publicly about 9/11 and the events that followed, so please forgive me if I appeared flustered,” Rodriguez-Giannelli, one of the speakers at the ceremony, told those in attendance. “I remember sitting in my kitchen with my family for days afterward, waiting for the phone call or the knock on the door, always hoping he would be found.”
Rodriguez-Giannelli, the oldest of six children, said the youngest, her sister Morgan, was born just three days after 9/11.
Tom Giannelli, Lynnette’s husband, is from Albuquerque. The couple and their four sons moved to Albuquerque just last month to operate a screen-printing company. Their four boys range in age from 1 to 11. The oldest is named Anthony after Lynnette’s father, who was only 36 when he was killed trying to rescue people from the old World Trade Center towers hit by hijacked airliners.
She said her father served in the Navy and was a police officer in Charleston, S.C., before the family moved to Staten Island and he joined the fire department. He had been a firefighter for only a few months prior to 9/11.
Rodriguez-Giannelli said she wanted the opportunity to speak at Sunday’s ceremony so she could thank people for paying tribute to her father and others who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks.
Others speaking at the Civic Plaza ceremony included Gov. Susana Martinez, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Col. Eric Froehlich, commander of the 377th Air Base Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base. Froehlich was in the Pentagon on 9/11 when a hijacked airliner slammed into the building about 100 yards from Froehlich’s office. He said he will always remember the screaming sound the plane made just before it plowed into the building, then the sight of falling debris.
After 9/11 Froehlich led combat deployments supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
“We will continue to take the fight to our enemies to protect our way of life,” he said.
Those killed in the 9/11 attacks total 2,977. The attack on the Pentagon took 184 lives; hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field, accounted for 40 lives; and 2,753 died in the World Trade Center attack, including 343 New York firefighters.
Prior to Sunday’s memorial ceremony, firefighters and members of the public took part in stair climbs at the Bank of Albuquerque building and City Hall, respectively, to commemorate the New York firefighters who died. Members of the public who did the stair climb at City Hall paid registration fees of $40 for individuals and $140 for teams of four. All proceeds will go to the American Red Cross of New Mexico for disaster relief.
Friends Genia Hernandez, 23; Isaiah Medina, 25; and Kevin Vigil, 26; did the City Hall stair climb. All were in grade school when 9/11 happened.
Hernandez and Vigil both have late uncles who served with the Albuquerque Fire Department and were climbing to honor their memories as well as to pay tribute to the victims of 9/11.
Medina, an emergency medical technician with an ambulance company, wants to join the Albuquerque Fire Department.
“I’ll do anything to show support to firefighters and their families, anything to raise awareness and remembrance,” Medina said.
Although they were young, all three friends remember 9/11.
“It seems like a long time ago,” said Medina, who was 10 and a fourth-grader at Valencia Elementary School in Los Lunas on that tragic day. He said his family saw the planes hit the twin towers on TV as he was getting ready to go to school. He said his family considered keeping him home from school but decided he should go.
“We didn’t do any school work that day,” he said. “All we did was watch TV. I was pretty confused. I didn’t know anything about terrorists back then.”
Hernandez, a UNM student and an employee of a physical therapy company, was 8 and a third-grader at Albuquerque’s Mark Twain Elementary School. She was already at school when the attacks started, but her father came to get her.
“My cousins were in the Army and (my father) told me they might get deployed,” she said. “I was scared, watching the adults I looked up to trying to scramble around to find out what was happening. Our family came together to make an escape plan in case we got bombed.”
Vigil, a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, was 11 and a sixth-grader at Central Elementary School in Belen.
“I had just gotten on the (school) bus,” he said. “The bus driver had the radio on, and we heard the news about the attacks. I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. I didn’t know where the World Trade Center was. I didn’t grasp the magnitude of it. It was not until I got home and my parents explained it to me. I remember a lot of kids were freaking out and getting scared.”
Keynote speaker Banks was at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on 9/11. He talked about the CIA’s response to the attacks. But he said one of the first things he did on 9/11 was go to the headquarters’ basement and call his wife, his sons, even his 75-year-old mother.
“I think we all wanted to hear the voices of the people we loved and know they were all right,” he said. “In his song, Alan Jackson, he was quoting St. Paul, sings ‘Faith, hope and love are some good things he gave us and the greatest is love.'”