On a bright Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001 at exactly 8:46 am, the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, the South tower was hit. Then the Pentagon, and lastly a fourth aircraft went down in Shanksville Pennsylvania.
On that day our nation saw the worst in humanity. Destruction on a mass scale. And from that day forward those events were forever etched in history. 2977 Americans including 343 firefighters, 23 New York City police, and 37 Port Authority officers were lost in the greatest attack in history on American soil. Yet, with as much destruction as we witnessed, there are those who showed us what it means to be an American. They are the First Responders, they are the courageous ones doing the unthinkable without hesitation. The following days were a test of our strength as a nation, our love for each other, and our will to rebuild from Ground Zero.
Brian Stoothoff, former President of the Historic Ocala Preservation Society and retired Assistant Fire Chief remembers the day in vivid detail. On the morning of September 11th, Fire Station #1 watched in silence as the North tower fell. Before they could even process the magnitude of the destruction the alarm sounded, sending them out to handle a structure fire. Stoothoff, recalls being on edge, stressed, and in a constant state of heightened tension. This day was unusually busy with calls that kept them moving and it, was a while before they found out the exact events that had occurred. “Immediately after there was an outpouring of support and appreciation from the public. In a lot of ways, it made our jobs easier,” says Stoothoff. Our community remained united and showed our appreciation for our First Responders as we still do today.
On the same day, Hurricane Gabrielle formed in the Gulf of Mexico. On September 14th , just three days after the attacks, Hurricane Gabrielle hit Florida as a Category 1 with sustained winds of 70mph, wreaking havoc as it moved up the state. Ocala firefighters were prepped and ready to deploy to Ground Zero when Hurricane Gabrielle kept them in the state to assist through the cleanup. Entrapments, trees on powerlines, loss of power, and flooding damage kept them working into November. In November of 2001, Stoothoff traveled to Ground Zero not only pay respects but to assist in any further cleanup and identification. During this visit, the Port Authority gifted our community with a segment of steel from the World Trade Center. This segment is currently and permanently on display at the Ocala Fire Museum which hosts a rich history of our city’s fire department and stories of the bravery of September 11th.
Sadly, there is an entire generation of people who have no emotional attachment to this piece of history. It’s important to continue to educate future generations so it is not forgotten. “Ocala is fortunate to have on permanent display a segment of the World Trade Center steel. It serves as an educational and visual reminder of the horrific events that occurred that day and it’s my hope that everyone from Ocala would take the time to visit the Ocala Fire Museum.” – Brian Stoothoff
This year will be the 18th anniversary of the attack. While the wound still feels fresh, there is hope. The true American spirit rises from the ashes. Love for our fellow American, unity in the face of peril, and laying down our lives for others are trademarks of the America we saw in that time. In the middle of Ground Zero sits a lovely Callery Pear tree, known as the “Survivor Tree”, which endured through the destruction of the World Trade Center. Every year the 9/11 memorial presents seedlings from the pear tree to three communities that have suffered tragedy in that year. These seedlings are symbols of hope and healing. Like that tree, we have a visible demarcation from the pain of our past. Now with our nation currently divided, the call for unity is of the utmost importance.