The flag was right in front of her Friday, the wreath nearby, the steel monument pulled from the ruins of the World Trade Center not 10 feet from her. But Jessica Forbes’ thoughts were 19 years and 372 miles away.
Forbes watched a brief ceremony in Homer marking the 19th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. But 19 years ago, she was working in a Marine Corps exchange in Quantico, Virginia.
She heard about the attacks from the television; her supervisor said she could leave.
“I picked up my girls from school and we went home,” Forbes said, and spent the next month worrying about her Marine husband, who came home, sometimes, for a shower and a fresh uniform.
Sept. 11 was her daughter’s sixth birthday.
The ceremony in Homer was brief — the pledge of allegiance, a benediction from Homer Fire Department Chaplain Gordon Ivory, a quick summary of the events that day, the laying of a wreath and a salute in front of several dozen people. Three miles and 9 1/2 hours earlier, the ceremony at Cortland’s Courthouse Park was longer, but the purpose remained the same: a moment to remember a day one can never forget.
Under gray skies and cold morning weather, retired Air Force Col. Kim Walsh, who was working in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, said she didn’t actually hear or see when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the building.
Like others in the building, she was in her office when the news came across on the nearby TV that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, prompting her to begin emergency response procedures.
While in the basement office, she got a faint whiff of smoke from the fires of the plane crash. Only then, through TV news, did she learn the Pentagon was hit.
“It’s a surreal experience to see on TV that the building you are in was just struck by a very large airplane,” she said.
Walsh, the keynote speaker of Cortland’s memorial at Courthouse Park, and other veterans and officials spoke of their memories from that day at a podium between giant U.S. flags hung from two fire engines and the Cortland County Courthouse.
For Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti, who was in the Navy Reserves, the day has been etched in the memory of those who were alive then and has shaped the collective identity of America.
“It is a day that, if you were alive then, you remember where you were and what you were doing,” he said.
He recalled getting ready for work when he heard radio reports of a plane striking one of the towers. He then turned on the TV to see what was happening.
“As I saw a large jetliner in an unwavering flight pattern strike the tower, I knew that it was an international act of terrorism,” he said.
Perfetti rushed into his law office and anticipated the mobilization of his Navy reserve unit. While he was not recalled to active duty, platoons from his unit were called to the city to aid in tunnel security.
He also said that the day — which helped lead to the country’s involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — was important to reflect upon for those who weren’t yet born, like his own children.
“It is important that those of us who do remember the day educate and relate what happened,” he said.
The day, and the following days and weeks, are important to remember not just for the horror of the attacks, but the unity Americans showed in response to it, Mayor Brian Tobin said.
Speaking of what the phrase “Never Forget” meant to him, Tobin said “Never forget also reminds me what also happened after 9/11. Our country came together. As Americans, across all walks of life, we shared a common pain, supported one another and turned this evil into something better.”
It is this unity that Tobin hoped people would strive for — and not just on Sept. 11.
“So today and every day, let us remember that what brings us together is more important than our differences,” he said.
In Homer, Forbes thought of the intervening years. “We try not to focus on that,” she said. She had a daughter who shares a birthday with a moment of sorrow. “We make the day about her.”
Her daughter is grown now, 25 years old and out of the house. The day remains special, but for several reasons.
Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.