PALM HARBOR — “Never Forget” has become the mantra for 9/11 remembrance ceremonies across the country in the wake of the 2001 tragedy, and organizers of the 2018 memorial event at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor made sure this year’s ceremony won’t soon be forgotten.
Emceed by FOX 13 News anchor Mark Wilson, the hourlong ceremony featured several guest speakers, including U.S. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis. In addition, there were many powerful moments, including a pair of helicopter flyovers and the retelling of what it was like to be standing underneath the Twin Towers as they fell. Keynote speaker Joyce Ng’s haunting words had the crowd transfixed, and tearing up, on the sweltering late summer morning.
“I saw bodies falling from the North Tower. It was incredibly sad and shocking and something I’ll never forget,” she said. “I was filled with tremendous sadness that so many people were dying around me.”
The North Tower, also known as One World Trade Center, was the first of the World Trade Center buildings to be struck by a Boeing 767 that had been commandeered by hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ng, an author and founder of a nonprofit 9/11 survivors group, recalled watching the second plane crash, into the South Tower, as she stood on the street below, trying to comprehend the carnage and destruction. Although it was hit after the North Tower, the South Tower, also known as Two World Trade Center, collapses roughly 30 minutes before One World Trade Center.
“It’s really difficult to describe the noise when the plane hit,” she said. “But I remember the screams on the street, the shoes on the ground, the falling bodies, the bodies on the ground. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to not get hurt, but it’s a tough feeling, a sense of guilt that will always stay with you—survivors guilt.”
Retired New York firefighter Rich Miccio, the cousin of Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Susan Miccio-Kikta, was with a group of 50 first responders ready to enter the North Tower before their chief pulled them back at the last minute.
“Our whole battalion was in front of the North Tower when it collapsed,” Miccio, who participated in the wreath laying ceremony with his service dog, Hitch, said prior to the start of the event. “Our chief saved us by holding us up in a staging area. We were supposed to be the next 50 guys in the tower. As we were standing across the street, it collapsed. I ran and was blown down by the dust cloud, and we had to run another quarter-mile to escape it.
“I’m lucky to be here in Florida now, and I’m lucky to be alive.”
In addition to the speakers, the ceremony also included: the unveiling by ex-Marine John “Tig” Tiegen of a memorial honoring of those who died in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012; “Echo Taps” performed by members of the Tarpon Springs Leadership Conservatory for the Arts; renditions of “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” by the Tarpon Springs High School Syndicated Sound; and helicopter flyovers by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The 2017 memorial service had to be cancelled because of Hurricane Irma.
“We were devastated last year, but we had to focus on the safety of our residents,” Palm Harbor Fire Commissioner Julie Peluso, head of the ceremony’s organizing committee, said afterward this year’s ceremony. “But it made this year easier than ever because everything is here in one place, and everyone was eager to participate after a one-year absence. I feel like this year it went from a local event to something bigger.”
Tarpon Springs Fire Chief Scott Young also praised the ceremony organizers.
“It’s a great event with a great turnout every year, and we try to make it out every year because we’re all part of the same family,” Young said as he posed with a contingent from the department.
“This shows people are always going to think about this day. It’s etched in our minds forever and its ceremonies like this that will ensure no one ever forgets.”