PALM HARBOR — Prior to 2020, the annual 9/11 memorial ceremony at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens was gaining a reputation as one of the largest and most impactful events of its kind in the Tampa Bay area.
After creating a special section of the cemetery in 2012 dedicated to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy designed around a 150-pound piece of steel from one of the World Trade Center towers, Curlew Hills officials continued adding new monuments and attractions over the years while expanding their annual remembrance service to include emotional speeches, thrilling flyovers and special guests, including then-U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis in 2018.
But like everything else in the country, the pandemic put a halt to the public component of Curlew Hills’ annual 9/11 tribute last year. Officials, however, did hold an online ceremony and also illuminated the sky high above the facility with a pair of light beams for three straight nights, an attraction that will continue this year on Sept. 9, 10 and 11 between 8 and 10 p.m. With the disappointment of 2020 still fresh, Curlew Hills president and chief executive Keenan Knopke said they plan to pull out all the stops for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this month. The public ceremony returns on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 10 a.m., with speeches from U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Florida Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls, and keynote speaker and 9/11 survivor Garrett Lindren, plus a musical performance from Lee Greenwood.
“Twenty years may seem like a long time, but for the families who lost a loved one that day, I can only imagine it would seem like just yesterday,” Knopke said via email one week before the event. “At our ceremony, we will remember those families as well as honor the firefighters, police officers, first responders, military personnel, and everyday citizens who bravely risked their lives to save people they never knew.”
In addition to the guest speakers, this year’s ceremony is also set to feature appearances by local honor guards as well as Sarge the Eagle from McGough Nature Park; a 9/11 art display from students at Westlake Christian School, Sutherland Elementary, Ozona Elementary and Curlew Hills Elementary; an essay contest award for local middle school students; and Greenwood singing his patriotic hit, “God Bless the USA” in addition to the national anthem.
"We are thrilled to have Lee Greenwood sing at our ceremony this year to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” Knopke wrote. “His song, ‘God Bless the USA’ is such a patriotic anthem and will certainly resonate with everyone who is attending to remember the heroes and victims of that day."
Organizers are urging guests to carpool and arrive at the facility early, as attendance as well as parking will be limited. Once the parking area is full, admission to the ceremony will be closed. Officials noted the ceremony will be simulcast live on the Curlew Hills Memory Gardens Facebook page for those who can’t make it in person or would rather avoids the crowds and enjoy the service remotely.
"On this 20th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, we are proud to commemorate the sacrifice, and the continued struggles of so many who are still dealing with that day both mentally and physically,” Knopke said. “I hope our ceremony will show that we remember these brave Americans and that we will never, ever forget."
For more information on the Curlew Hills Memory Gardens 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, call 727-789-200 or visit the website at CurlewHills.com.