Surrounded by a sea of nearly 3,000 flags — one for every victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a crowd of hundreds gathered at Valencia College’s Osceola Campus on Wednesday to mourn the loss of lives and remember the heroes of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s easy to remember the acts of inhumanity,” said Rich Collins, emergency management director for Osceola County and the event’s main speaker. “We remember today so we do not lose sight of the greatness of humanity — of the selflessness and courage and bravery in the face of death by 2,977 Americans.”
The crowd honored the firefighters and police officers who died in the line of duty – as well as civilians, including the passengers on United Flight 93, who tried to wrest control of their plane from the hijackers and prevented the plane from hitting its likely target, the U.S. Capitol building.
“The significance of today’s remembrance,” said Collins, “is that this day represents some of the finest acts of selflessness…firefighters going into a building that they knew they may never leave; a man who worked in the Towers strapping a fellow co-worker on his back and carrying him down the stairs to safety; at the Pentagon, military and civilians crawled down smoke-filled halls to save co-workers. On this day we honor the small acts made by thousands of Americans.”
This is the second year that Valencia’s Osceola Campus has hosted the 9/11 event — and the second year that the college, along with a team of community volunteers, has erected 2,977 flags on the campus green.
The flag display was the brainchild of the campus president, Dr. Kathleen Plinske, who saw a similar display when she was teaching at Pepperdine University in California.
“The magnitude of the tragedy of 9-11 is difficult to comprehend,” said Plinske. “Each flag represents a family that will forever feel the pain of losing a loved one – husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, taken far too early from this Earth – their families and communities forever impacted.”
Scattered among the United States flags are the flags of 93 other countries — representing the 200 citizens of other countries who were also killed on that day.
“It’s easy to forget that this was a tragedy that was felt across the globe,” said Plinske.
As a quartet of students from the Osceola School for the Arts sang “God Bless America,” the crowd honored the victims of 9-11. In the audience were a handful of firefighters and police officers who were on duty in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
Retired New York City police detective Dennis Molina recalled the scene after the planes hit. “It was total chaos,” said Molina, “but the last thing I imagined was that the buildings would collapse.”
Now retired and living in Clermont, Molina came to the 9-11 ceremony to honor his fallen colleagues. “I was totally blown away when I came onto campus and I saw the flags here and all that,” said Molina. “It was very touching.”
For Herminio Rodriguez, a New York firefighter who now lives near Tampa, events such as Valencia’s 9-11 memorial are crucial so younger generations understand the events of that day. “I don’t want 9-11 to become just a paragraph in a history book,” said Rodriguez.
That was the motivation for Plinske, who organized the field of flags event, with help from the Rotary Club of Lake Nona and the county’s fire and police departments. Her vision was to establish a tradition that would teach today’s college students, many of whom were six or seven years old at the time of the terrorist attacks, about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Whether in Florida or overseas, many of the students who attended Valencia’s 9-11 ceremony were far from the attack on 9/11. Yet several had some connection to the tragic events in New York and Washington.
Irene Acevedo was six years old and living in Puerto Rico in September 2001. She can’t recall much about Sept. 11, but remembers being worried about her mother — who had flown back to New York City to get a copy of her birth certificate. “I remember I was worried about my mom,” says Acevedo. “I was scared for her.”
Others, like Yarosky Cruz, who’s 35, have vivid memories. Cruz, who’s studying graphic design at Valencia, was 23 when the towers were hit. “I was super scared — it was all surreal,” he said. “I was watching it on TV and it looked like a movie. After that, came the shock that so many people in those buildings were lost.”
But he wonders what many of his fellow students — who are 10 years younger — recall about Sept. 11. “I think,” he said, “they take it for granted.”
And that, says Plinkse, is why it’s important to hold this event every year. “We honor the memory of all who were lost in hopes that future generations never forget the attacks on our country,” Plinske said, “and work to establish peace and eradicate hatred throughout the world.”