DOVER — Hearts were heavy at the Air Mobility Command Museum on Saturday morning as service members, first responders, Delaware officials and civilians gathered for an annual 9/11 memorial event.
The recent turmoil in Afghanistan in combination with a 20-year milestone since the 2001 tragedy made for a powerful and emotional ceremony.
The ceremony was held in front of a 9/11 memorial sculpture, which debuted on Sept. 11, 2013. It includes two pieces of steel from the World Trade Center, a rock from the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site in rural Pennsylvania and a block from the damaged portion of the Pentagon.
Master Sgt. Tyree Bacon, who served over 20 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and is a retired New York State Court Officer Captain, was a special guest speaker. He shared a harrowing story, recounting his call to action on 9/11, where a “chance encounter” changed his life forever.
Doris Torres worked in foreign trade for Fiduciary Trust International, and left her office on the 97th floor as soon as the first plane hit the north tower. She helped an emotional colleague down a few flights and returned to help others in the mall area in the second tower.
This is where Sgt. Bacon and three other court officers found her badly burned. Sgt. Bacon said that her injuries were critical, and they quickly put her on a stair chair to evacuate.
“Within seconds, tower two collapsed,” he said. “We were lost and disoriented yet we maintained physical contact with each other, despite being blown approximately 100 feet across the floor in zero visibility conditions.”
Sgt. Bacon said he was almost certain they were going to die, but in the end, it was Ms. Torres who gave him the strength and motivation to press on.
“If not for her, I would have curled up in the fetal position and waited to die,” he said. “If we did not have this chance encounter, I would have died alongside my fellow officers. So many people have called me the hero, but the real hero to me is Ms. Torres.”
Sgt. Bacon’s fellow officers, Capt. Harry Thompson, Senior Court Officer Tommy Jurgens, and Senior Court Officer Mitchel Wallace, were found in the spring of 2002, surrounded by civilians who authorities believe were shielded by the officers’ bodies. Sgt. Bacon tracked down Ms. Torres to the New York Hospital Burn Unit on Sept. 16, 2001, five days after the attacks, but got no further than the waiting room.
“The staff was working feverishly to save her life,” he said. “She died that evening with a family by her side.”
Sgt. Bacon commended the 343 FDNY firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, 23 NYPD police officers, eight EMS workers, and three New York State court officers, who “all made the supreme sacrifice at the World Trade Center.”
“They died in perhaps the world’s greatest rescue efforts, and what is estimated to be over 50,000 lives saved because of these great heroes,” he said.
Sgt. Bacon said that he and several of his friends and family members that survived the attacks have lasting injuries and illnesses from 9/11, some of which killed them years later. Cancer, lung issues, sinusitis and a “host of other ailments” have plagued him and the people around him. He said they all have PTSD as well.
Staff Sgt. Sulaiman Burns gave opening remarks and introduced each guest. He said that 20 years ago he was only in the third grade, but hearing so many stories from older service members and supervisors gives his own service meaning.
“September 11th happened and (some people) immediately ran to sign up (for the military,)” he said. “That day is embedded in them and you buy into their feelings because they’re so powerful.”
Sgt. Bacon said it is important to teach young people about 9/11 because it is part of history, and if it is not remembered, “we are doomed to repeat it.”
He believes that the U.S. has taken a step backwards in some respects, due to the severe political divide across the country.
“I wish we had the camaraderie, the patriotism, just the common decency amongst everyone that we had 20 years ago,” he said. “It breaks my heart because regardless of where you sit or what your beliefs are, we’re all Americans and that is a bond that unites us all.”
The events on Sept. 11 and the patriotism that emerged sparked several changes, which Chaplain David Sparks from Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, reflected on. He said that before 9/11, the process of transporting deceased service members could be judged as treating them like “cargo.”
“The end of the Blue Bark was the beginning of two decades of what we now call dignified transfer,” Chaplain Sparks said. “This began the era of focusing on dignity, honor and respect for the fallen, and care, service and support for their families.”
He explained that the term “Blue Bark” is used to designate U.S. military personnel, U.S. citizen civilians, employees of the Department of Defense and dependents of both categories who are returning from overseas and traveling in connection with the death of a Soldier or civilian employee’s immediate family. It also applies to designated escorts for dependence on deceased military members and is used to designate the personal property shipments of a deceased member.
Chaplain Sparks said this change was the most “striking” and “meaningful” of all the changes since 9/11, and that caring for returning heroes is Dover’s mission.
“Team Dover makes a significant statement as they stand at attention until families leave the flight line,” he said. “Team Dover makes a powerful impact when they come to attention on Dover’s sidewalk as the family vehicle passes by. Team Dover shows respect when you see a family vehicle and take the extra step… and stand at attention.”
Col. Matthew Hussman, commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base, said that Dover has been there every step of the way, from the day the towers fell, to recent missions in Afghanistan.
“Dover has always been ready,” Col. Hussman said. “This community has come together from the (first) minute, 20 years ago, whether that was responding to the Pentagon or executing missions that flew out while the smoke was still billowing from those two magnificent towers in New York City… We all unite in that resolve that they demonstrated 20 years ago, because we stand ready for peace and justice to execute around the world.”
Almost every soldier who died in the Afghanistan War was flown back to Dover Air Force Base, including the 13 service members who were killed by the suicide bombings in Kabul in late August.
The 9/11 memorial sculpture can be viewed year-round at the AMC Museum and is open and free to the public Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.