SMRYNA — The years just keep on rushing by, but the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, remain vivid.
This is particularly true for first responders, who watched as hundreds of fellow firefighters, police officers and medical personnel responded to the terrorist attacks.
Tragically, 415 of them lost their lives when the buildings in New York collapsed.
Twenty-one years later, Christopher Hudson, past president and spokesman for the Citizens’ Hose Co. of Smyrna, said it will “always be important” to remember every one of the 2,977 victims killed on 9/11 in New York City, at the Pentagon and in the downed plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
That’s why his agency and the Smyrna-Clayton Ministerium will hold their 20th annual 9/11 Memorial Service on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the fire company at 103 W. Commerce St.
“You’ve got to keep their memories alive,” Mr. Hudson said. “The 343 firemen who died in New York alone, plus you’ve got the police officers, the folks in the Pentagon who perished. … We’ve got to keep their memory going forever.”
Several soloists will be performing at 6:30 in the leadup to the service, including renditions of “God Bless America” and bagpipers offering “Amazing Grace.”
The Rev. John Reilly, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smyrna since September 1996, will lead the gathering in a candlelight vigil.
Then, in a traditionally heartbreaking moment, more than 100 local first responders will salute the flag in memory of the fallen heroes.
“We’ve been having 9/11 ceremonies since 2002, in conjunction with the Presbyterian church across the street,” said Mr. Hudson. “We always shut down Commerce Street and invite our neighboring fire departments and the public. Plus, we always have a guest speaker speak, and it’s very moving. If you’ve never been to one, it’s a great event to go to.”
Robert Verhelst, also known as “Fireman Rob,” will serve as the featured speaker this year. Mr. Hudson said Fireman Rob worked on the massive pile of rubble in New York in the days following 9/11, aiding the search-and-recovery effort. He has served as a career firefighter for the city of Madison, Wisconsin, since 2000 and is an Air Force veteran.
“My mission to inspire people to ‘live your passion’ started in 2011, when I did Ironman Wisconsin, which landed on the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” Mr. Verhelst said. “I did it different than most though, for the purpose of honoring those who lost their lives and those who responded. I did the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and then donned my full firefighter gear — helmet, bunker pants, jacket and air pack weighing 50 pounds — for the 26.2-mile run.”
He finished the race in 16 hours, 17 minutes and became an inspiration to many.
Since, Mr. Verhelst has completed 23 Ironman and 29 Half-Ironman triathlons, in full firefighter gear for every run portion, totaling 1,022 miles in the equipment.
“In 2015, I pushed the envelope of what is possible and broke the Guinness World Record for the Most Ironman 70.3 Triathlons in one year with 23,” he said. “The existing record, that was done all in normal triathlon gear, but I broke it by completing each run portion with my fire gear.
“I truly live and emphatically believe in the power of purpose and a strong mind-set, to overcome any challenge or fear. I deliver an empowering message to the audience about engaging their passion through mental strength to live their true potential,” he said.
Mr. Hudson said every Sept. 11 is a day of reflection and remembrance.
“We can never forget these brave individuals and those who lost their lives in the attacks,” he said. “They will be remembered — always.”