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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Gainesville stands in unity for 20th anniversary 9/11 commemoration

About 50 people gathered in Reserve Park to honor the victims

The Gainesville Fire Rescue and Gainesville Police Department joint honor guard does a presentation of colors at Reserve Park on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. The three flags represent the city, state and country (from left to right).
The Gainesville Fire Rescue and Gainesville Police Department joint honor guard does a presentation of colors at Reserve Park on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. The three flags represent the city, state and country (from left to right).

In 2001, Rev. Debra Hepburn ran to the mental health unit at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, immediately following the news of a plane crash. The epic scope of what happened hadn’t fully occurred to her yet. 

Shrieks filled the corridors. Hepburn, a chaplain, knew the country was in trouble.

It’s been 20 years since the day when thousands of Americans died at the hands of an al-Qaeda terrorist attack. Twenty years of pain, strength and growth.

Hepburn, now the Chaplain of UF Health Shands, took to the podium and blessed everyone that endured challenges from the horrific day. 

Roughly 50 members of the Gainesville community came together at Reserve Park Sept. 11 and recognized those who were forever impacted by the day of Sept. 11, 2001, and the effects on our country thereafter. 

The Gainesville Fire Rescue and Gainesville Police Department joined the honor guard in opening the ceremony as they marched to the podium and perched three flags. The country, state and city flags sat behind speakers as they took to the lectern and recounted their 9/11 stories.

Reserve Park
A woman consoles a child at Reserve Park on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. They were two of about 50 who gathered there to share 9/11 stories and commemorate the lives lost 20 years ago.

The presentation came to a pause at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. as the crowd bowed their heads in silence and paid their respects to the people that didn’t make it out alive. Fire and police across Gainesville did the same.

Mayor Lauren Poe detailed his experience on the day of 9/11. Poe designated Sept. 11 as Patriot Day to commemorate the lives lost.

As a history teacher at Gainesville’s Fort Clarke Middle School in 2001, Poe had a planning block period and wasn’t teaching a lesson when he heard the news of the first plane crash. Students came in for their regularly scheduled class afterward. Unsure of what to say, the class fell silent. But they didn’t need words. 

Poe decided to have students write in his or her daily journal entry as usual. However, that day’s prompt was different.  

He told the students to jot down every thought and feeling that came to mind, related or not to what was happening in New York. 

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"I was devastated," Poe said. "My soul had been ripped out."

He said his students have told him as adults they continually go back to those 9/11 entries to reflect.

Larry Perkins, a 66-year-old Gainesville resident, was heading to North Carolina on a business trip upon hearing the news over the radio. Perkins and his husband stopped in Atlanta for a lunch break and immediately noticed a scene he remembers to this day. A group of people formed a circle in a field, held hands and prayed.

Perkins traveled to New York a week later for an art auction. He said he was surprised to see the city had inhaled heaps of smoke as the towers smoldered. He watched as lights illuminated the outline of the absent twin pillars at night.

"It really brought tears to my eyes,” Perkins said.

The 9/11 attacks had implications for the rest of the world, too.

Catholic Priest Augustine Nwagbara discussed the ramifications 9/11 had on his home country, Nigeria. The terrorist attacks devastated Nigerians as their image of the world’s superpower was shattered, Nwagbara said. 

Reserve Park
Gainesville Police Department Chief Tony Jones bows his head for a moment of silence at Reserve Park on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Across Gainesville at 9:03 a.m., police and fire stations also held moments of silence.

“What about us?” he asked. “That left us with great trauma, and the effects of that event is still rocking many nations today.”

GPD Police Chief Tony Jones, took the stand after Nwagbara to thank the heroes who risked their lives to save others.

“I felt a sense of unity,” Jones said. “We’re still learning, but we came together as a nation.”

Jones didn’t fully comprehend at first what was happening on 9/11. He thought it was fake, like a play or a movie. But when he flipped through news channels, he knew it was real.

“When you saw people running from that building, you saw your first responders running to that building,” Jones said. “As the building came down, heroes rose.”

Contact Faith Buckley at Follow her on Twitter @_faithbuckley

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Faith Buckley

Faith is a third-year journalism student specializing in sports media. She hopes to one day work as a play-by-play announcer for the National Hockey League. 

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