9/11 commemoration teaches pupils the importance of service
By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- As terrorists hijacked passenger planes and attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Air Force fighter jets took to the sky in response.
Retired Col. Robert "Bob" Marr recalls having to scramble jets the morning of the attacks from his command center in Rome, N.Y.
As the country headed into the weekend and the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Marr spoke to pupils at Greenwood Mill Elementary School on Friday about his experience on that date. Parents of many of the children also attended the event, and heard first from Principal Kris Waldrop.
"There are many emotions that you may be feeling right now, including sadness for the lives lost, happiness for the strong in which we live and extreme gratefulness for those who keep it safe," Waldrop said. "Keep in mind that you can make a positive difference in our world daily."
More than 800 pupils, most of them wearing red, white and blue clothes, had walked in a procession from their classrooms to the gymnasium, waving American flags, and some holding banners.
Marr, who retired in 2005 and now lives in Clear Brook, worked 10 years ago as the commander of the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y.
The attacks taught the nation's people about themselves, according Marr.
"It taught us that we as Americans don't run away from a fight, that we have Americans as you see sitting over here that don't run away from disaster but run to the disaster and help people out," Marr said, pointing toward fire and rescue workers and a Virginia police officer seated next to him.
Marr moved quickly and engaged the children with a collection of hats and helmets -- those worn by firefighters, pilots and police.
Then he recalled the morning of the attacks -- clear and sunny. A call from an air traffic controller alerted Marr's center about a plane, possibly hijacked and in an unknown location. Marr said he scrambled fighters from Cape Cod, Mass., to fly to New York.
"As they screamed going supersonic toward New York City that's when the first crash occurred," Marr said. "And as they're about to get over New York City we watched on the news as the second tower was hit."
Pilots Tim "Duff" Duffy and Dan "Nasty" Nash spent the next four hours flying over New York. Marr's center called on more pilots from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton to intercept a third hijacked jetliner, but they arrived too late to stop the one that crashed into the Pentagon.
"They were rushing to the disaster," Marr said. "They were rushing to Washington as fast as they could to try an provide air cover for the people they knew were in danger."
Pointing to the headgear representing each response agency, Marr noted many people who wore similar ones were already on the ground helping in the aftermath of the attacks.
"They got in their trucks and they rushed toward the fire," Marr said. "Have you ever seen a fireman rush away from a fire?"
"No," hundreds of pupils said at once.
Marr did the same with a police officer's hat.
"Boys and girls, you may be young but you all are Americans," Marr said. "Some of you may grow up to wear these hats, but not all of you. Some of you will make the decision that you too would be the one that runs to the disaster, that wears the hat that other people can feel safe."
Marr told the children that the next time they see firefighters, police officers, soldiers, to "just say thank you."
"Thank you," the crowd said in unison.
The fourth-grade chorus performed to close out the remembrance event.
Afterward, Marr spoke further about his experience. The episode occurred in under 90 minutes -- the hijack alert at 8:40 a.m. and the first plane strike at 8:47 a.m. to the fourth crash at 10:02 a.m.
"For everybody else it's like 9/11 ended at 10:02 that morning," Marr recalled. "For us, that was just the beginning. I mean that's when we were starting to get all the other fighters in the air that we could call up."
In the years that followed, Marr made presentations to various groups about what happened in that time, step by step, given the interest in the few years that followed the attacks.
"But now I think we need to understand, with this 10-year anniversary and probably before this, that, yes, it was a horrible attack," Marr said. "It's a war on America, and I don't call it anything less than a war on America. It was not terrorists, it was murderers.
"But as I tried to emphasize to the kids here it really is time for us as Americans to somberly remember the people who lost their lives and whose lives were impacted," Marr added. "But it's also more important for us to take that and learn who we are, what we are as Americans."