Ground Zero: DAFB remembers 9/11 on 18th anniversary of attacks

DOVER — While Michael Hurley is saddened that the nation’s collective memory of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, appears to be waning, it remains a tragic memory that he continues to wake up to every day.

After all, the events of 9/11 unfolded on live television and left nearly 3,000 Americans dead and more than 6,000 others injured — changing most people’s views of the world in the process.

And Mr. Hurley was right there — at Ground Zero.

“I think it’s really important that people remember exactly what happened that day,” said Mr. Hurley, who was director of fire safety at the World Trade Center on 9/11. “It’s sort of human nature that as time goes on, the further you get from the date of an event, our memories seem to fade a little bit — that’s normal — but I think given the fact that it happened and the thousands of innocent people who were killed. …
“They just went to work that day. They weren’t first responders. They weren’t people who signed up for that. They just simply went to work like most people, and they didn’t come home. I think it’s really important to remember that. I’m so happy when I see events like this where those memories are kept alive.”

Mr. Hurley made those remarks after serving as the keynote speaker at the public memorial service that commemorated the fallen heroes of 9/11 at the Air Mobility Command Museum and was hosted by Dover Air Force Base Fire Emergency Services on Wednesday morning.
Catherine Cornelius attended the service and had tears in her eyes by the time Mr. Hurley had finished remembering the events of 9/11.

“It was very touching,” Ms. Cornelius said. “My sister was affected with 9/11. She developed cancer and died. She watched the second tower get hit from her apartment — she lived in the city. I’ll never forget her, and I’ll never forget 9/11. This ceremony is just touching.”
She said it is important for people to remember history – whether it’s viewed as good or bad.

“The way the world is now people want to erase statues and things like (9/11 services) and even though some of them may kind of take bad things, we need to move forward, and unless we keep remembering things like 9/11, which is bad, I think we can find the positive in it and that’s the same with everything else,” said Ms. Cornelius, from Milford, Pennsylvania.

Recalling that day
Mr. Hurley was inside the World Trade Center in New York City on that bright blue-skied, perfect-weather morning 18 years ago when jetliners hijacked by Muslim extremists slammed into the buildings, while another struck the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and another crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Hurley remembered arriving at the World Trade Center at 6 a.m. for work and meeting with officials in the basement one floor below street level. The towers had basements that went six stories below the ground.
His first indication that something was wrong came after he felt a tremor and when he heard people yelling into their radios screaming about a “fire and an explosion” and he said it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. He then noticed on a monitor that there was paper fluttering down from the sky that looked like a ticker-tape parade.

Mike Hurley

Mr. Hurley’s first thought was that somebody had brought an explosive device into the building. Nobody had any idea it was a hijacked jet that had caused the explosion that occurred when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

While Mr. Hurley was helping to organize the evacuation of the Twin Towers with first responders, at 9:03, United Airlines Flight 175 came crashing into floors 77 through 85 of the south tower of the World Trade Center.
He was startled when he saw people jumping out of windows of the skyscrapers to the ground below, one of them landing on a member of the Fire Department of the City of New York, who became the first casualty among first responders during the attacks.

“To this day I don’t like to think what the conditions were on some of those upper floors that someone looked out of a window 100 stories above the street and decided that their better option was to end it quickly and jump,” Mr. Hurley said. “I still don’t like to think about that.”

Remembering the heroes
What he does like to remember about that day is the heroic efforts of the first responders who rushed into the burning buildings to evacuate as many people as they could, with little regard for their own safety.
He also remembers the men and women from across the country who made the decision to drop everything and head to the disaster site in lower Manhattan to offer their assistance and sift through the massive amount of debris in hopes of finding survivors.

Mr. Hurley said about 25,000 pieces of human remains were recovered, along with 174 bodies.
“It was very, very difficult on many levels,” he said. “It was really a difficult thing. As each day passed the expectation that people were alive … we kept hoping (there was) a pocket or a little void somewhere where maybe people were still OK, but it just wasn’t to be and each day that passed that level of hope just diminished.

“But so many people helped — there seemed to be people from everywhere. We could see license plates from California, you name it, across the country. Firefighters just got in their cars and just drove there. It really, really united the country.”

Mr. Hurley, former director of operations for the 9/11 Tribute Center, is the recipient of two Medals of Valor and an Exceptional Service Award for his actions during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center.
One thing he said he had the most difficult time with during that time was returning calls to people who were checking on the status of their loved ones.

That, along with attending funerals that featured a picture with a loved one beside an empty casket.
“To watch mostly wives, children, not have that last view of their loved one is very hard,” said Mr. Hurley. “I don’t think I ever realized how hard that was until I saw that.”

As DNA technology advance, it does give him added hope for different outcomes.
“About 40 percent of the victims have not been identified and there are still somewhere around 5,000 pieces of remains,” he said. “DNA has advanced over years and I view that as a very positive thing.”
The 9/11 service was emceed by DAFB Senior Airman Daniel Kolk and featured the base’s Honor Guard, a wreath laying and the chill-inducing playing of “Amazing Grace” by the Dover Fire Department Pipes and Drums.

The base’s fire service personnel also rang their ceremonial bell for the civilians and first responders who died on 9/11, explaining it is a tradition that goes back to 1865. Before modern communication techniques, fire houses used to exchange announcements and alarms through the ringing of bells, the signal to mark the line-of-duty death of a firefighter or death of an official was five individual bell strikes in four sets.

“When you hear that bell ring to honor a fallen brother, it really hits home,” said Senior Airman Kolk. “… You think about the families they left behind and what the families went through after that day. It’s one of the most emotional and sobering moments you will experience as you hear the bell ringing.”

Amanda Habbestad, of Tampa, Florida, attended Wednesday’s service and said it all brought her back to that day the “world changed.”

“I was going to a history class and the teacher was not enthused about what was happening, so she didn’t let us watch it on TV. So, she continues with her lesson on history and then when we all left, we all watched the news.”
As did everyone else on that day 18 years ago.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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