On a day when people gathered at memorials across the nation and pledged to “never forget,” San Luis Obispo officials clustered around a newly finished World Trade Center Memorial and recalled where they were the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Acting police Chief Keith Storton was at home with his young sons, watching cartoons. City Manager Katie Lichtig was trying to catch up on sleep after a late council meeting in Malibu. Fire Capt. Matt Callahan was asleep at Fire Station No. 1.
All three were soon glued to their television sets that tragic morning, watching events unfold faster than the newscasters could explain them.
“On that particular morning when the bells sounded, the fire service in America was changed forever,” Callahan said. “Only two hours before, crews were laughing at breakfast just like any other day, and now they were gone.”
They spoke Friday, on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, in front of the city’s newly constructed memorial at the main fire station on Santa Barbara Avenue. The memorial, “Standing Tall,” pays tribute to the 403 emergency workers who died while helping others try to escape the World Trade Center towers before they fell.
In the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, 2,977 victims were killed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four passenger planes, ramming two into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and one into a Pennsylvania field.
In the center of the circular plaza at Fire Station No. 1 in San Luis Obispo, a massive steel I-beam — once a structural support for one of the World Trade Center towers — has been placed horizontally to recall how it was originally installed.
Several hundred people — veterans, schoolchildren, firefighters, police, public officials and the public — attended the ceremony on a muggy day.
Fifth- and sixth-grade students from Hawthorne and Sinsheimer elementary schools sang “America the Beautiful,” followed by a performance of “Amazing Grace” by the Central Coast Pipes and Drums.
A blue laminated list of some of the New York City Fire Department firefighters who died on 9/11 was placed on many seats.
“Today with this memorial dedication, our community pays tribute to the extraordinary sacrifices made by public safety personnel who gave their lives so others could live,” San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx said.
The memorial is a tribute to the courage and bravery exhibited Sept. 11, 2001, as well as in the months and years after the attack, Lichtig said.
“It is true that the devastation of that day invokes sadness,” Storton added, “but the honorable deaths of that day have sparked us, the living, sharing together that we will never forget.”
Ground Zero was still burning, Fire Chief Garret Olson recalled, when he arrived in New York in mid-November 2001 to serve as a government liaison between that city and the Red Cross.
“We hope you will never become accustomed to the 403 poles that stand behind me because they aren’t a statistic,” Olson said. “Each represents a big vibrant life.”
Olson added — directing his comments to the students at the event — that 1 in 5 U.S. citizens was not yet born in 2001.
“This memorial is constructed to give you an opportunity to lay your hands on a piece of our history,” he said, “surrounded by our values that caused 403 public safety professionals to run toward a mission to save complete strangers — a mission they would not return from.”
As the ceremony drew to a close, public safety personnel passed out long-stemmed roses to the crowd, which was then invited to place them on the steel beam. A line quickly formed.
By the end, the massive beam, which evokes memories of strength as well as sacrifice, was covered in yellow, peach and pink roses.