In the first years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, New York City firefighter Ray Pfeifer of Hicksville felt rage. Hatred.
Now he is 58, retired and in a wheelchair, stricken with cancer like so many other responders who searched the toxic ruins in lower Manhattan. His hatred has changed, too.
It’s “not so much hate as trying to understand in my mind — why?” he said. “What did it accomplish murdering all those people? It didn’t accomplish anything.”
So he goes to the 9/11 memorials and “I read the names, I look at the names and I try to think of good things.”
Fifteen years after the shattering events of 9/11, the memorials created throughout the world have become special places, for contemplation, memory and anniversary observances.
More than 27 million have visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero since it opened to the public five years ago. Smaller memorials — some as simple as a plaque on a stone, some with elaborate designs of sculpture, engraved walls, pieces of World Trade Center steel, fountains and flags — may be quieter and less frequented, but they, too, still resonate with the names of the dead.
“We think about ourselves in the present — when we go to a memorial it focuses you on the past,” said Alice Greenwald, director of the Sept. 11 memorial and museum at Ground Zero. “Memorials are the way we make promises to the future about the past.”
As on every anniversary since Sept. 11, 2001, somber observances will mark the events of that day at memorials in village greens, parks, schools, firehouses, government buildings and police plazas across the tristate region.
This year, Nassau County hastened to repair deterioration at its Eisenhower Park memorial before a candlelight vigil on Sept. 8, a day after the Town of Oyster Bay’s Tobay Beach memorial candlelight vigil. Thousands routinely attend the annual sunrise service on 9/11 at the Town of Hempstead’s Point Lookout Beach, and the candlelight service at Seaford High School’s memorial.
For the responders, 9/11 is still going on: the ceremony at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park, on a busy corner in Nesconset, is set for Sept. 17. John Feal, president of the FealGood Foundation, which assists responders throughout the nation, said their story would not end “until the last person who dies from a 9/11-related illness goes on the wall.”
So far, there are more than 700 names inscribed there with room for many more, he said.
The promise of communal memory is a comfort to family members who live with their own memories daily. Not all can bear to visit the memorials, however, and some families prefer to leave town on 9/11 and observe the anniversary privately, Pfeifer said.
Linda Cavalier of Huntington said her husband, Gerry, is unable to go to any memorial. She, however, attends the annual observance at Huntington’s Sept. 11 memorial in Heckscher Park, where the names of their son Judson, known as Judd, and his boyhood friend and colleague Joseph Anchundia are on a plaque honoring 43 town residents who died. Judd and Joseph worked at Sandler O’Neill & Partners on the 104th floor of the south tower of the Trade Center.
Cavalier said she and her husband find peace in the backyard garden where they buried a small box containing Judd’s recovered remains.
“This is where I come to talk to him,” she said. “I tell him how much I miss him.”
Betty Ann McCarthy of Point Lookout feels connected to her son Justin through two benches, where she’s installed memorial plaques near the beach in Long Beach and in Point Lookout a block from her home. She sits there often, and brings flowers there on Justin’s birthday. His remains were not found.
“I’m not big on cemeteries so I’m happy with my benches,” she said. “I’d be very unhappy if I didn’t have that.”
He was among the 658 of investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald’s 960 employees who perished on 9/11, and his mother attends an annual company observance.
The 15 years since the attack have taken a toll on some memorials: a $125,000 state grant is helping to fund the Eisenhower Park repairs, replacing broken tiles and concrete, oozing adhesive, peeling paint, tattered flags, litter and graffiti. In Lindenhurst’s memorial park, a 300-pound cement statue of Hansen, a 9/11 search and rescue dog, was toppled in 2011 but soon replaced by a bronze statue — and surveillance cameras — paid for with donations.
Long Beach retiree William Murphy, who used to work often at the Twin Towers as a union air conditioning and heating installer, routinely replaces filched angels and flags on his homemade memorial outside his home. But volunteers helped him restore the monument after it was toppled and heavily vandalized in December. Just last month, he had to replace the big flagpole someone broke in the night. “It’s just that few, I don’t know why,” Murphy said about those who do the damage.
“It’s the idiots, the drunk people [from the bars] down there,” said R.J. Tuccillo, chief of the Long Beach Fire Department, whose members helped repair the damage in December.
“Most people are very much appreciative,” Murphy said. “They come, they say thank you.”
Retired firefighter Pfeifer said he was upset over the deterioration at Eisenhower Park, where two 30-foot towers composed of aluminum bars rise from a fountain shaped like lower Manhattan and plaques are inscribed with the names of the 344 county residents who died on 9/11. “I understand it’s 15 years later and things are going to fade, things are going to deteriorate, but you have to maintain it,” he said.
Thomas Vetri, deputy town commissioner for the Town of Babylon who oversees the town’s memorial at Cedar Beach along with a committee of family members and others, lauded the semiannual cleanups there that draw numerous volunteers.
“It has not been forgotten in Babylon; it’s still very much used and supported and visited and thought about,” Vetri said. “We really accomplished what we started out to do, which is to make something for perpetuity to offset that terrible devastation and loss.”
Families of 48 Babylon residents who died that day gather for an evening service each Sept. 10.
“It’s a very special place, a sanctuary,” said Ralph Ascoli, 77, of West Babylon, a facility coordinator who lost daughter Debra Mannetta, and tries to visit several times a month. “I’ve been to memorials all over the world and there’s nothing like our memorial.”
David Sterne, district manager for the Setauket fire district, described as “kind of a hidden gem” the parklike Sept. 11 memorial at the Nicolls Road firehouse, where a service is held on 9/11 around its benches, fountain, twin granite slabs inscribed with names and pieces of the now-ubiquitous World Trade Center steel. “It’s something I wish more people knew about,” he said.
There is nothing secluded about the memorial to five Seaford High School graduates. It stands prominently near the school’s entrance and teachers hold classes around it to talk about the fallen alumni and events of that day.
“We try to connect the dots, that each one of them was very important,” said Tom Condon, the school’s athletic director who was instrumental in the memorial’s creation, and is on the committee of family members and volunteers that planned the memorial and oversees anniversary observances. Each June, five Patriot Awards of $2,000 are given to students for their commitment to service. The fundraising dinner attracts more than 250 each year.
“That’s the legacy: This is a living memorial,” he said.
The family members of Michael Wittenstein and Robert Sliwak, who both worked at Cantor Fitzgerald; NYPD Officer John Perry; and brothers FDNY firefighter Tim and battalion chief Thomas Haskell, say the awards, and their connections to each other and the community, sustain them.
“I think what is unique is the sense of community,” said Arnold Wittenstein, father of Michael. “There’s a saying in our community, ‘Seaford Pride,’ and it’s true.”
Lucille Ficara, sister of Robert Sliwak, said, “It’s bittersweet coming here. . . . The whole process is therapeutic.”
The Haskells’ brother Ken, a recently retired firefighter, said that while nothing could replace the loss, it is tempered by the support and the involvement of young people. “On a personal level, I’m very grateful . . . 15 years later it’s taken on a life of its own.”
In a now-annual ritual, Glen Klein, 57, of Centereach, a retired New York City police officer and responder, will spend the 15th anniversary of 9/11 visiting the Long Island gravesites of 13 colleagues who died that day. He has also visited memorials at local firehouses and at Ground Zero, where he remembers the days of horror in the aftermath of 9/11.
Some responders said they appreciate the Ground Zero memorial plaza with its rows of trees and twin reflecting pools but can feel unsettled by their remoteness from the devastation they replaced.
For Klein, the transformation has made it easier for him to visit the Ground Zero memorial.
“It takes a place that was extremely ugly and horrible and turns it into something beautiful.”
Wednesday, Sept. 7
- Town of Oyster Bay candlelight vigil, 7 p.m. at Tobay Beach 9/11 memorial
Thursday, Sept. 8
- Nassau County sunset candlelight and remembrance ceremony, 6:30 p.m. at Eisenhower Park 9/11 memorial
Sunday, Sept. 11
- Town of Hempstead 9/11 ecumenical memorial service, 7:30 a.m. at Point Lookout Town Park on Lido Boulevard
- Town of North Hempstead memorial service, 8 a.m. at Mary Jane Davies Green on Plandome Road in Manhasset, across the street from Town Hall
- Guided meditation and walk for peace, 8:30 a.m. on grass near 9/11 memorial at Heckscher Park in Huntington, or at Dipamkara Meditation Center on New York Avenue in case of rain
- Free admission to the Francis X. Pendl Nassau County Firefighters Museum’s new 9/11 exhibit in Garden City
Wantagh Memorial Congregational Church 9/11 worship service, 10:30 a.m. at 1845 Wantagh Ave.
Temple Sinai of Roslyn open to community to make cards, cookies and banners for local fire house and police station to honor first responders
Farmingdale United Methodist Church 9/11 observance, 9:30 a.m., 407 Main St.
Seaford High School memorial candle lighting ceremony, 7 p.m., 1575 Seamans Neck Rd.
Check local firehouses, schools and libraries for further memorial observances.