EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Following the attacks on New York City and the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Bill Keegan, a Port Authority Police Officer grabbed a pair of gloves. Donated by a group of third-graders in Iowa, the gloves were sent to the first responders whose horrific job it was to sift through the ash, steel, and concrete that had settled on Ground Zero. They were looking for survivors to provide a "rescue or respectful recovery" to the victims of the attacks as well as their own comrades who ran to help people to escape. The gloves were used then discarded as responders sorted through the rubble.
When Keegan put his hand inside one of his gloves, he discovered a note from a third grader. It read, "I hope these gloves help you to find your friends."
Fifteen years later, the telling of this story still brought tears to Keegan's eyes as he shared it with our community at the Night of Remembrance held at the East Brunswick 9/11 Memorial near the municipal building. Bill Keegan, founder of the recovery organization HEART 911, was the speaker at the event that honored the 8 East Brunswick residents who died as a result of the 9/11 attacks.
Keegan recalled that the "respect and dignity was extraordinary" among responders, but he also noted that "our hope devolved into 'Is there a God?'" Though he acknowledged that the burden of service caused some responders to lose hope - "We were lost" - he also saw people rise to achieve a "sacred mission" to help the families at home learn whatever they could about their loved ones.
Keegan went on to describe his ongoing efforts to bring peace and closure to the families involved in all sites involved in the single greatest attack on the United States.
"Being a hero is a matter of choice," said East Brunswick Mayor Kevin McEvoy, challenging citizens to see the 9/11 remembrance as a chance to be filled with a sense of sacrifice and to "resubmit themselves to engagement" with the greater community.
McEvoy echoed the sentiments expressed by Reverend Jill Collict of the Nativity Evangelical Lutheran Church who gave the invocation: "Build us up, oh God, as we seek peace and justice."
In an earlier interview, McEvoy reflected, "On this the 15 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on our country let us never forget to remember, reflect and honor the victims, rescue workers and survivors. The wound still hurts, but as we continue moving forward, let's remain committed to that spirit of unity, which we experienced in the days after the tragedy, and which we embrace today."
The somber memorial service included a roll call of the eight members of the East Brunswick community who perished in the attacks. The roll was recited by Mike Simons, a retired Port Authority Police Detective and 9/11 survivor. The roll call was punctuated by the clear ringing of a bell by East Brunswick High School Music Director Brian Toth.
Supported by the Boy Scouts of Troops 223 and 132, the wreath ceremony honored the members of the United States Military; the Police, Fire, and EMS responders; and our citizens who fell in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia on September 11, 2001.
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Temple B'Nai Shalom connected the memorial event with both the solemnity and remembrance of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and the promise offered by Rosh Hashanah in the closing benediction.
The ceremony was opened and closed with bagpipe music performed by John O'Keefe and songs from the East Brunswick Community Chorus and the EBHS Brass Choir.
This well-attended event also presented the opportunity for the community to join together in a celebration of service. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Cubs and Brownies heard the words and were drawn into the patriotic, supportive atmosphere in a positive, peace-oriented way. The East Brunswick Independent Firefighters and Police Department joined the members of the Rescue Squad to acknowledge the roles their peers - more than 300 firefighters lost their lives on a single day - and, by their presence, to pledge themselves to service to the greater community.
Mayoral candidate and Board of Education Member Dr. Brad Cohen (D) affirmed, "Patriotism comes in many forms. The victims of 9/11 woke up that morning never expecting to become patriots. But through an evil act of terrorism, they have become patriots, and the images of that day are etched in our memories. Like many patriots, they have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. This diverse group of patriots helps to remind us of what it means to be an American. As we take this day to honor the victims of 9/11, we should also thank God that we live in the greatest country on earth- a place worthy of such a sacrifice."
Council member and mayoral candidate Jim Wendell (R) celebrated the attendance at the event and the respectful, positive feeling in the audience: "I am happy to see people come together for this fitting tribute. It's great to see such a turnout for our community, and I would love to see this type of turnout for all our events. We all lived through this and it hit home with us." Wendell also praised the efforts of Mayor McEvoy and the EB Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as acknowledging the inspirational presence of Mike Simons.
Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-18) noted that "we never did this before and we should have." She added that, as an elected official, she has seen greater patriotism over the last few years, "as more people are not taking their liberty for granted."
It seems like Bill Keegan, with gloves on or off, has been finding his friends. He made some new ones in East Brunswick at this somber event, and we gained a renewed sense of purpose and recalled the dignity of those who perished and of those who preserved their memory.