South Plainfield Middle School remembered the great tragedy our nation suffered eighteen years ago with a memorial service held on Sept. 11 at 9 a.m. in the middle school courtyard. Members of South Plainfield’s fire department, rescue squad and police joined students and staff along with local political leaders, veterans and Board of Education members. Together they gathered with reverence for a day that changed the United States of America forever. The tragedy was meant to dismantle a nation, but instead, camaraderie, honor, and patriotism rose from the ashes that blanketed the streets of Manhattan.
“It’s important to remember and reflect upon those who we lost and those who gave so much so that others lived,” said History Teacher Joseph Blondo. “I think about the first responders….none of whom lost their lives, but who gave their lives so that others may live.”
Students stood before the school’s 911 Memorial that resides in the center of the courtyard, two towers that stand for unity and bravery beyond description.
“It makes me feel appreciated that we have this and get to watch something special like this,” said Steve Githiomi, eighth grade. “We can hear about people and what they went through. It’s a taste of both worlds. I speak from the heart.”
“I am honored to be a part of an institution that takes the time out each year to remember this day,” said Darcie Chycho, Special Education Teacher. “I am grateful to be a part of this community.”
An attack on America meant to tear the country apart, cowering in fear, instead unified the nation.
“I think it was amazing," said Melissa Becker, PTO President. "The kids did a great job. The responders were great. I think it’s important to know how everyone responded reacted and are still touched by everything that happened that day."
“This service is so important because the kids weren’t alive to experience what it was like,” said Kristy Lowrie, PTO Vice President. “They’ll never know what it was like to watch television and see people jumping from the towers, watch the buildings collapse, watch the smoke. They’ll never be able to fully understand the extent of what we all witnessed, the emotions that we went through, those phone calls of people calling their loved ones in the last moments.”
Many local first responders attended the service, their presence a further reminder of the great sacrifices their brethren made on the historic day eighteen years ago. Members of South Plainfield’s Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad were honored along with Police Chief James Parker and members of the Police Department.
“I think Mr. Blondo does an amazing job with this every year,” said Tim Kelly, Rescue Squad. “I hope he keeps doing it because none of these kids were here then. They weren’t born then, so I think it’s a good thing that they do this every year, just to remind them.”
South Plainfield veterans joined in the day, expressing their appreciation for the service, including Robert Bengivenga, Chuck McCann, John DeAndrea, Richard Doerr, Leonard Rolands and Richard Tarn.
Colonia resident and Navy Veteran Scott Kerr worked as a machinist in the engine room of the Destroyer from 1971-1975. Kerr, a member of Saint Ann’s of Hampton Pipes and Drums, played the bagpipes for the occasion. The notes of “Amazing Grace” echoed through the courtyard with reverence for those who had passed.
“This is very emotional, so we have to put that over our head when we play, but I’m just glad to be a part of it,” said Kerr. “It’s great they do things like this because we don’t want the kids to forget.”
Several South Plainfield school officials attended the event including: Superintendent Dr. Noreen Lishak, Assistant Superintendent Mary Flora Malyska, Board Secretary/Business Administrator Alex Benanti, Director of Special Services Andrew Brandon, Director of Math and Grants Anu Garrison, Supervisor of Technology and Library Media Annemarie Stoeckel, Supervisor of ELA and Social Studies Pam Ackerman-Garcia, Supervisor of Science Shanti Kantha-Murray, and Supervisor of Special Services Joanne Ryan. Special guests Board of Education President Thomas Cassio and Board Member Debbie Boyle also attended.
During Lishak’s superintendent report that evening at the Board of Education’s Sept. 11 committee of the whole meeting, she commented on the service.
“I would like to acknowledge the beautiful 911 Memorial Program that was held this morning at the Middle School,” said Lishak. “Our students did a beautiful job honoring the fallen of 911 while acknowledging the dedication and bravery of our first responders. We had retired members of our armed forces in attendance along with active members of the police and fire departments as well as our first responders. Thank you to Mr. Blondo for organizing the program, Mrs. Haughwout for her work with the chorus and to all of the representatives from the town council, the assembly as well as State Senator Diegnan. It was a beautiful event.”
New Jersey State Senator Patrick Diegnan attended the event. Town Council was represented by Council President Joseph Wolak, Councilman Jon Dean and Counilwoman Christine Faustini along with South Plainfield’s Chief Financial Officer, Glenn Cullen.
“The Middle School did an excellent job creating a very respectful and moving ceremony,” said Faustini. “It is very important that future generations are learning our nation’s history and are aware of what can happen right here at home. I hope the students took away a small piece of how hate tried to divide us that day and how much love brought us all together instead.”
Assistant Principal Kelly Richkus opened the service, welcoming everyone for coming and students of the South Plainfield Middle School GEMs began the service, singing, “The National Anthem” and “God Bless America.” The singers included: Allison Buchanan, Nina DeSimone, Christopher Downey, Kiera Farrell, Ava Felz, Laura Ladino Furque, Myah Kovacs, Harley Larsen, Sarah Mustafic, Timothy Prisk, Madison Szalanczi, and Adam Zaramba.
Although Middle School Principal Leo Whelan was not able to attend school that day, however, Blondo conveyed his sentiments for those gathered. He described the unfolding of the events of that tragic day, recounting how two hijacked airplanes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a third crashed into the Pentagon near Washington DC. A fourth, believed to be headed for the White House, crashed in Pennsylvania due to the heroic efforts of the passengers of the doomed aircraft.
“I am so proud of what our community, staff and students have done to create this memorial and service,” wrote Whelan, read by Blondo. “As long as there are memorials, like this one, then there will always be reminders of Sept. 11, 2001.”
With emotion in his voice, Blondo continued with his own sentiments remembering how the events of Sept. 11 impacted him and our country.
“It felt as though that day lasted for an eternity,” said Blondo. “Every day we got up and we were glued to the TV for news and more information. Every day we saw images of the smoking ruins in lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon. Every day we watched first responders and volunteers working on the pile trying to rescue and then later recover the remains of almost 3,000 people.”
“Soon thereafter, we watched as our Armed Forces began to seek justice and go after those who perpetrated this horrific event,” said Blondo. “We shared a tremendous feeling of sadness and loss. We also shared a tremendous feeling of pride and of patriotism. We showed gratitude and appreciation for our first responders and our military.”
Blondo explained that as time has passed over the past eighteen years, the tragedy, suffering, compassion and unity have faded as citizens have shown less gratitude and appreciation for first responders. Blondo explained that the school continues the tradition of the 911 memorial service every year to keep the memory alive.
“It is said that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend,” said Blondo. “That, my friends, is why we should never forget that day. That is why every year we will gather in our courtyard and remember. That is why we greatly appreciate our guests joining us in remembrance and why we are eternally grateful to those who stand the watch, patrol our streets, come when we need medical assistance, and run up the stairs when we are trying to get out.”
Students Kelsey Geurts, Lindsay Holler, Alyna Hosein, and Daniel Kapsch lowered the 911 memorial remembrance flags to half-staff to honor those who perished.
Afterwards, five wreaths were brought by students escorted by first responders, several of whom were parents of those they walked beside. The wreaths were placed before the memorial in tribute for the members of the New York Fire Department (NYFD), New York City Police Department (NYPD), Port Authority Police Department (PAPD), members of the United States military, and all of the civilians on board the four hijacked airplanes, at the Pentagon, and at the World Trade Center.
The NYFD wreath was presented by Brielle Stolz, escorted by Tim Kelly of South Plainfield’s Emergency Services. The NYPD wreath was carried by Samantha Culver, escorted by her father Detective Sgt. Jay Culver. The PAPD wreath was presented by Vincenzo Venetucci, escorted by his father, Officer Vito Venetucci. The military wreath was carried by Sophia Colucci, escorted by her father Sgt. Chris Colucci, of the SPPD. The wreath for civilians was presented by Emma Hoppe, escorted by her father Officer Mike Hoppe, SPPD.
Blondo explained that before radios were invented, fire departments sent messages from one firehouse to another via a system of bells and telegraphs. These messages were a series of numbered rings of the firehouse bell. The New York City Fire Department has kept the tradition of ringing out alarm code 5-5-5-5 in quarters whenever a member of service has fallen in the line of duty.
Student Alexandra Sacco then rang the bell alarm code 5-5-5-5, followed by a moment of silence.
In the silence that followed, students Nina DeSimone and Dina Nugyen played Taps on their trumpets. As the echo of their melody subsided, the solemn notes of the bagpipes took its place with “Amazing Grace.”
Diegnan then was introduced to address the students.
“911 was an awful thing, but it also showed what a resilient country we have,” said Diegnan. “I also want all of the young people to remember about the day after 911 and all the days subsequent and how we can together as a nation. Now those terrorists actually believed that they were going to defeat what this country is all about.”
Closing his speech, Diegnan asked the students to look at the first responders and reminded them of the great sacrifice they made.
“These brave men and women, what they refer to as first responders, do you know why they call them first responders?” said Diegnan. “When the towers were falling and everyone was running from the towers, these first responders were running to the towers to save lives. And then after that when we needed justice done around the world, these veterans put their lives on the line so that what we stand for will never be forgotten.”
After a standing ovation for the military and first responders for their selfless devotion. Richkus thanked the veterans, first responders and distinguished guests for coming. Closing the service, the students were dismissed.
“I just think that the service was just great,” said Lowrie. “It was moving. It was very patriotic. It was nice to have the police, the first responders, the veterans. The whole thing was great and you can see their passion. I love seeing the kids standing in front of their parents with the wreath. It was very emotional.”
“I’m so grateful for Joe Blondo who takes this time to organize and get the different respective individuals to come, who’s made this memorial here in this courtyard something that the children can look at and remember,” said Chycho. “He allows this community to come together and remember this great day and to help us recognize and never forget the things that are important to us. ”