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S.F. firefighters, others honor peers who died on 9/11

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S.F. firefighters, others honor peers who died on 9/11

Marisa Lagos and Diana Walsh, Chronicle Staff Writers

San Francisco Chronicle September 11, 2006 02:28 PM Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, September 11, 2006


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Frederic Larson / SFC

At Fire Station 7, Chief Joanne Hayes-White (left) and her command staff honor the firefighters who died in the 9/11 attacks five years ago. Chronicle photo by Frederic Larson


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Hundreds of people across the Bay Area -- including firefighters, airline personnel and family members of victims -- paused today to honor the thousands of people who died five years ago today in the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

At dawn, 350 firefighters stood at attention across San Francisco, honoring a moment of silence for their peers who died responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

About six hours later, 100 people, mostly pilots and flight attendants, gathered at San Francisco International Airport to remember the crew members who died when terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Among those who died was 45-year-old Betty Ong, a flight attendant out of Andover, Mass. She was working on American Airlines Flight 11, en route from Boston to Los Angeles, when hijackers took control and slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, killing all 92 people onboard the plane.

Cathie Ong, Betty Ong's older sister who lives in Bakersfield, delivered a moving narrative of how the death of her sister -- whom she called her best friend -- has affected her life.

"Life has moved on for many people," she said. "For me, it feels like it happened only yesterday. For me, there is no such thing as a first, second, third, fourth or fifth remembrance. Every day is a remembrance. I feel like I am stuck in a time capsule."

Cathie Ong thanked other flight attendants and pilots for resuming their roles following the terror attacks.

"I'm very proud of all of you for continuing to put your uniforms on and get on the big bad bird and for keeping all of us safe," she said.

Even five years later, the terror attacks resonate deeply with people who lost their peers, said San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and United Airlines flight attendant Heather Lauter-Clay -- regardless of whether they knew them personally.

"Today is very important," said Lauter-Clay, who organized the SFO ceremony and took five years off after 9/11 to help flight attendants and crew work through the aftermath of the attacks. "Our grief is so immense. We carry this every day. For better or worse, it's part of who we are now."

The tragedy also affects public safety employees, Hayes-White said.

"It still touches us very clearly -- I don't think a day goes by that we put on our uniforms and we don't reflect on the people who lost their lives on 9/11 and the public safety professionals who give their lives every day," she said. "When we leave in the morning we never know how the day is going to unfold. When we leave our families in the morning, we hope we are coming back but we never know."

San Francisco firefighters stood in front of the city's 43 fire stations this morning in their dark blue dress uniforms and read off the names of the 343 New York firefighters who died that day.

The department hadn't read the names since the first anniversary of 9/11, and five years later, said Hayes-White, it was still a fitting tribute for those who "gave the ultimate sacrifice."

At Fire Station 7 on 19th Street, 29 men and women -- including Hayes-White and her command staff -- stood at attention at 6:55 a.m. The station, one of the city's largest, was emptied of its engines and ambulances for the ceremony, and the large red vehicles sat idle on the street while Lt. Fred Calonico rang a fire bell 45 times, signifying the fire code "555" three times.

"(Bells) used to be the only way we could communicate," explained Lt. James Blake, who led the assembly. "Five-five-five meant there had been a death in the department."

As some firefighters lowered their heads and others stared straight forward, Blake lowered the station's flag to half-staff. One firefighter wrapped his arm around another as she wiped tears from her eyes.

At 7:07 a.m., as the sky turned from gray to blue, the firefighters began reading the names.

"This is a day to celebrate the people who chose safety as their career," Hayes-White said later.

The quiet, early morning ceremony didn't attract much attention from residents of the Mission District station, but one woman, Susan Morehead, stood by a fire truck, dressed in a red shirt imprinted with the Fire Department of New York emblem.

"I'm just a New Yorker, and I had a lot of firefighter friends and I wanted to pay my respects," she said.

Hayes-White said she had been working at Fire Station 7 years ago when news of the World Trade Center attacks was first reported.

"It brings back a lot of painful memories, but we look toward the future with renewed vision and energy," she said. "I think it was a day that changed all of us."

E-mail the writers at [email protected] and [email protected].


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