Old Town was markedly empty on Monday as Alexandria paused to remember the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. The sky turned steel gray as the city’s memorial service began in Market Square — a solemn moment of grief, heartache and perseverance. The sound system cut out briefly during the “Star Spangled Banner,” but attendees sung along to fill in the gaps. Mayor Bill Euille took the stage and considered how Alexandria responded to the attacks.
“We were a family,” said Euille. “We held hands, we cried, we prayed.”
Above City Hall, the wind vane on top of the clock tower pointed northwest toward the Pentagon. Thoughts turned to those who were lost to the terrorist attacks and how our world has changed in the wake of the horrific attacks. In the sky to the east, a U.S. Airways flight approached National Airport as the mayor spoke.
“We pray that these events never happen again,” Euille said.
The Rev. George Pera gave the keynote address, recalling his personal feelings as he watched the attacks on television. He spoke about how the unbelievable images from that day created a sense of helplessness and how their memory still evoke a seemingly endless well of sadness.
“I could hardly breathe as I watched the tragedy unfold,” Pera said. “I remember crying until there were no more tears left to shed.”
Pera quoted former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s famous statement that 9-11 demonstrated the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. He lamented the pain and humiliation felt by innocent Muslims who were caught up in the vengeful backlash in the wake of the attacks. And he praised the bravery of firefighters who ran into the burning buildings.
“As I look back, I am filled with awe at their bravery and courage,” Pera said. “For them, this day, I give thanks to God.”
After the speeches, the Alexandria City Employees’ Choir sang “God Bless America” — a song that entered the American consciousness in a new way after members of Congress sang it on the steps of the Capitol hours after the attacks had concluded in 2001. A bell rang three times, and the ceremony concluded.
“That was really a nice tribute,” said Jan Gammell, a Salt Lake City resident who was staying at the Alexandria Hilton. She said that she heard about the ceremony in Market Square, and she wanted to come and be part of the tribute.
“Our lives have changed,” Gammell said, adding that she had to discard her lipstick before boarding the airplane to Washington. “And riding on the airplane wasn’t easy either.”
AFTER THE CEREMONY, people mulled around Market Square and contemplated the influence that the terrorist attacks have had on life in Alexandria. Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks said that the city is now much more prepared for emergencies.
“We have a level of preparedness that’s at a much higher level,” Jinks said. “Initially, there was federal funding for a lot of this. But over the years, we’ve had to pick up the slack when the grants run out.”
Jinks said that Alexandria now has a digital broadcast system that will help first responders communicate effectively and uniform breathing masks that would be indispensable in certain kinds of emergency situations. Councilwoman Del Pepper said that the events of 9-11 have improved city government by forcing it to be ready for a wide variety of disasters.
“Crime on the street is not the only thing that we need to be prepared for,” Pepper said. “Our increased level of preparedness will help us whether we have another terrorist attack or a hurricane or anything where we need to respond quickly.”
Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) said that all Americans can be inspired by Gene Steuerle, the Alexandria man who created triumph out of tragedy by using his $1 million federal compensation check to create the Alexandria Community Trust. Even though his wife died, Moran said, Steuerle wanted to transform the sadness of loss into an opportunity to accomplish a lasting change.
“That stands in contrast to some who have used 9-11 for purposes of political exploitation,” Moran said. “9-11 had nothing to do with Iraq, and our presence there is pulling us apart instead of uniting us.”
Moran said that the promises that were made by the Bush administration in the hours after the attacks have been neglected.
“Bin Laden has to be capture and prosecuted — if not executed,” Moran said. “Unfortunately, we are too distracted to accomplish that.”