Marking a tragic day
Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson September 11, 2019
UD, Newark officials and residents remember those who died on Sept. 11, 2001
Eighteen years can be a long time, but if you were alive when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, your mind can go right back to that crisp, sunny morning in a second.
John Long remembers the panic. The University of Delaware’s executive vice president was a lieutenant colonel working in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Air Force that day, and within hours of waking his kids and kissing his wife goodbye, he was among the thousands of people fleeing for their lives after Flight 77 hit the Pentagon in Virginia.
“You can’t forget 3,000 people running across I-395,” Long said, referring to a major highway that runs near the Pentagon and crosses the Potomac River to Washington, D.C.. “And no one had ever seen F-15s flying around the capital. That was a wake-up call that something had changed. When I finally got to my wife, all we did was cry. We just hugged and cried. My kids thought I was dead.”
Long served as the keynote speaker at a Patriot Day ceremony held Wednesday at Olan Thomas Park in Newark, where about 100 people — military veterans, current service members, students from UD’s ROTC programs, police, firefighters, public officials and residents — gathered in a thicket that includes three trees transplanted from the locations directly affected by the terrorist attacks.
Four civilian airliners were hijacked on 9/11. Two were flown into the north and south towers at the World Trade Center in New York. A third was flown into the Pentagon. The fourth was headed for Washington, but passengers, who were alerted to the earlier attacks, stormed the cockpit and tried to retake control of the airplane from the hijackers. That plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
A 27-year veteran, Long was dressed in full uniform Wednesday as he read an article he wrote in 2002 about his experience on 9/11. It was something he undoubtedly read several times, but he still had to fight through tears as he recounted the harrowing, near-death experience.
Before the ceremony, Long talked about the importance of service and expressed gratitude for the contributions of first responders and his fellow veterans.
“I’m just thankful for this generation that is still willing to serve, just to protect the freedom of people to think or believe or say what they want,” Long said. “They don’t have to do it.”
Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton and John Groth, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and adjunct professor of behavioral health and nutrition, also spoke at the event. The Rev. Nick Owens of the Reformed University Fellowship delivered the invocation prayer and benediction.
Groth served 21 years as an Air Force chaplain and was stationed at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary on 9/11. He said watching the remains of the 184 people from the Pentagon crash come through the base contributed to the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that forced him to retire in 2009.
“I was hoping to make it through my talk today, and I didn’t make it through [Long’s],” Groth said, fighting back tears.
Like Long, Groth also reminded those gathered to appreciate current military members, veterans and first responders, not just on 9/11 but every day.
“If we don’t find a way to thank them, they will disappear,” Groth said. “Can we afford as a country to do that?”
Clifton said the anniversary of the attacks is a reminder that there was a time when Americans were unified and that we should recall the sacrifice, bravery and heroism of those who have fallen by honoring that spirit of unity.
He paid homage to Matthew Flocco, the only Newark resident to die in the 9/11 attacks. The Newark High School graduate was 21 when he was killed in the attacks on the Pentagon, and Clifton noted that there is a street named for him in the Yorkshire development.
“My parents had Pearl Harbor,” Clifton said. “People my age had the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This generation has the events of September 11th.”
Grant Stewart, a senior at UD and satellite communications operator with the Delaware Army National Guard, recalled being in second grade when the planes hit, an experience that would eventually inspire him to join the military.
“I just remember watching this building on fire,” said Stewart, 25, of Elkton, Maryland. “It took me a while to process it.”
Owens was 15 in 2001 and remembered being pulled from French class to watch the tragedy unfold.
“I remember going into the library with our class and seeing the smoking buildings on TV and being really confused about what on Earth was going on,” he said.
Owens said he can’t recall a specific conversation with a student about 9/11 – most of UD’s current first-year students weren’t born when the attacks occurred. But he said he still tries to convey a lesson.
“The tyranny of the urgent is something many of us struggle with, and certainly students, who have so many things going on right now, right in front of them,” Owens said. “It's for that reason that slowing down, pausing and remembering an event like 9/11 is so important and also good for us. Our lives are part of a much bigger story.”
The anniversary was also marked on the UD campus with flags flown at half staff and tolling of the University Carillon at 8:46 a.m., which was the time the first airplane hit one of the Twin Towers in New York. A sign display on The Green was organized by junior Jillian Donlon, whose father has been a New York City firefighter for more than 30 years. University President Dennis Assanis sent a letter to the campus community that emphasized UD’s commitment to respect, inclusion and service to others.