Local first responders join Valencia students, officials to remember 9/11

A member of the United Command Honor Guard conducts the ringing of the bell, a ceremony for fallen firefighters. A Sept. 11 memorial was held at Valencia College’s Osceola County campus on Thursday.

A somber crowd gathered Wednesday at Valencia College in Kissimmee to remember the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks and the emergency responders who helped save thousands more that day 18 years ago.  

Top officials from the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, the Kissimmee and St. Cloud police departments, Osceola County Corrections and the fire-rescue and paramedic departments from the county and the two cities, joined Valencia students and staff for the early evening ceremony. More than a dozen first responders who worked on 9/11 were also in attendance.

Each of the hundreds of American flag planted in the open square where the ceremony was held represented 10 victims. Ninety-eight flags were also on display to represent other countries from which some victims hailed. Wreaths were laid, taps was played from the second-floor staircase platform, a memorial bell was rung and three blank shots were fired to commemorate the tragedy. A quartet from Osceola County School for the Arts performed two pieces and the Star-Spangled Banner was sung by Gina Marie Incandela.

President for the Osceola and Lake Nona campuses Kathleen Plinske recounted the tragic timeline of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by commercial aircraft, as well as the fateful flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field killing all passengers after people on board thwarted the terrorists.  

Keynote speaker Joe Richardson, vice president for student affairs, recounted his experience of 9/11 as a young Air Force officer at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

Richardson’s squadron completed a combat readiness test early that morning before the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Richardson said when he passed his commander in the hallway two hours later, they locked eyes and both mouthed the word: “unbelievable.”

“We knew that our nation would call upon us to defend our liberties,” he said.

Less than a month later, Richardson was taking his wife to the hospital to deliver their son.

For a moment, he questioned everything.

He asked himself: “What kind of world are we bringing this child into?”

But, like most Americans, the father and airman persisted despite the horror, fear and uncertainty that gripped the nation following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. later invaded Iraq in 2003.  

Despite the wars, Richardson said, “There are no bigger proponents of peach than those who prepare for war.”

He told the crowd that his son has grown up to be positive and productive, someone who contributes to society and the greater good. Though many Valencia students were very young or not yet born when 9/11 happened, he said, it’s important for them to know the significance of that day and what a great loss it was for the whole country.  

Harkening to the period of national unity in the aftermath of 9/11, Richardson said disaster and tragedy shouldn’t be the only things that bring Americans together.

“If each and every one of us taps into that ray of light that is within us, and if we tap into the power of love that we all possess, I wonder if that’s a better path and a better way to achieve peace and harmony in our community, in our country and in our world,” he said.

It’s possible, Richardson said, when individuals come together, like ripples that form a wave.

“That’s the only way to create a better today and a brighter tomorrow.”