Gathered Monday morning on the City College campus of Montana State University Billings, close to 100 students, teachers, community members and armed services personnel stood together in silent remembrance of the tragedies that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001, and those who lost their lives in the attacks that shook the nation 16 years ago.
MSU Chancellor Ron Larsen spoke first during the memorial ceremony, standing with other dignitaries alongside a gleaming pair of tall, rectangular prisms and a twisted hunk of steel I-beam recovered from the wreckage of the former World Trade Center that together make up Montana’s 9/11 Memorial on the college campus.
“As fires raged and people tried to flee the scene, it became apparent that something else was happening,” Larsen said, recalling his reaction to the tragedy then unfolding in Manhattan. “We learned that heroes instinctively step into harm’s way when others are in need.”
In addition to the first responders killed on 9/11 — both during the collapse of the Twin Towers and from related health complications that set in months and years later — the chancellor asked those in attendance to keep Montana’s first responders in their thoughts.
He acknowledged the hundreds of firefighters still working to contain the wildfires raging throughout Montana and specifically made note of Madison Kane, vice president of the university’s Veterans Club and an Army Reserve soldier recently called into active duty.
During his remarks, City College Dean Clifford Coppersmith asked that Montanans give thanks as well to two wildland firefighters who this summer died while battling the blazes that have rampaged Western Montana. Trenton Johnson, of Missoula, died after he was injured by a tree that toppled over at a wildfire near Seeley Lake. Brent Witham, of Mentone, California, died Aug. 2, while assigned to the Lolo Peak Fire west of Florence. His death was also attributed to a falling tree.
Despite the solemn proceedings, however, the annual ceremony also provides a positive note, when the annual 9/11 First Responder Scholarship is awarded to a local student. This year’s recipient was Chris Laukant, a paramedic student completing his final year of the program at City College.
“Every dollar helps,” Laukant said afterwards. “The program itself is really teaching you a lot of leadership skills … Being a paramedic as opposed to an EMT, there’s a lot more we can do before people get into the hospital.”
Despite his young age at the time, Laukant said he can remember having just woken up when he heard the news that the World Trade Center was under attack. It didn’t play a direct role in his decision to become a firefighter, however — he said his journey down that career path began even earlier. The Chicago native remembers how every time he would be riding in his parents’ car and passing a fire department, he would beseech them to stop and let him take a tour.
“I walked through the same fire houses maybe 100 times, but every time was a great feeling,” he said with a laugh.
Before a student from the college’s jazz program closed out the ceremony by playing taps, former Billings Fire Chief Paul Dextras told the crowd that the state’s 9/11 memorial serves as a reminder to him that despite the evil in the world, there are many more who practice acts of selflessness each day when called to duty.
“There’s something special about coming to this memorial, placing my hand on it … and feeling physically connected to all who lost their lives,” Dextras said. “This loss of life involved a diverse group of the best of the best our nation has to offer.”
Later in the day, people gathered for another ceremony across town. City and county officials joined onlookers and musicians from Billings Central Catholic High School on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn to mark the occasion.
A representative read a proclamation from Gov. Steve Bullock, who requested that flags be put at half-staff on Monday. The two U.S. flags in the lawn flew atop their poles, however. One was lowered at the end of the ceremony.
Chuck Carroll, a Billings man who is commander of the Montana VFW, gave the keynote speech. He spoke of threats to the country, as manifested on Sept. 11, 2001, and how the country should answer.
"We will fight for the freedom to live our lives free of tyranny and fear," Carroll said.