Victims of 9/11 terror attacks remembered across Billings

2012-09-11T07:45:00Z 2014-08-25T08:06:53Z Victims of 9/11 terror attacks remembered across BillingsBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

While the presentations stood in stark contrast to each other, the heart was the same at a pair of events held Tuesday that bookended Billings' public Sept. 11 memorials.

In the morning, not a word was said at City College at Montana State University Billings, formerly the College of Technology, during a short, somber ceremony at Montana's 9/11 Memorial.

Five hours later across town, on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn, dozens of spectators and officials were greeted to the 11th annual Community Celebration of Life memorial with lively music from the Billings Central Catholic High School band and speeches from area dignitaries.

But each event was designed to remember the 9/11 attacks and honor those who died as a result, with flags flying at half-mast overhead.

"This isn't just my story," Amelia McDanel, a U.S. Navy veteran who is now vice commander of the American Legion Andrew Pearson Post 117, told the courthouse crowd. "It isn't the story of veterans or of Montanans. It's a story of Americans."

The morning started with law enforcement and the Billings Fire Department blasting their sirens at City College in memory of the 9/11 victims, including first responders.

After, members of the MSUB ROTC raised an American flag at half-mast shortly before school officials, emergency responders, students and Boy Scouts laid wreaths at the foot of the memorial.

Elizabeth Fullon, an English and communications instructor, helped organize the event and said the silence was planned.

"This year was very simple, very silent," she said. "It gives people a chance to reflect on it in their own way."

Montana's 9/11 Memorial includes a piece of the World Trade Center at its center and was dedicated in 2011.

Fullon and fellow instructor Gary Edwards organized the effort to bring the 6-foot section of I-beam recovered from the ruins of the Twin Towers.

Edwards drove to the East Coast in 2011 to bring back the twisted, 600-pound piece donated to MSUB by the Port Authority of New York.

The artifact rests under two 16-foot steel tube towers set into a raised, circular planter outside the Health Sciences Building.

Fullon said many of the students now in college were so young during the 9/11 attacks that their memories of the events might be a little fuzzy. As a response, efforts in school have shifted focus from "Where were you when it happened?" to "How does this affect you?"

"We think it's very important that our students understand that there are still implications (from 9/11)," she said.

After the ceremony, George Menig, a retired lieutenant of the New York Police Department's 33rd Precinct Detective Squad and previous member of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit, spoke to students and educators about the aftereffects, physically and mentally, of the attacks.

Now working with the Cody Police Department in Wyoming, Menig had just retired from the NYPD when the attacks happened. He immediately called up former coworkers and helped with documentation on the Emergency Service Unit, a sort of specialized tactical and rescue NYPD force.

He said many of the first responders, and others, suffer from survivor's guilt. Menig pointed to people in the fire and police departments there who, for whatever reason, had the day off or weren't available who have taken on a "why him and not me" mentality.

"But you can't predict where you were going to be, what you would've done," he said. "But you still can't help feeling guilty."

He encouraged the students, many of whom are training to be first responders, to trust in their training and remember why they do what they do.

"By nature, first responders are givers," Menig said. "You're giving aid to people who need aid."

Five hours later, the Central band played upbeat songs on the courthouse lawn to kick off the Celebration of Life, which took on a hopeful tone with an eye on the future. City officials, representatives from Montana's Washington delegation, religious leaders and military veterans took turns speaking about the impact of 9/11 over the past 11 years.

Mayor Tom Hanel urged people to look at the positive changes they've made in their lives and introduced a young boy born on the day of the attacks, saying he and the other youth gathered are a hopeful sign of things to come.

"Every day is a beautiful day," he said. "Some days are just better than others."

Others, including Billings Police Chief Rich St. John and Fire Chief Paul Dextras, urged people to stay vigilant and remember the lessons and community responses from the attacks while acting as a living memorial for the victims who died.

Gunnery Sergeant Mullins of the U.S. Marine Corps. brought the crowd to its feet after saying that community support for the military since 9/11 means the world to enlisted members and that first responders such as the ones who rushed into burning buildings after the attacks are American heroes.

"That's the real hero to me," he said. "Not some overpaid football or basketball player."

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