Residents of North Pinellas County now have a permanent memorial honoring the victims of the September 11 attacks.
The large crowd that turned out at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor for Tuesday's unveiling of the memorial was proof of the community's strong desire to remember those killed in the attacks.
A thousand programs were printed for the memorial, and all were distributed to guests shortly after 9 a.m. When the ceremony started at 10:02 a.m., cars were still backed up on Curlew Road almost all the way to U.S. 19 waiting to get in.
"There were easily 1,000 to 1,500 people at the memorial," said Keenan Knopke, President of Curlew Hills Memory Gardens.
The 9/11 memorial was more than a year in the making. It features a rusty steel beam pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The beam is mounted between two granite towers that represent the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The courtyard memorial also includes granite monuments bearing the names of those killed in the attacks. Other granite markers honor victims on the downed planes.
The ceremony was emotional for those who worked tirelessly to make the permanent memorial a reality.
Keenan Knopke made a space available for the memorial at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens. Knopke's voice quivered when he addressed the audience, asking those who had lost loved ones to stand.
Palm Harbor Fire Chief James Angle fought back tears as he introduced his longtime friend, Battalion Chief Michael Gala Jr. of the New York Fire Department. When Angle choked up and struggled to speak, the audience showed its support for him with a heartwarming round of applause.
Of course, the memorial had a special meaning for many in the audience.
Marge Stajk, 82, of Lithia, lost her son, nephew and two cousins in the attacks. She and her daughter, Ellen Shelnutt, of Valrico, drove to Palm Harbor for the ceremony. Stajk brought a framed photo of her son, Gregory Stajk, 46, who was with Ladder 13 in Manhattan and died while trying to save people in the North Tower. Stajk and her daughter found Gregory's name on one of the granite monuments at the memorial.
"He was a great kid," she said of her son.
"The ceremony was very nice. We are so glad we came," said Stajk.
Palm Harbor resident Janie Hirsch held a piece of paper on one of the granite monuments and used a pencil to etch over the name of Peter Gilfield, a firefighter she "adopted" by making a $100 donation that went toward construction of the memorial.
"I'm a native New Yorker. It still hurts," she said, sobbing. "I lost 12 people in the towers."
Firefighters from many other Pinellas County communities honored their fallen comrades by attending or participating in the memorial.
East Lake and Palm Harbor Fire Rescue's Honor Guards presented the colors, raised and lowered the flag, and tolled the bell. Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Commissioner Julie Peluso addressed the audience. Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Chaplain Rev. Milton Smith gave the invocation. Clearwater Fire and Rescue Chaplain Dr. Aaron Walp gave the benediction.
Other participants included-
- The City of Dunedin Pipe Band, which performed in the procession and also performed "Amazing Grace."
- The Ozona Elementary Choir, which performed "I'm Proud to be an American."
- WFLA radio's Jack Harris was the Master of Ceremonies.
- Lowry Park Zoo's "Cyrus the Eagle" participated in the procession and ceremony.
The 9/11 memorial will be open to the public. Curlew Hills Memory Gardens is located at 1750 Curlew Rd (727) 789-2000.