Lives lost, but not forgotten at 9/11 ceremony

Solemn words and soaring voices rose from the shadows of quiet thoughts and heart-worn memories to honor lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, as about 200 Ridgefielders gathered off Route 35 Monday evening at the twisted beam of twin towers steel that rises into the sky, the town’s 9/11 memorial.

“This is the 16th year, believe it or not,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “For the 16 years, we’ve had the Weeks family.”

Year after year, Tommy or Molly Weeks would play at the ceremony. This year both brother and sister played, a saxophone duet, the voices of the jazz instruments mellow, trembling, through the Battle Hymn of the Republic, then God Bless the U.S.A.

Marconi thanked public officials he’d noticed attending: Selectwoman Barbara Manners, Police Commissioners George Kane, Tom Reynolds and Marcie Coffin, Marty Heiser of the Board of Finance. State Senator Toni Boucher was expected, as well.

The Ridgefield Police Department Honor Guard and Ridgefield Fire Department Color Guard marched in, a long line led by Piper Tom Elliott, taking places in a semicircle behind the monument.

Evelyn Carr sang the Star Spangled Banner, unaccompanied.

“God of creation,” intoned the Rev. Joseph Prince of St. Elizabeth Seton Roman Catholic Church, giving the invocation, “you created all of us in your image …

“We lift to you in prayer all those who died in the twin towers, at the Pentagon, and on United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.”

He sought help for those who remain, grieving, “not to fall into the trap of blaming entire ethnic groups or religions for acts of hostility.”

And he asked for guidance “to love, not to hate… to seek restorative justice, instead of revenge.”

Marconi asked those gathered to applaud members of the Ridgefield Fire and Police Departments “and some special people, the American Legion, who gave of their time and life to serve this nation.”

The Ridgefield Chorale, led by Daniela Sikora, sang of “Freedom’s seeds in sorrow sown, ’neath blades of grass and pure white stones.”

Rabbi David Reiner of Congregation Shir Shalom offered the reflection. With news headlines all about the hurricane in the south, he said, he’d thought of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America — the opening lines that lead into the famous chorus: “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free; Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, as raise our voices in a solemn prayer: God bless America, land that I love…”

Natural disasters inevitably assault the nation, but Rabbi Reiner said that in discussing 9/11 with young people he recalled earlier “unnatural disasters” that left parents groping to explain why lives were taken senselessly and violently — at Pearl Harbor, in the assassination of President John Kennedy.

But human hearts should dwell forever on the worst.

“From the valley of shadows, I lift up my eyes to the hills,” Rabbi Reiner said.

He decried racial and religious prejudice — “many senseless acts of violence, because of the color of skin, or the covering on their heads, or the faith in their hearts.”

He cited a slightly altered version of “Emil Fackenheim’s 11th commandment: Thou shalt not grant terrorists a posthumous victory” by descending to their level — fighting, hating, killing — people must seek continuity through love, and by “remaining steadfast in our resolve to secure the blessings of liberty...”

He recalled President George Washington’s words on religious freedom and tolerance in a 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “... the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

America, Rabbi Reiner said, is a land that welcomes many religions and beliefs, “men and women, gay and straight … immigrants legal, and illegal ... dreamers and doers of every color and hue.”

The nation is true to itself, he said, “when we live out our values, when we declare persecution and hatred have no place in our midst.”

Piper Tom Elliott played Amazing Grace, and the Ridgefield Chorale sang again.

First Selectman Marconi remembered four among the 3,000 lives lost that day: “Tyler Ugolyn, Joe Heller, Chris Blackwell, Robert Higley — all connected to Ridgefield, that we lost on Sept, 11, 2001,” Marconi said.

Joe Heller and Tyler Ugolyn worked in the office towers that fell that day. Heller left a wife and children here. Ugolyn, an RHS basketball star who’d graduated from Columbia and recently started a promising new job, left grieving parents in town.

Chris Blackwell and Robert Higley were firemen. Higley left a wife and in-laws in Ridgefield. Chris Blackwell had many friends in the Ridgefield Fire Department from working in Ridgefield for Danbury Paramedic, which those days provided paramedics to assist the firefighter-EMTs in Ridgefield ambulances.

Others were lost. John Williamson, a firefighter, was the son of a Ridgefielder. Bud and Dee Flagg, and Barbara Edwards, all former Ridgefielders, were killed on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

So many other thousands: husbands, wives, sons, daughters, colleagues, lovers, friends —  people.

In the audience, Marty Heiser, a member of Ridgefield’s finance board, carried a photo of a young man: Boyan Kostic, a Serbian who played basketball at Northwestern College in Iowa and, in 1994, took work with Heiser’s company, Services Unlimited, painting buildings in suburban New York and Connecticut.

“Boyan jumped at the chance to come to the New York area and worked for Service Unlimited for five years,” Heiser said later. “After that he worked as a maitre’d at the Tavern on the Green, a fitness instructor, and put himself through the MBA program at Baruch College. He landed a job on Wall Street and was working for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 98th floor of north tower on 9-11…”

The Rev. P.J. Leopold, a Ridgefielder who is the executive director of Danbury’s Association of Religious Communities, gave the benediction.

“Who here, that’s of age, can remember exactly where you were?” she asked.

Many hands went up.

“...Remember seeing a fireman running into the blaze?

“We remember,” she said, “ … people we lost, from all over, and Ridgefield.”

She added, “at the same time, we want to move forward.”

She asked that we move forward on “the high road” — not the dark road.

“We will not return revenge with revenge,” she said. “We will not return evil with evil.”

“It’s not a very long road, We don’t have that much time to make that much difference,” Leopold said. “...Take down the wall, in faith and hope…”

And as is now traditional in Ridgefield’s annual 9/11 ceremonies, as the evening sky darkened people waited in line to place white roses before the spire of twisted steel, the monument to lives still remembered.