On July 27, shortly after we got back from our week of adventures in Glenwood Springs, I received an e-mail form a search and rescue mailing list that I am on. It forwarded an invitation from Governor John Hickenlooper inviting the state’s volunteer responders to participate in the 9-11 Remembrance Ceremony at the Denver Civic Center Park. The event was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9-11 and would have a presentation and entertainment portion.
I was a little skeptical, but I forwarded the message to the group that same day with an introduction that read, “Is this something that we’re interested in?” I expected the answer to be “no”. I wasn’t surprised that this was the initial response.
That was it for about 24 hours. Then I found a second invitation in my mailbox, this one from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, reiterating the Governor’s desire to have volunteer responders be present at the 9/11 Remembrance March. And on August 1 I received the same invitation from the City of Aurora. And on August 3 from The CELL. The topic made it to the August 9 board meeting where the directors decided that the invitation should be taken seriously and that we should make contact with The CELL, which was coordinating the event, and ask more questions. It made sense that we register and we did. But the invitations did not stop coming. On August 13 we received an invitation from ARES, on August 15 from the City and County of Denver, on September 1 from VOAD. Yeah, we were in. All in.
The day of the event came and we gathered in downtown Denver at the Auraria Campus. Parking for participants was provided there because the downtown area was expected to be a parking nightmare. We stood there among policemen and firefighters, the paramedics and the National Guard and a multitude of other response teams, including the Salvation Army and communications teams and a variety of flavors of CERT and, of course, the purple shirts of O.M.E.G.A. Each group stood out with their own colors and clustered together, creating patches in the quilt that was going to form into a parade. RTD buses followed one another, loading the procession participants and taking them to the State Capitol.
In all honesty, I detected a certain level of trepidation among the participants and when the members of O.M.E.G.A. talked, the event was still a large unknown. Did we really fit in with the police and the paramedics? What was our contribution to public safety?
At the State Capitol we were fed lunch by Americorps, who interestingly did not participate in the parade, then we were marshaled into a parade line four people across. The National Guard led the procession, followed by police and fire, then O.M.E.G.A., then CERT and the Salvation Army and other volunteer groups. Ending up directly behind the professional first responders was an interesting place to be. Directly in front of us were El Paso County Deputies and Colorado Springs Police. They kept glancing back at us, then decided to break the ice and ask who we were and what we did. Our purple shirts stood out and our logo was completely unfamiliar to them. In the time that we waited for the lineup to complete and the parade to start, they became familiar with us as a multidisciplinary response team and we were telling war stories back and forth.
Then it was time for the procession to move forward. We were warned to stay in our designated rows, but told that we did not need to stay in step. Just watch our spacing and our row. The line moved, proceeding from the east side of the State Capitol, past the south stairs and around to the west entrance, overlooking Civic Center Park and the Denver City and County Building on the far side. As we moved forward the procession split into two columns of two, passing around the Civil War Memorial and proceeding down the stairs across Lincoln Street, on both sides of the Colorado Veterans Monument and onto Broadway. Two fire trucks sat on Broadway with their ladders raised high in the air, the flag of Colorado hanging on the right and the City and County of Denver flag on the left. The two columns merged as we crossed the street into the main portion of the park.
There was an increasing number of spectators as we got closer to the stage built just off Bannock Street, directly in front of the City and County Building. As we made the trek from the State Capitol into the main section of the park, we were greeted with photographers, an occasional cheer and saluting spectators, but as we walked into the main open plaza of Civic Center Park, we found ourselves in a mass of tens of thousands of spectators, cheering and whistling and applauding. And all of a sudden this entire exercise made sense. We did not come to be recognized. We did not come to be heroes. We did not come to be acknowledged. We came in the spirit of those who came before us, those who were the heroes of 9-11, of Afghanistan and of Iraq. We represented the people who our country rallied behind and we were not there for ourselves. We were there for those who came to see us. The cheer was an emotional wave and all previous trepidation and concern were gone.
I can’t say that we had the best seats in the house. We had no seats at all. The responders remained standing in the column they came in for the duration of the ceremony. We could see through the trees and gathered spectators the stage where the Colorado Children’s Chorale sang the National Anthem and the posting of the colors. An invocation was given by a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. Then Governor Hickenlooper spoke, followed by Senator Udall, Senator Bennet and Congresswoman DeGette. Their memories of 9-11 and visions for the future were followed by a moment of silence. The crowd became so quiet that we could hear the birds in the trees. A bell was rang to remember those who had been lost and after the firing of the salute, National Guard planes flew directly over us. The ceremony was concluded with a benediction by a Christian minister and an Islamic imam. The colors were retired and the procession moved again to another explosion of cheers. We exited onto Bannock, past the World Trade Center steel and an honor guard that stood before it.
We had the option of staying or leaving. RTD buses were ready to take us back to the Auraria Campus or we could linger and watch the concert, featuring the Colorado Symphony, Tyler Ward and the Beach Boys.
The 9-11 Remembrance Ceremony was an amazing experience and a memory that I will carry with me for many years to come. I hope that no one ever has to respond to another 9-11, but in life there are no absolutes. We will continue to train. Thank you, Colorado, for being there to support us.