Aitkin fire, citizens honor the fallen of Sept. 11, 2001

How fast can 20 years pass?

On Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in the words of State Rep. Dale Lueck, it was a blink of an eye for some, 20 full years for others.

On a cool morning, clear blue skies, a hint of fall to come in the air, perhaps the only thing out of the ordinary was the gathering of people at the city of Aitkin Fire Department and later at the Aitkin Government Center – numerous people with thoughts likely in different places.

What started at the firehouse, an hour and 3.43 kilometers and thousands of footsteps later, those who had participated in the memorial walk for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 stood in the parking lot of the Aitkin Government Center, each likely with their own memories of the day 20 years ago.

“I’m sure all of you know where you were, what you were doing,” said Bruce West, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. West was actually in Grand Cayman the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 – taking a walk outside before going on a diving expedition with four other firefighters he’d made the trip with.

When he returned from his walk, he found the door of their rental open. He walked in to discover his life – like so many others that day – had forever changed.

“It was a beautiful morning,” West said. “They were literally waiting for me to come back in so they could tell me what’s going on. About two minutes later is when the second jet hit the second tower.

“We all looked at each other and said, ‘The world has changed,’” he added.

It was hard to gauge numbers for Saturday’s event in Aitkin. Perhaps 100 people took part in the 3.43-kilometer walk that spanned portions of southeast and northeast Aitkin. There may have been more at the government center ceremony, but in a sense, the number that mattered was 343 – the number of firefighters, law enforcement officers and first responders killed in New York that morning 20 years previously.

Those 343 were also honored during the ceremony that followed – five at a time, as first firefighters, then others in attendance lined up to take a sheet with the names of those who lost their lives trying to rescue people from the twin towers.

Among the fallen: Joseph Angelini and Joseph Angelini Jr., father and son from two separate departments; Mychal Judge, a FDNY chaplain who died when hit by debris when the south tower came down; and Lt. Kevin Pfeiffer, whose brother was the first chief on scene and survived the day.

Those names and others were at the forefront of event. West reminded the gathered audience of a firefighter’s duty – to run in to do the job while others run to safety.

“Men and women stepped forward to join the fire service in the spirit of unity,” West said. “Brave men and women who never had a thought of being a firefighter signed up.”

But while there were surges in numbers of volunteers after 9/11, West strove to remind others that volunteer fire departments are the lifeblood of Minnesota fire safety. He pointed out that 90% of the firefighters in the state are either full volunteers or paid on-call – and that more are needed.

“Sadly, the level of volunteerism … has dwindled in the past 20 years,” West explained. “But we still need to have people volunteer to serve their community. We need men and women to step up and serve in the spirit of unity, honor and compassion. God willing, no one will ever face an emergency like 9/11 in their time as a firefighter.”

Finally, after the speeches were completed and the names read – a brisk morning breeze pushing the flags on the government center lawn to full furl along with the large flag hanging from the Aitkin Fire Department ladder truck – there were precious seconds of silence before recorded bagpipes spilled out the notes of “Amazing Grace.”

When the music ended, some paused for photos. Others walked away quietly, holding the hands of children who did not witness the events of the day 20 years previous. But in spite of the time that had passed, the memories of that day were present – and respect paid not only to the 343 first responders but for all the lives lost that day.

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