September 11: Island Remembers the Fallen

Solemn Ceremonies on Avenue of Flags Mark Anniversary

By ALEXIS TONTI

September 11 is a part of our collective consciousness. Though the Island sometimes seems far away from the mainland and mainland concerns, the tragedies of that day have resonated here as they have throughout the nation.

In the days that followed the attacks, Islanders rallied to support those in need, donating blood in record amounts and making contributions to victim relief funds. They held vigils and attended church services of hope and healing. They made their voices heard in peace rallies and in letters to the editor.

As weeks and months passed, the Vineyard faced the same uncertainties as the rest of the country about the future. Public forums were held on bioterrorism and government initiatives; they provided perspective on foreign cultures and insight to the role of the United States in global affairs. Islanders felt immediate effects in canceled school trips and tightened airport security as well as the long-term effect of an uncertain economy.

Over the course of the year, Vineyarders have adjusted and readjusted, questioned and sought to understand. They have grieved and tried to heal. And now, with the anniversary approaching, the Island is remembering.

The first of the Island's observances was held over the weekend in Vineyard Haven. Military veterans and Island police, firemen and emergency medical technicians gathered at the American Legion Hall Sunday afternoon for the short march to Oak Grove Cemetery and the dedication of a new monument.

Among the many who had lined up along the parade route was Oak Bluffs resident Raymond Moreis Sr. "This is about remembrance and showing our respect in however small a way," he said.

"And showing support for our own police and fire departments," added his daughter, Eloise Boales Moreis. "They did a lot of hard work this summer. This is a small community, and we need to support everyone, emotionally as well as in other ways."

The day was clear and sunny; the Avenue of Flags that extends through the cemetery was set up for the occasion, stars and stripes rippling in the light wind. Everyone was in full uniform for the march up Pine Tree Road. After turning into the cemetery, they stood at attention while Vineyard Haven's legion post commander made her opening remarks.

"None of us will ever forget what happened in America one year ago on Sept. 11, 2001," said master of ceremonies JoAnn Murphy. "The lives of more than 3,000 of our fellow citizens of the United States and other nations were snuffed out in the most horrific act of war ever committed against our nation. Good and decent people died. New American heroes died trying to save them.

"Twenty-three New York city police officers, 37 Port Authority police officers and 343 firefighters gave their lives at New York's World Trade Center. All of them sacrificed their tomorrows so that our todays would be free. We owe them a vow to never forget their sacrifice. We owe them the promise that we shall tell future generations of the price they paid for freedom."

Father John Ozug then stepped up to offer reflections of his own and lead the group in prayer. He recalled the heartache of that day and the shock of the terrorist attacks, but "as terrible as those moments were," he said, "we also witnessed extraordinary expressions of faith, courage and compassion." He acknowledged that with remembrance comes sadness, but urged those gathered to look ahead: "This is a time to strengthen our active participation in efforts to build a more just and peaceful world."

Afterward the flag was raised while trumpeters Edson Rodgers and Tisbury fire chief John Schilling played the National Anthem. Jeff Pratt of the Tisbury fire department read the firemen's prayer, which was followed by the unveiling of a bronze plaque dedicated to the memory of the victims of Sept. 11. The plaque, set in stone, sits in front of the cemetery's other war memorials. Following a wreath-laying ceremony the trumpeters played Taps, and the observance concluded with Amazing Grace by the Massachusetts State Police Piper Drums Corps.

All were invited back to the legion hall for lunch and refreshments. Out of the hot sun, the marchers relaxed for a few minutes, trading war stories and talking about the day. Everyone agreed that the participation of emergency services personnel from across the Island made for an important show of solidarity.

While others ate, Buddy deBettencourt of the Oak Bluffs fire department and Russell Maciel of the Vineyard Haven fire department considered the ceremony and the changed tenor of the nation's mood.

"It's nice that we did this," Mr. deBettencourt said. "The Island has been more patriotic than ever before. It's great the way everybody pulled together for this."

"That's the way it should be," Mr. Maciel said.

"But everyone's more on guard, too," Mr. deBettencourt added. "I still can't believe what happened - to think that 19 people can take down 3,000." He shook his head. "Sometimes I get so angry at the way things are so restricted now." He hesitated. "But that's the way it is. We live in a terrorist world now, and we have to face it for the rest of our lives."

Others found themselves reflective as they talked through what the day's observance meant to them.

"It was a very moving ceremony, especially for us veterans," said Gene DeFelice. "We also go out for military funerals, and this was just like those funerals, which made it very meaningful." He recalled the bagpipers' rendition of Amazing Grace: "It was the most moving scene," he said. "As they played, a woman was just standing there, hugging the American flag. It was a beautiful, wonderful thing. It brought tears to my eyes."

Mr. DeFelice considered the meaning behind the plaque. "I cannot get over how so many people could perish in such a short period of time. And I was in the service, I saw death all the time - but this was so massive. I have to pinch myself once in a while: Did it really happen?

"The whole country will be paying tribute over the next week," Mr. DeFelice said. "I'm glad the tiny little Island of Martha's Vineyard also is showing its strength and love for those people."