ROCKINGHAM — “On Sept. 11, 2011, America changed forever — and Richmond County will never forget.”
Solemn words spoken by Lt. Joe Cahoon of the Rockingham Fire Department early Wednesday morning prior to the annual 9/11 Memorial March.
Representatives from his department, the Rockingham Police Department, Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Cordova Fire and Rescue, Northside Fire Department, Hamlet Fire Department, Ellerbe Fire Department and Ellerbe Rescue Squad stood outside the old courthouse as Cahoon gave stats on the fatalities from that tragic day.
He added that more are dying as a result of the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
According to a report last year by the Seattle Times, it’s estimated more survivors will have died by the 20th anniversary than those who were killed in 2001. At least 10,000 first responders, survivors and volunteers, in 2018, had been diagnosed with some form of cancer.
During the ceremony, construction workers building the new Richmond Community College downtown campus even paused what they were doing to show respect.
“We remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Sheriff James Clemmons. “Today, we remember our heroes. We mourn their sacrifice and we become stronger as a nation because of their bravery.
“The uniform that we don on every day — whether it be a fireman, whether it’s EMT, whether it’s law enforcement — we are the men and women of public safety,” he added, speaking to his fellow first responders. “When shots ring out, others run away — we run to it; when the crackle of fire pops, you don’t turn your back and walk away — you enter that building with the unknown to make sure that lives are preserved and lives are saved. For that reason alone, we call you heroes.”
MARCHING IN MEMORIAM
First responders in Richmond County have been honoring those killed on 9/11 since 2013, when four young men — Adrian Robson, Nathaniel Murphy, Josh Smith and Dalton Millen — decided to walk down U.S. 74 Business in the blazing heat dressed in turnout gear, carrying a U.S. flag.
All but Murphy were able to participate in this year’s event.
“9/11 has a special place in our hearts and is a part of the reason we serve in this line of work,” Robson said. “Often underappreciated, overlooked, and often forgotten, we need more days in America like Sept. 12th and less of Sept. 11 … and for that we pay those who died selflessly honor and respect.”
Rockingham fireman Dalton Millen and Ellerbe Rescue Capt. Josh Smith and Safety Officer Adrian Robson created the first 9/11 memorial march with fireman Nathaniel Murphy (not pictured) in 2013.
The event grew the next year and the Rockingham Fire Department took over planning in 2015.
Wednesday’s march, featuring representatives from eight departments, began walking around 8:30 a.m., with a police escort in front and fire trucks and an ambulance following behind. Also joining them were Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris and Councilwoman Denise Sullivan. Scuba Steve dropped in around midway to finish out the walk.
The group stopped three times during the 3-mile trek to Walmart.
The first was at 8:46, to commemorate when the first tower was struck.
“It was at this moment 18 years ago that our country changed and that the lives of innocent families were changed — changed forever,” said RCSO Chaplain.
The second was at 9:03 — the time the second tower was hit.
The final stop was for a brief rest and drinks at Sonic.
Rockingham’s fire and police chiefs, Harold Isler and Billy Kelly, stayed at the front of the pack.
Along the way, bottles of cold water were passed out with gratitude by four groups, including from Dieffenbach G.M. Superstore, Bojangles and Griffin Nissan. Jeff Dieffenbach also handed the marchers U.S. flag decals while Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” played over loudspeakers.
Sometimes traffic halted, while other motorists blew their horns. Some onlookers recorded the march with their phones as the convoy passed by.
As the walkers reached Walmart, they were greeted with applause, drinks and snacks.
Inside the store, a memorial display was set up with two U.S. flags.
Walmart employees pose with first repsonders after Wednesday’s 3-mile march.
WHERE WERE YOU?
“We all remember where we were, what we were doing,” Morris said ahead of the march.
At the time, he was the owner of Helms Jewelers and received a call from his wife who told him an airplane had hit the World Trade Center.
“We have a very good friend that I did business with,” Morris recalled. “His office was less than a block away from there.”
So Morris immediately called his friend, whose office was on the ninth floor, to check on him.
“He said, ‘I’m fine,’” Morris continued. “I said, ‘Well, my wife just called and said that a plane hit the World Trade Center.’ He said, ‘They can’t do that, that’s restricted airspace.’”
Cahoon said he was 11-years-old and sitting in class at Wallace (S.C.) Elementary.
Millen, also with the Rockingham Fire Department was 5.
“When the first plane hit, I was sitting on the floor watching a cartoon and it flashed up on the screen,” he recalled.
Several of the marchers weren’t even born yet.
Nicholas Reynolds, with Ellerbe Fire Department, was born the following day.
Dawson Jenks and Tyler Nalley, both junior firefighters with Northside Fire Department, were born in 2003 and 2004, respectively.