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Clark: The first to respond are the first to remember

What happened 10 years ago today in New York City taught us lessons about evil and suffering and valor.

These days, we’re learning a bit about the loathsome nature of politics.

In a monumental act of audacity, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to exclude first responders from today’s 9/11 ground zero ceremonies.

I thought it was somebody’s idea of a bad joke when I first heard about this.

This is like excluding the Navy from a Pearl Harbor remembrance.

Then I thought more about it. Given all I know about the opportunistic nature of politicians, well, it makes sense.

Try to think about it from a politician’s perspective, that is to say self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.

This ground zero ceremony is the mother of all photo-ops.

There will be tears and speeches and raw emotion. Not to mention a ton of media coverage.

I’ve met politicians who would sell the gold out of their mothers’ teeth to get some camera face time at such an event.

So it’s no wonder the official explanation from the Bloomberg camp was that there just isn’t enough room for a lot of no-name heroes.

The innkeepers of Bethlehem told the Lord’s mom and pop a variation of the same thing.

Incredible.

As the twin towers burned and collapsed, as bodies plummeted to earth like a human meteor shower, it was the firefighters, police officers and paramedics who rushed in to help.

They bravely did their jobs. Many of them paid the ultimate price.

Michael Burke, the brother of a fire captain who perished on 9/11, addressed Bloomberg’s decision in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

“Three hundred and forty-three firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, 23 NYPD officers and three court officers died at the World Trade Center. In response, America and the world hailed their heroism and sacrifice.

“… To deny the firefighters and first responders – these most humble and dedicated servants of New York – the opportunity to honor, at Ground Zero on 9/11, their lost brothers and sisters is atrocious.”

Amen.

I’d like to see the 10th anniversary commemoration devoid of Mayor Bloomberg.

Let former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani take his spot.

We all know about the role Giuliani played. The man was a tower of strength, a calming influence in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Let in the loved ones and family members of those who died. Ditto the survivors and first responders.

This is their day.

Like the rest of America, I watched the horror of 9/11 on TV, far removed from danger. Then, in March 2002, I spent a week in New York City with my lovely wife, Sherry.

Ground zero was still a fresh wound.

During our stay 21 bodies were recovered. Among the dead was Donald Burns, New York’s assistant fire chief, and Moira Smith, the only city policewoman killed in the attacks.

Sherry and I spent one morning walking slowly and silently around the perimeter of this massive crater, where the 12 million square feet of the twin towers had soared 110 stories into the sky.

We paused over the many makeshift memorials that had been placed all around the mass grave: photographs of the dead and still-missing, cards and letters of condolence, crayon drawings from children, flags left by visitors from other countries, stuffed animals, flowers …

Our pilgrimage eventually took us past St. Paul’s Chapel, where we saw something that will forever be seared into our brains.

The historic church sits across the street from ground zero and amazingly survived the attacks with not even a cracked window pane. St. Paul’s opened before the Revolutionary War, in 1766. George Washington worshipped there on his day of inauguration.

After 9/11, the church had become a refuge for recovery workers, a place for these weary souls to relax and recharge.

There before us, on the front steps of St. Paul’s, sat a New York firefighter, still dressed in his safety garb, slowly eating a sandwich.

He looked more like a soot-blackened coal miner who had just come back into daylight after a double shift below ground.

His eyes had that exhausted and detached 1,000-yard stare that combat veterans talk about.

The sight of him stopped us in our tracks. It was like we were looking at an artist’s rendering of the embodiment of what had happened.

I had a camera in my hand and 27 years experience as a working journalist.

Yet there was no way that I was going to risk violating this man’s moment of contemplation by snapping a photograph.

I wonder where he’ll be during the ceremonies.

Ten years. Where has the time gone?

As I wrote a decade ago:

“I’m in a New York state of mind, and it’s called mourning.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


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