Donald Zofchak recalled the sunny day 17 years ago when the South Strabane Township police department got a report at 8:46 a.m. that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
“At first, it was thought it was a smaller plane, like a Piper Cub, and that it could have been a suicide or a bad pilot,” the retired police chief recalled at the In Remembrance ceremony Tuesday at the 9/11 Memorial at Washington Mall commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “Then came word it was a jet. I thought, ‘How terrible.’”
Zofchak said he started watching television reports when another airplane struck the second tower at the World Trade Center.
“When the second plane hit, the United States was now under attack,” said Zofchak. “Those are not words that have been heard since 1941.”
“Now we had to decide what steps needed to be taken,” he added. “There was concern that Pittsburgh may be affected and I had to wonder how it would affect South Strabane because of the highway system.”
Zofchak said reports of the attack on the Pentagon as well as the plane that crashed in Shanksville came in. Almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks.
“That is why we are here today,” Zofchak said. “I am very passionate about it as I consider this a personal attack.”
Police and firefighters in South Strabane decided to hold a service to mark the first anniversary of the attack and have been doing so ever since, he said. Remembrance services were held Tuesday at several locations in Washington and Greene counties.
“We need to remember the first responders and military,” Zofchak said. “We need to stand together and be vigilant.”
“We need to remember the people and children on the planes who knew they were going to die,” he added. “Some of the people on the upper floors (of the trade center) also knew they were going to die and chose to jump and save themselves from the fire. The people on Flight 93 were calling home, telling loved ones they would never see them again. That is what we can’t ever forget.”
Zofchak said there is a new generation that needs to be made aware of what happened that day. “It needs to be kept in the minds of all of us that they kicked us in the butt and we are not gong to let it happen again,” Zofchak added.
In the Carmichaels town square, at 8:46 a.m. Tuesday, the siren of an emergency vehicle sounded, marking the moment 17 years ago when the first airplane struck the north tower.
As they have each year since then, residents of the community gathered on the sidewalks circling town square to honor those who died in the terrorist attacks.
The guest speaker, Pat Fitch, a Greene County assistant district attorney and former U.S. Secret Service agent, spoke of the number of people who died in the attacks at each location, attacks that took place, he said, as America “watched in horror and disbelief.”
“There were 2,977 innocent lives lost (in the Sept. 11 attacks) and over 6,000 injured and our entire country was traumatized by the attacks and the images we saw on the television,” Fitch said.
Everyone can recall where they were that day. “We each have our own meaningful story,” Fitch said. Fitch said he was working as a special agent in Wilmington, Del., investigating counterfeiting, but was immediately assigned to an FBI task force focusing on terrorism.
A month after the attacks, he was in New York City protecting the president of the Philippines, who was on a visit.
“The city that never sleeps had a distinct and noticeable somber atmosphere,” he said. Fitch said he remembers entering the subway. “I saw pictures hanging everywhere: (asking) Have you seen him, have you seen her; hundreds of New Yorkers hoping to find their lost loved ones.”
Fitch said he also walked to ground zero. “As I looked before me at the devastation and destruction on our American homeland, I had a lump in my throat,” he said. “As a Secret Service agent, as any law enforcement professional you see here today, one is always reminded to keep a sense of composure, but seeing what I saw that day, it was difficult,” he said.
Fitch urged those in attendance to make it a point to visit the sites of the attacks. “Pray for the innocent lives lost and let us never grow complacent nor take for granted the precious liberties and freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the greatest country of the world,” he said.
The ceremony in Carmichaels also included recognition of the firefighters, emergency responders and police who died in the attacks. It is organized each year by Mary Lewis, former assistant county coroner. “I don’t think we should ever forget, ever,” she said prior to the start of the event.