MARCO ISLAND — The more than 300 or more people in a ballroom at the Marco Marriott Hotel were silent and still as the North Naples Firefighters Color Guard appeared. At the same time, the haunting sound of bagpipes swelled, played with solemnity by Sean O’Connor.
It was just one of the moving moments in a day filled with high emotion and high purpose, a time for Marco Islanders, in our own way, to remember again to never forget. And to never surrender.
The observance of the 9/11 attack on America 10 years ago was sponsored by the Marco Island Fire-Rescue Foundation, honoring first responders and their families, veterans and all patriots.
The uplifting, emotional event was emceed by Dave Elliott, host of a talk program 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 98.9FM WGUF.
“I think it’s just great that 300 people on Marco Island are rallying together, on a day when most people would like to be on the beach,” Elliott told us. It’s remarkable that 10 years later, people are so emotional about what happened. They are true to the ‘never forget’ mantra.”
At public events in this country, from a NASCAR race to a political convention, the singing or playing of the National Anthem comes in many versions, good and bad, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Roseanne Barr.
The 9-11 event here was one of the good times for the Star Spangled Banner, sung by Mariel Sanchez, a 9th grader at the Marco Island Academy. It was not only well done, but was a first for Sanchez.
“I’ve never sung the National Anthem in public before, she told us. “I did rehearse at home the past few days.” What’s the secret to her poise on stage? “I rehearsed with my eyes closed sometimes, and here I will pick someone in the audience to focus on and that should help.”
First responders from this area were among the celebrities on hand, the good kind of celebrities, the hero kind, the standing-ovation kind.
That included the primary speaker and honored guest, former New York Police Detective Sergeant, Dennis Bootle, now retired here in Florida. He was a first responder when the twin towers were attacked.
The audience was riveted as he showed graphic, dramatic photos he took that day and he described the early hours and agonizing long days and weeks that followed the attacks.
“My detectives and I stayed in the second tower for awhile then had to run. I got knocked down and knocked out and came to, seeing only palm trees, the only thing left standing in the atrium.” Off stage, he told us more about the grim aftermath of the attacks at the World Trade Center.
“I was on duty at ground zero for three months. The following year I got sick, as did so many other first responders. I had two deteriorating arteries and an aneurism in my liver.
They opened me up and rebuilt my insides with mesh.
“Later I was diagnosed with cancer; luckily they got it in time. Of the 48 people who died well after 9/11, 47 of them, first responders, died of cancer.”
A long-time veteran Marco firefighter won the Firefighter of the Year Award. He’s Steve “Happy Jack” Fickling. He joined the force in 1984 and was a volunteer firefighter before that.”
Chief Michael Murphy praised Fickling for his remarkable capacity to out of his way to help others and because he may be the friendliest firefighter ever.
“It’s said that when you see a fire truck coming down the street with Steve at the wheel, you can see his smile before you see the fire truck’s emergency lights. Of course he’s not supposed to take his hands off the wheel.”
He’s trained as an engineer, an EMT and a Hazmat Tech, as well as in the area of weapons of mass destruction. He also has trained more than 100 civilians on Marco in the CERT program, the Community Emergency Response Team.
“During Hurricane Wilma, he coordinated the response to the point where people were calling the fire station from off the island and we were able to tell them the damage to their homes.”
After a standing ovation from the audience, Fickling showed some of his devotion and emotion so admired by his co-workers and friends, smiling through tears, gently telling those in the audience they could sit because, “I’m not quite finished yet.”
Perhaps the primary shared realization at this 9/11 observance was that it truly does not feel like it happened ten years ago. Partly it’s because the loss of compatriots and loved ones was profound and partly because the nation has, from that day to this, been required to sacrifice more lives to keep the enemies of freedom at bay.
For more than a century, whenever a firefighter dies, firehouses across the land ring a big brass bell – four series of five rings.
At this 9-11 remembrance, the bell also reverberated with another message, one we cannot say enough: Never Forget.