Under hazy skies, a sizeable crowd gathered outside the Escalon Fire Station on Coley Avenue for a 9-11 memorial service on Friday.
This year marked the 14th annual remembrance in Escalon and was the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Escalon firefighters, police officers and Escalon Community Ambulance personnel, in addition to several citizens and special guests, were all on hand.
Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello welcomed the crowd, as he has every year of the service, which he started when he took over the chief’s post for EFD.
“I didn’t know what to expect today,” he admitted, telling the crowd he felt that the ‘less than ideal conditions’ including bad air quality due to California wildfires and the social distancing required due to the ongoing pandemic might impact the turnout.
He was glad, he said, to see that people still took the time to attend.
“When we look back at Sept. 11, 2001, those were not exactly ideal conditions either,” Mello said.
The Friday morning ceremony on Sept. 11 began at 9:11 a.m. with a brief welcome from Mello and the introduction of some dignitaries in the crowd. The chief then provided a chronology of the events from Sept. 11, 2001, including the planes striking the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon and the fourth plane that went down in a field in Pennsylvania.
“About 40 percent of the people who died on 9-11 still remain unidentified,” Mello noted, adding that the most recent identification was made on Sept. 9, 2019.
He also pointed to the number of first responders who ‘answered the call’ at Ground Zero that have developed and, in many cases, succumbed to cancer, as well as the military casualties including close to 7,000 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the War on Terror.
“The toll still goes on today,” Mello said. “We won’t forget that loss.”
One of those lost in Afghanistan was James ‘Doc’ Layton, a Navy Corpsman, an honorary member of the Escalon Fire Department; his service and sacrifice was noted during the gathering.
A bell ceremony, the tolling of the bell to signify the ‘end of watch’ for fallen firefighters, was handled by Battalion Chief Moe Silva, with a flag ceremony following. The red and blue line flag was raised to the top of the flagpole, then returned to half-staff.
Arney Corbin of Trinity Church offered a few remarks as well as a prayer.
“I’d like to thank our law enforcement, our fire department, our paramedics that still answer that call,” Corbin said.
Also on hand for the event was Russell Fowler, representing Assemblyman Heath Flora’s office and providing a certificate to Mello and the Escalon Fire Department thanking them for continuing to host the 9-11 service for the community.
“This is a very important event to memorialize,” Fowler said. “Coming from a firefighting family myself, it is a very sacred day.”
Fowler is the grandson of the late Russ Richards, a former Stanislaus County Fire Warden who passed away this past June at the age of 77. He had also served as the first chief of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District after it was formed and also was an Office of Emergency Services Coordinator.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Chuck Winn, who represents Escalon in District 4, also took the podium on Friday morning.
Winn said he thought of nearby Escalon High School, and the fact that members of this year’s senior class “have no memory of 9-11” because they weren’t even born when the terrorist attacks took place.
“It’s up to us to remind them,” Winn said. “Not just what happened at the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania … but what happened after that, those who fought and lost their lives.”
The Tuesday, Sept. 15 San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting – online – was scheduled to include recognition for first responders in the county as well.
“You are the heroes of today,” Winn told the firefighters, police officers and ambulance personnel from Escalon in attendance at the Friday gathering.
Following the playing of the Lee Greenwood song ‘God Bless the USA’ – which became an unofficial anthem for the country in the days following 9-11 – Mello once again stepped to the podium.
He said the country then was united against a common foe.
“We weren’t red, we weren’t blue,” Mello said. “We were red, white and blue.”
He also offered a heartfelt tribute to members of the Escalon Police Department.
“I apologize for what law enforcement is going through,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “You guys aren’t the bad guys … you have our backs.”
It was then that tones went off and Escalon ambulance personnel and the on duty firefighters had to quickly leave the ceremony, heading to an emergency medical services call.
“That’s never happened before,” Mello noted.
Normally, the chief added, attendees would have a chance to enjoy some refreshments and socializing in the firehouse but that portion of the program was canceled this year due to COVID-19.
Mello thanked those that did attend and said they would plan for another ceremony next year, commemorating the 20th anniversary.
“Remember that we are Americans,” Mello told the crowd in concluding his remarks. “If we don’t stand with law enforcement, if we don’t stand with those that go off to war … I don’t think we stand as Americans.”