NEW PORT RICHEY — NEW PORT RICHEY— Steve Papola was sitting at home watching the “Today Show” on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
The off-duty New York City police officer stood by, listening to news station reports and waiting for the inevitable call requesting him to come into work. When the second plane hit the tower, Papola kissed his wife and children goodbye and got into his vehicle.
“When that happens, you’re not saying to yourself that this is a second accident that just occurred, you’re saying ‘Something is definitely not right’,” Papola said.
Papola took the Sims Park stage in downtown New Port Richey Wednesday evening to address a crowd of hundreds who had come to pay their respects at the 2013 September 11 Memorial Program. The service honored the victims of 9/11 terror attacks, acknowledged the bravery of the first-responders and celebrated the uniting of American citizens.
“This is our Pearl Harbor,” said 9/11 Memorial Planning Committee Chairperson Heather Fiorentino. “We want to make sure we don’t forget the people who died for our country, those firefighters that ran into those buildings and knew they weren’t coming back out, the police, the Port Authority, the Coast Guard. We want to remember not just the tragedy but the heroic actions taken as our country stuck together.”
The memorial opened with visitors looking at a display of student artwork from elementary, middle and high schools across Pasco County. Collages, paintings, drawings and more commemorated the terrorist attack in New York City, the Pentagon and on the crashed airliner taken back from the hijackers by passengers.
Most of the art was done by students who weren’t even born at the time of the attacks.
“If there’s ever a question of whether our young people understand the love of our country and the impact of this day on our country, look at that artwork and realize they do understand,” said Steve Schurdell, who did the introductions for the ceremony.
The public was also invited to bring their 9/11 memorabilia for inclusion in a showcase under a display tent during the memorial and participate in “Operation Shoebox,” to send support, snacks and personal care items to troops deployed outside of the country. Donations, including hard candy, canned food, toiletries, small board games and crossword puzzles, were made.
Aside from Papola sharing his story, there were speakers like student Jared Rossi, who spoke about “9/11 Day of Service” and pledging to do good deeds and Mayor Bob Consalvo, who reminded the crowd that “New Port Richey will never forget.”
Now a Pasco sheriff’s deputy, Papola described the scene at Ground Zero the day of the attacks as being like “the scene of a science fiction movie” when he and his unit, after helping to get emergency equipment quickly into Manhattan, were sent to as the first wave of relief for first-responders.
“All the debris and the smoke and the dust, with the buildings falling, and steel and cement everywhere. It was just a sight that is pretty much indescribable. I remember looking at my brothers and sisters and seeing the sadness and fatigue on their faces.”
Papola said that when he reflects on that day 12 years ago, he remembers not just the tragedy and loss, but a time of brotherhood, when the United States made good on its name and came together in the name of freedom.
“No matter what differences we have, what opinions we may hold and what complaints we may hoist, this nation will survive because we will always unite as one when someone threatens to take our life, liberty and freedom away,” Papola said.