By Ann Fowler
OAK HILL – More than 100 people gathered at the Oak Hill fire station on Circle Drive on a hot Sunday afternoon to attend the dedication of a 9/11 memorial on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, and pay their respects for a date that truly will live in infamy. The Oak Hill Fire Department was the recipient of a 50-inch piece of steel from the World Trade Center complex, incorporated into the memorial, one of 1,100 artifacts dispersed across the world by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists seized control of four planes. Two were flown into the World Trade Center Towers, one hit the Pentagon, and the last one crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Of the nearly 3,000 victims of the concerted attack, 343 were firefighters.
Two columns reminiscent of the Twin Towers rise behind the steel beam. The words “We Will Never Forget” are carved into the memorial. Asst. Chief Wittig said the built-in benches allow visitors to “come, sit, think, reflect.”
Oak Hill Fire Chief Gary Warren told the group: “I think it’s very appropriate on the 10-year anniversary that we come together here, all of us together, and think about what happened and remember the lives that were lost, and then also, to hope and pray that this is not something that will happen to us.”
Chief Warren pointed out that it is the nature of fire departments to work together. He said, “It’s important to recognize, though, that the fire service and protection of Central Texas has become a more global type of arrangement. We have automatic aid, mutual aid, because these types of events are so large, there is no fire department big enough to handle it by themselves. It takes a global viewpoint for us to even be able to respond to these kind of things.”
And so a single firefighter lost in the line of duty is a loss shared by fire departments everywhere. The loss of so many in a single day is devastating, Warren said.
Chief Warren took time to applaud the efforts of the department over the past week. “Starting last Sunday, we had what I guess we could call the perfect storm: The drought, the tropical depression, winds, the accidents, and we have experienced probably what I would call a 100-year event. Maybe more. Because no one can recall such a large amount of disaster and destruction happening in a single weekend like happened last weekend.”
Chief Warren added: “The firefighters of the Oak Hill and Westlake Fire Departments responded to those events, first starting in Pflugerville, helping them with hundreds of acres of damaged land and a couple of homes burned, and then, immediately after, going out and providing major support to the Pedernales area, where they had 6400 acres burn and 38 homes destroyed. It’s been a weeklong process trying to take care of all these different partners that we have in providing fire protection in the Central Texas region. And no one can remember any time we have suffered so much damage in such a short period of time.”
Chief Warren applauded the men and women who pitched in to provide support. He said, “We’re proud to do that. We were able to provide backup support with overtime and part-time people and volunteers, and we want to thank everyone that pitched in with that effort.”
Chief Warren also pointed out that Oak Hill and Westlake firefighters were first on the scene in Oak Hill’s Pinnacle Fire last April, and in the Echelon Building fire in February of 2010. He said, “When it comes to events like this, and what we’re remembering, I know in my heart that losing a single one of these firefighters that you see here before you would be devastating to me personally. I hope that I would have the strength to continue on leading the department through this but I can tell you it would be extremely hard to bear to lose even a single one of these.” He added that he could not imagine how the New York City Fire Chief felt on 9/11 after the loss of so many.
Chief J.J. Wittig told the audience that the design for the 9/11 memorial was truly a group effort by everyone in the Oak Hill Fire Department. “With 60-plus people working toward it, this is what we came up with. We hope you find it as appealing as we did. Feel free to come back any time you want. We erected this for you, the community. Come, sit, think, reflect. That’s what we have it here for.”
A cable from a fire engine then lifted a tarp to unveil the steel beam, the centerpiece of the memorial. Audience members were encouraged to come up and touch the beam.
The 9/11 memorial was built by Escobedo Construction. “This entire project was erected and constructed within about a two-week timeframe,” said Chief Wittig. “It’s just amazing to us.” The fire department hoped to have a memorial dedication on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 — but then Central Texas caught fire, stretching the department to its limits. The construction company’s employees worked overtime and weekends to meet the deadline. It didn’t hurt that the company is owned by the parents of Oak Hill firefighter Matt Escobedo. Other contractors helping either through donations or services included Austin WaterJet, Holt Cat, TexaStone Quarries, AEC Brothers Trucking, Marcello’s Trucking, Land West Design Group, Transit Mix Concrete, Suncoast Post Tension, Hill Country Electric, and Texas Crane.
Those interested in contributing funds to offset the construction costs of the memorial can do so by mailing or hand delivering contributions to Travis County ESD #3 or the 501(c)3 Oak Hill Regional Emergency Response Training Foundation (OHRERTF) at 4111 Barton Creek Blvd, Austin, TX 78735. Those contributing $50 or more by October 15, 2011, will have their names listed on a plaque to be placed at the memorial site.
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