Mobile native Ron Pierce will never forget the sights and smells related to the piles of rubble at Ground Zero soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Two weeks after the commercial jets were flown into both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, Pierce was assisting those working to identify victims of the attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.
“It was overwhelming for one thing,” Pierce said of being there. “To see it in a pile; the smells and stuff, you never get rid of it.”
Two decades ago, Pierce was a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Mobile office. He was sent to Manhattan to assist workers who were searching the piles of rubble left from the attack. As he describes it, part of his assignment included praying over body parts found in the rubble before they were marked and recorded. His job also included giving those searching the piles whatever they happened to need, whether it was food, or fresh clothing.
“It was gratifying to know you could help someone in true need,” Pierce said. “It was heartbreaking what had taken place and I tried to bring comfort.”
The work followed a chaplain motto, which is “ministry of presence,” Pierce said.
“It means, be there if they need you,” he said.
On Thursday morning, Pierce led the Pledge of Allegiance at a Mobile event honoring first responders who died in the years 2020 and 2021. The annual event, known as “Lest We Forget,” was held at Mobile Memorial Gardens and took on special significance, as it happened just two days before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The event on Thursday honored Mobile Fire-Rescue Department firefighters who died over the last two years. An event honoring Mobile Police Department officers was held earlier this year.
In remarks during the event, Mayor Sandy Stimpson evoked a phrase many have used to commemorate the attacks and reminded Mobilians to “never forget” the work first responders do.
“What is it we should never forget?” Stimpson asked. “We know we should never forget those who run to danger and we also know to never forget that evil still exists in this world. There are people out there who want to destroy our way of life.”
One way to “thank” first responders, Stimpson said, is to give them the “tools” and “resources needed to do the job.”
“We need to encourage them and give moral support,” he said. “Lest we never forget we all have a responsibility to protect this country and let our first responders know we support them.”
Executive Director of Public Safety Lawrence Battiste served as keynote speaker for the event. Battiste hadn’t yet left for work at the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 11, 2001 when he received a phone call to turn on the television.
“As I watched the coverage, I had feelings of anger and frustration,” Battiste said. “How could such an act occur on American soil?”
As he continued to watch, Battiste said he began to feel empathy for the first responders on the ground in New York.
“Those men and women who ran into the structures were men and women of service,” he said. “Those were men and women in police uniforms, or firefighter turnout gear.”
Of the almost 3,000 people killed, Battiste said, 400 were police officers and firefighters.
Battiste said he also remembers the unification the events brought among Americans.
“I remember it unified the United States in a way I had never seen in my lifetime,” he said. “It caused the nation to reflect on what made living in the United States great. On this September 11, we must remember we are stronger when we work together and there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Following Battiste’s remarks, MFRD Chief Jeremy Lami read the names of the 30 retired MFRD firefighters who died in 2020 and 2021. After each set of names was read, a bell was rung three times. Following the reading, members of the local police honor guards gave a 21 gun salute and a bagpipe player belted out “Amazing Grace.”
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