ONEIDA — While communities come together and vow to remember, some among them can’t forget what they saw on Sept. 11 — no matter how painful it is to recall.
The Oneida community came together on Friday to remember those lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and among the residents gathered were John DePugh Sr. and his wife Linda. Oneida residents for more than 14 years, the couple saw the aftermath of the terror attack that claimed thousands with their own eyes.
Both were volunteers with the Sylvan Beach Fire Department and the Red Cross at the time, so when the call for help came, they answered. The two were stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York City and ended up only a few blocks from Ground Zero.
What they saw, they say, will stay with them forever.
“As a volunteer firefighter for 35 years, there were times I wished I could just get it out of my mind,” John said. “There are images I’ll never forget.”
Both John and Linda stayed with the Red Cross, helping as much they could — only coming home for Christmas and New Year’s before returning in March.
“You were told when you go home [by the Red Cross] about the emotions you’ll go through,” Linda said. “And you’re asked if you’re OK. And I said I was fine but down the road? The emotions hit and it was tough to deal with. You never forget what you saw. You want to, but you can’t. And you can’t explain it unless you saw it.”
“You can’t explain the looks on other people, particularly other firefighters and their families,” John said. “We had a service center in downtown New York across from City Hall. And we dealt with some of the families of the fallen. And the looks, the kids particularly...”
John trailed off and choked up momentarily as the memories came flooding back. But the two remained staunch and insistent on remembering.
“If you don’t talk about it, you don’t heal,” Linda said. “It’s a part of our life now. We have to stay strong. And don’t forget. We have to teach our children, our grandchildren, and every generation that will be coming what happened that day.”
Linda said there are generations of children growing up today that don’t know or understand just what happened that fateful day.
“At one point, Pearl Harbor was the big thing and now nobody really remembers,” John said. “And that’s the way I see Sept. 11 going. And that’s something we don’t want to happen. That’s why services like this [in the city of Oneida] are so important.”
Mayor Helen Acker led the ceremony, reading out the times for each attack as the Oneida City Fire Department rang the bell in remembrance.
“[The hijackers] tested us,” the mayor said. “They tried to scare us. They tried to frighten us. They tried to pull us apart. Quite the opposite happened. We came together as one. Our first responders came together, our friends and family came together, our neighbors came together, and we all as a nation, came together to rebuild and start anew.”
Oneida Police Chief Paul Thompson remembered his time 19 years ago at the police training class in Wampsville with other law enforcement members throughout the county. “Throughout that morning, we heard stories about a plane striking the World Trade Center,” Thompson said. “The early speculation — before any news footage was available — was that some small plane must have inadvertently struck the Tower. We thought this a tragic miscalculation.”
But as more information came to light, Thompson said the scope and scale of the tragedy went beyond the ability to fathom for law enforcement in that room.
“Thousands of people — hundreds of them first responders —lost their lives that day,” Thompson said. “And the days and weeks that followed, first responders from throughout the state and beyond went to New York City to assist with the monumental task of recovery and clean up.”
Thompson said the task today is to remember — to remember the lost, their loved ones, and the heroic acts of everyone that fateful day.
“Those men and women who died that day, the men and women of the law enforcement community, firefighters, and EMS sacrificed their lives to do what they do best — to take care of other people,” Assemblyman John Salka, R-121 said. “They did not die in vain. We will pray for them continuously and their families for the suffering they have endured because of this horrible tragedy.”
The mayor concluded the event with the simple words “Never Forget”.
Both John and Linda agreed they never would and would always remember, no matter how painful it was.
“You don’t want to remember, but it’s the best thing to do,” John said. “You can’t forget.”