Fifteen years ago, the United States was shaken when hijacked jetliners were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a rural Pennsylvania field.
“The best of America was put on display that day and the days that followed,” Undersheriff Bernard Melekian said. “It changed the world as we understand it.”
In all, the attacks claimed 2,977 victims, including police officers, firefighters and emergency workers who responded to the scenes.
Sunday morning dawned gray and cloudy in Santa Barbara as commemorations unfolded at 16 county fire stations. More than 40 people gathered at county fire headquarters for an annual act of remembrance.
Melekian spoke in memory of those who perished in the attacks, and the heroism of the emergency responders and ordinary Americans who rushed into the rubble of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
“Sept. 11 commemorates the cowardly attack on our country and the lives that were lost,” he said. “If we can remember their examples, we will honor them in the most meaningful ways.”
Fire Chief Eric Peterson recalled the moment he heard the news on Sept. 11. He was in a hotel near the Aegean Sea in Turkey.
“After the second tower was hit, we began to internalize the horror that this was on purpose,” Peterson said. “We felt vulnerable, and Santa Barbara felt a million miles away.”
Peterson cut short his trip and went to the closest major airport to head home. While waiting for his flight, a group of Turkish soldiers kept watching and speaking about him. One soldier approached him and asked if he was an American.
Peterson braced himself for the worst.
“He did something that I would have not expected at the time,” he said. “He put his arms around me, hugged me and pulled me in and said, ‘I am sorry for you and what has happened to you and your country.’”
Then, more soldiers approached Peterson and told him “we are with you.”
“What I had interpreted as hostility was empathy,” he said. “I learned that 9/11 not only affected Americans, but everyone in the world. I learned that there are good people and allies even in the places you don’t expect.”
Goleta resident Betsy Hayden was among the group and attended the memorial ceremony to honor the survivors, victims, first responders, service members and people who suffered from the long-term effects.
“My husband is a former firefighter and we are here to remember,” she said. “Everyone has a strong remembrance about what happened on 9/11 and after that day.”
Another commemoration was held at West Beach in Santa Barbara, where nearly 3,000 small American flags were placed in the sand, one for each victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.