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Bearing witness: Local firefighters remember Sept. 11

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 9:33 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 11:48 p.m. CDT
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(Curtis Clegg -
Firefighters from Sycamore and Cortland and police officers from Sycamore bow their heads in prayer during a brief 9/11 prayer at Johnson's Junction near the Sycamore Fire Department on Wednesday.

DeKALB – Jeff McMaster wanted to make an impression on DeKalb's youngest firefighters Wednesday.

DeKalb's assistant fire chief selected a moving documentary, assembled a detailed, numbers-filled PowerPoint presentation and spoke passionately to a couple of dozen firefighters, civic leaders and residents who gathered in the basement classroom of Fire Station 1.

Late in the presentation, McMaster broke his cadence and called out to a firefighter seated in the second row to emphasize why he is so passionate about taking an educational approach to a solemn anniversary.

"Adam, what grade were you in 12 years ago?" he asked.

The firefighter, Adam Miller, replied that he was in fifth grade.

As a new generation of firefighters replaces those who wore the uniform on that tragic day, the more experienced first responders have shouldered the task of teaching the younger firefighters how that day changed the way they work – and why remembering is so important.

"We've always done a little memorial ceremony around the flagpole upstairs," Fire Chief Eric Hicks said. "But we thought with the new personnel ... it's good for these guys to hear some of that and see some of that."

During his presentation, McMaster detailed the scale of the attacks' impact on first responders. Not only were 343 firefighters and 23 police officers killed in the New York attacks, but more than 1,000 first responders have died since then from issues associated with their service that day, he said. The attacks have altered the training and the procedures as well as the funding for first responders nationally, he said.

"We don't want the actions of the first responders, the civilians, and military personnel to fade away," McMaster told the room.

Sycamore Fire Department leaders hosted a ceremony Wednesday across from their main fire station. In front of a flag that flew at half staff, first responders, leaders and civilians listened to prayers, had a moment of silence and heard a poem in remembrance of those who died as read by Fire Chief Peter Polarek.

"I think that things like this help to focus attention on a tragedy that occurred in our country," Polarek said. "Hopefully, folks won't forget, and we're going to do out best to try and keep it out in front as long as we can."

Battalion Chief Jim Zareck is one of the few DeKalb firefighters still with the department who made the trip to New York City in the wake of the attacks to assist with funeral services.

He remembered a poignant moment from his trip to Ground Zero when a police officer pulled Zareck and other firefighters to the scene of six officers who had been found in the rubble. Zareck and the others, who were in their dress uniforms, were asked to serve as an honor guard for the dead officers.

Zareck says it was a humbling, emotional experience.

"We always need to remember what truly that day was about," Zareck said. "Yes there was a terrorist event, but the good that came out of it: the heroic acts of FDNY and NYPD and all those others that risked everything they had to try and rescue people."

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