When a multi-church community choir sang harmony to "America the Beautiful," Sunday afternoon's overcast skies opened to sunshine.
Vocalists met at 1 p.m. Sunday, at the clock on Haddon Avenue, outside the old Zane School building, along with nearly 1,000 other community members, to honor the 10-year commemoration of 9/11.
Dubbed "A Service of Remembrance and Hope," the event brought Collingswood to the very site they'd stood 10 years earlier, when the attacks on New York City's Twin Towers were fresh wounds.
Now, after wounds have become scars, Collingswood came back to the place it had stood bleeding—in a show of remembrance and unity.
Created by a conglomeration of local religious entities—including speakers and worshippers not limited to Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish and Islamic faiths—event organizers are known as the Collingswood Ministerium of Churches.
Local religious leaders were joined by government officials Sunday. To represent the Collingswood Police Department was Michael Taulane.
“Collingswood was one of the towns who sent assistance (to Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001),” said Taulane. “I happened to be among those who went, and got a look at (the devastation). Those sites will remain with me; I’m gratified that you all came today to show your support.”
John Amet, chief of Collingswood Fire Department, also spoke Sunday.
“Collingswood Fire Department was dispatched (to the World Trade Center), and we spent that time chauffeuring dignitaries to and from Ground Zero,” said Amet. “The sight that day was unimaginable: the stench in the air, the size of the piles of debris.”
Amet concluded his speech by reciting A Fireman’s Prayer “in memory of the 343 firefighters who died that day (10 years ago).”
Rabbi Lewis Eron spoke, reminding the crowd to memorialize both the religious and non-religious.
“I want to take a minute to acknowledge those who are not religious,” said Eron. “There were people of all faiths and backgrounds who perished on 9/11. Today (whether we speak a God-language, or some other language), our purpose is to hear in our words that deeper sense of love which connects all of us—regardless of our following.”
To represent the Islamic faith, Dr. Abdul Rasheed spoke of peace.
“Dear God,” Rasheed began. “In remembrance of the heartbreaking events of 9/11, we ask forgiveness for the evil in our deeds, we need (God’s) mercy now more than ever. We remember those who died innocently, dear Almighty. Shower your comfort on the families of those lost.”
But arguably the most moving speech of the afternoon came not from a priest, pastor, rabbi or EMS official.
It came from a survivor: Louis Giaccardo.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Giaccardo had been working on floor 87 of the World Trade Center’s South Tower—the second building to be hit.
When a plane crashed into the first—North Tower—Giaccardo said his mind focused on one mission: survival.
“We made the right (evacuation) choices when the first plane hit, so when the second plane hit, I was about 20 floors below (the point of impact),” said Giaccardo, to murmurs and gasps from Sunday’s onlookers. “I thank God that he gave me the strength to stay calm. I remember all that was going through my head was, ‘My son’s birthday is tomorrow. I’m not going to miss his birthday.’”
And Giaccardo hasn’t missed any of his son’s birthdays since. Collingswood—obviously deeply moved by the speech, with individuals hugging and shaking Giaccardo’s hand afterward—soon realized that Giaccardo’s presence in the borough was a gift.
“I was supposed to be in New York City today,” Giaccardo said of his initial plans for the 10-year commemoration of 9/11. “But because of the high terrorist alerts for today, I didn’t go. But I knew I had to do something today to remember Sept. 11. My sister found out Collingswood was holding this service, and I felt it was where I should be.”
To end the day—which was full of prayer, tears and togetherness—Borough Commissioner Joan Leonard announced a Collingswood tribute to 9/11.
“There’s a story about a tree that was found at Ground Zero—it survived, when all other trees hadn’t. It was taken to a nursery and cared for, and when the reflection pools were built at Ground Zero, a special plot was designed for the survivor tree, and it was planted there. The tree symbolizes survivorship, but it also says, ‘We will never forget.’
“Our local Girl Scouts recently planted a shade tree in The Knight Park, and then Hurricane Irene took it down,” Leonard continued. “But, on this day of remembrance, (Collingswood has) the opportunity to plant our own flowering pear tree—like the one which survived the 9/11 attacks. It will be planted in the children’s area of The Knight Park, in solidarity with those who never gave up.
“We stood right here 10 years ago, in grief and shock, holding candles. And just as we were together then, we so are now—joined by those in our community, in our state, and in our nation—to stand together again today,” said Leonard. “And that’s what makes America great.”