Traffic stopped briefly on Main Street Wednesday morning to allow for a moving, musical tribute to the lives lost on 9/11 and the many heroes who emerged amid unimaginable tragedy.
A few blocks away in Culpeper National Cemetery, volunteers toiled in the heat washing veterans’ headstones as part of the first-ever National Day of Service & Remembrance. All around town, the sense of community was strong on the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that killed 2,977 people in New York City, Washington, D.C. and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
On Main Street, wind flapped the numerous flags being held by several color guard formations as firefighters in their dress uniforms and law enforcement officers held their hands at salute. Gerry Schuck with Bugles Across America played Taps, and not a sound could be heard otherwise as vehicles came to a halt for a few minutes in the center of downtown to mourn the lives lost.
A Culpeper County Volunteer Fire Co. 1 ladder truck parked on Davis Street extended to raise Old Glory above the solemn gathering remembering 9/11 dead. Many more have died in the years since due to toxic exposure and the thousands more still suffer.
Schuck’s bugle sounded “America the Beautiful,” and finally, “Amazing Grace,” in memory of Ken and Jennifer Lewis, American Airlines flight attendants from Culpeper. The married couple was aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. She was 38 and he was 49, known to friends and family collectively, as Kennifer.
Both Lewises loved traveling, especially together—and especially to Los Angeles, according to the National 911 Pentagon Memorial online. They used their seniority to arrange joint assignments so they could travel to their favorite destination—just as they were doing on Flight 77 on Sept. 11.
Local mom Victoria Walbroehl was among the dozens of everyday citizens who gathered on Main and Davis Wednesday to remember. She brought three of her children, aged 8, 9 and 11.
“It is important to keep alive the memory and legacy of the victims,” Walbroehl said. “And to teach young people to respect and honor their country, and that good can triumph over evil.”
Like most Americans, she distinctly remembered where she was when the first plane struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. Walbroehl was living in Lynchburg and on her way to a meeting of Mothers of Preschoolers.
“I thought, oh God, what kind of world will my babies grow up in? This will change everything,” she said.
Kim Atkins, a firefighter with Salem Volunteer Fire Department, was working the overnight shift as a 911 dispatcher in Culpeper on Sept. 11. She got off at 6 a.m. and slept for a couple of hours before her pager sounded. “It said the plane had hit the tower at the World Trade Center and they thought it was an act of terrorism,” Atkins recalled. “We were all on heightened alert.”
By the time she reported to work at 6 p.m. that night, the extent of the attack was forever etched in the nation’s consciousness. Panicked residents were calling in, and local dispatchers were doing their best to calm a frenzied community.
Around 8 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Atkins took a call in the dispatch center she will never forget. It was someone from American Airlines requesting local assistance for notifying family members who had died in the crash at the Pentagon.
“I knew then someone from Culpeper had passed,” Atkins said. “I just wondered if it was someone I knew.” She did not know Ken and Jennifer Lewis personally, but felt like she did afterwards.
Atkins had friends working in the Pentagon on 9/11 and a brother who was a career firefighter in Alexandria who responded to the splintered site that day. Long in public service herself, she paused when asked what is it about first responders that make them run toward situations most people would flee. “Compassion,” Atkins said. “And a willingness to want to help people.”
In the National Cemetery, some 40 volunteers used rags and buckets of water to shine white headstones where veterans rest. Pat Banks, of Culpeper, came out to honor her family members buried in the historic graveyard, including a brother who was in the Army.
She was working in Culpeper as a bank manager on 9/11 and recalled them shutting their doors after the attacks as all other federal banking institutions did. “You just weren’t sure what was happening. I remember how shocking it was and then telling my staff when we closed up the office to go home and hug on their loved ones,” Banks said.
Culpeper National Cemetery Director Matthew Priest was there Wednesday overseeing the work day coordinated by the Veterans Administration and Carry the Load at 40 National Cemetery sites across America.
“It’s a solemn day, and a great time to reflect on the service and sacrifice of veterans and the events of 9/11,” he said. Priest thanked the volunteers for coming out to prep the burial ground in advance of a “Final Salute” program in October when eight “unaccompanied veterans” will be laid to rest.
“They had no families when they passed so we partner with local funeral homes and law enforcement across the region to make sure they get a final resting location,” said Priest, himself a veteran.
Sisters Victoria Smith, 12, and 3-year-old Gloria, of Lake of the Woods, joined their mom, Cindy, for the volunteer effort. Victoria wasn’t alive on 9/11, but had an idea of its significance. “It’s when they bombed the Twin Towers,” she said.
Victoria Smith also knew the importance of participating in the National Day of Service & Remembrance, giving thanks to the veterans resting all around her.
“They gave up their lives for us and they left their families and homes to protect us,” she said. “Some people don’t respect that. They just sit at home and don’t care. I respect the people who died for me.”
Cousins Greg and Jason Pfaff traveled from Harrisonburg to help wash headstones. It’s the final resting place for their relative Tom Pfaff, a Vietnam veteran.
A Navy veteran who served as an equipment operator with the Seabees, Greg Pfaff sported a t-shirt, “Got Freedom?” and on arm a tattoo reading, “We the People.”
“I’m a patriotic guy,” he said. “We thought we’d go over to Culpeper and take care of some of these guys and honor 9/11 at the same time.”
Greg Pfaff mentioned the service day’s association with Carry the Load, a Texas-based nonprofit bringing a message of “never forget” the service and sacrifice of veterans and first responders. He quoted the song by The Hollies, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. That’s it—that’s what it’s all about.”