(Sept. 13, 2006) -- Continuing what began as heartfelt tribute and has grown into an annual area tradition, Long Beach Firefighter Gary Biggerstaff has marked the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America with a personally built memorial and personally conducted ceremony on his front lawn.
Each year the crowd grows larger...and this year it filled the street in front of Biggerstaff's Belmont Heights home...and stretched to several houses up and down the block.
343 individually hand-made, hand-inscribed crosses lined his lawn, each with the name of a NY Firefighter who perished at the World Trade Center.
Those attending this year included newly elected Mayor Bob Foster [back momentarily to camera], Vice Mayor Bonnie Lowenthal [not in photo], Councilmembers Rae Gabelich and Val Lerch.
Also LB Police Chief Anthony Batts, LB Fire Chief Dave Ellis...and first responders and the citizens they serve from Long Beach and beyond.
A reporter for KCOP/13 interviews Orange County Fire Authority Captain Wayne Chapman.
Maria Wells lived in NYC prior to coming to LB...and was drawn to the replica of NYFD Engine Co. 343. She held photos of firefighters who lived near her on Staten Island and worked in Manhattan or Brooklyn that day.
"Joe Grzelak, was our neighbor; he was a Battalion Chief; our kids were friends. This is our friend Chuck Margiotta; he wasn't working that day, he was working with Rescue 5 at the time, and when he heard his company was going, he jumped on the rig and went with them; Chuck's never been found. This is Jerry Barbara; Jerry worked in Manhattan, again, family guy, Yankee fan, heart of gold. This is Tom Kelly...he worked at Engine 4, ladder 15, by the seaport; he's never been found. And this is John Santore who worked in the [Greenwich] Village; he was a friend to everybody that ever knew him; his company, they were all found together on what they called Stairwell 15, still intact, all together..."
Ms. Wells said she was living in LB on the first anniversary of the attack, longed for a way to "put a flower at friends' graves and say a prayer" and learned of Firefighter Biggerstaff's first event.
"I come every year. To me, Gary is my savior. He helps me get through Sept. 11," she said, adding "He's just an amazing person to be able to do this 3,000 miles away from where it happened...[H]e vowed to do this and I believe he will do this forever, as long as he can do this, he will..."
Firefighter Biggerstaff told the crowd that he created his personal memorial after visiting Ground Zero, seeing the devastation firsthand...as well as the notes from wives, children, mothers, brothers and sisters to the missing. "On the plane ride home, I was thinking that I had to do something, something to make sure people here back at home realized the gravity of the situation...I just wanted to give them a place to go where they could go, and think, and reflect," he said.
Shoshana [last name not announced] had an uncle who was at the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was there for a 45 minute meeting...and perished. "He was a consultant to the Department of Defense...He had two children, my cousins, he was my mother's only brother...And this just shows how much strength we have in America. And [to the crowd] thank you so much for coming out here even if you haven't been touched personally..."
Firefighter Biggerstaff noted that the fraternal bond between the fire service and police service...and was honored that LB Police Chief Anthony Batts attended.
Chief Batts brought a plaque that will be displayed of the event in future years. "I look at all these crosses, and look at the names...Think about the lives that actually went along with all of these crosses," Chief Batts. "My heroes are the firefighters and police officers of this nation...those people who won't hesitate to go in, to make a difference, when other people need help...Never forget the sacrifices that were made by these heroes," Chief Batts said.
LB Firefighters Union president Rich Brandt -- a former NY Firefighter (worked at 51st and Lexington in Manhattan) -- said he lost many close friends on 9/11. He introduced the "5 Bell Salute", traditional when a firefighter dies in the line of duty. The crowd fell silent as "four-fives" (five strikes repeated four times) were sounded from a fire bell atop a historic LB fire engine. Brandt said that "When the terrorists struck the World Trade Center, they thrust the nation into a deeper consciousness of what liberty really means. Let us never forget."
LB Mayor Bob Foster also spoke. "I want to thank Gary and his family especially for helping make this a day of remembrance for all of you and for our city...It's important to remember, and never forget, that we were attacked and we remain threatened today. It's important to remember, and never forget, that nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens died. It's important to remember, and never forget, that 343 firefighters, and 61 police officers, in the simple act of answering a call, gave their lives to help others. And it's important to always remember their dedication and their courage. And God bless them and God bless America."
Bagpipes opened and closed the ceremony. America the Beautiful was performed. Taps was sounded on a bugle by Aaron Alu. The Antioch Church Choir from downtown Long Beach performed Amazing Grace". Children sang, American Tears.
News of Firefighter Biggerstaff's memorial has spread to the east coast...with the power of the internet. A 27-year NYFD veteran, whose son was a NYFD firefighter and died in the 9/11 attacks, emailed a LB firefighter who recently visited NYC:
"We must continue to press our elected officials to do the right thing, whether it's to support the 9/11 Commission or fighting the war on terrorism. If we become complacent, it will happen again. I would love to be able to send you a piece of steel [from the former World Trade Center] to your [LB] Fire Dept. and make Gary Biggerstaff the receiver of it."
Firefighter Biggerstaff said he hopes to put that piece of steel on display as part of next year's 9/11 ceremony.