Veterans saluted and residents placed their hands over their hearts as the American flag was lowered to half-mast Wednesday morning.

West Michigan residents gathered at the American Legion Charles A. Conklin Post 28 to remember the first responders and others who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks 18 years ago.

Janet Fonger, commander of the Grand Haven post, asked everyone to continue to remember Sept. 11, 2001, for the days and years ahead.

“We need to remember this day,” she said. “We need to remember what happened to our country 18 years ago, and we need to keep in mind the lives that were lost on that day.”

Fonger noted the people who lost their lives that day woke up going to their jobs not knowing what the day would bring.

As Post Chaplain Duane Smith led a prayer, he said our memories of the day honor the first responders who entered the buildings without hesitation, honor their acts of courage and sacrifice, and remember the families who continue to deal with the lasting scars.

“Together as a nation, we have journeyed through a dark valley with a beacon of hope that continues to shine on our beloved land,” he said.

Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb thanked the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety, U.S. Coast Guard and other first responders for dedicating their lives to taking care of people. McCaleb said she knows they would all act the same way as the courageous first responders did 18 years ago. She said it is the nation’s obligation to remember the sacrifices of the first responders, World Trade Center employees and the travelers aboard the planes that day.

McCaleb said she remembers watching the events of that day unfold, and the scenes of the bridges filled with people trying to leave, the first responders trying to help the injured and the searches for survivors in the rubble.

“We should never forget or gloss over the horror of that day,” she said. “To do so would gloss over the sacrifice of those who died, those who live today with injuries and those who are fighting afflictions today from their efforts in the aftermath of the attack. We must never forget.”

Of the lives lost, 400 were firefighters, paramedics and police officers, noted Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke.

Hawke said the country has fought the war on terrorism for a long time, and it’s easy for memories to blur and the country to grow tired of war. But, as memories fade, Hawke said ceremonies like the one in Grand Haven are important for the country and next generation to remember that day. When the first responders started their shifts that day, they didn’t know they wouldn’t go home that night, and they were willing to save someone else’s life, Hawke said.

Hawke said he’s “proud, blessed and privileged” to work with a group of people who are willing to lay down their lives for people they don’t know.

“As for the members of the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety, the community can rest assured that we are committed,” the chief said. “We are trained, and we are willing to face all challenges on behalf of our citizens. We stand ready to respond, and we will never let you down.”

The lives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks were recognized on the Flag of Honor displayed during the ceremony. Fonger encouraged residents to find a name or two and pray for their families.

Norton Shores residents John and Kathy Casazza loaned the Flag of Honor to the Grand Haven post for Wednesday’s ceremony.

Kathy Casazza, who was unable to attend the ceremony, said Sept. 11 is a difficult day for their family. Kathy, who has lived in West Michigan for eight years, said although Americans remember Sept. 11, 2001, “they don’t understand how real it is.”

John’s nephew, also John Casazza, worked on the 108th floor of the World Trade Center. Although he called his family and planned to get out of the building, the family never heard from him again.

Kathy said their nephew’s brother also worked in one of the World Trade Center towers, but was delayed in getting to work that day. John Casazza’s sister worked in the other World Trade Center tower and immediately ran when she heard the noise. Kathy noted that her sister-in-law had also worked in the building when the bombing occurred.

While most of those who died that day weren’t military personnel, John Casazza said they should be treated as “warriors” because they were brave men and women who gave their lives for their country.

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