About 200 people gathered for a Saturday morning ceremony at the Garden of Reflection in Lower Makefield Township, Bucks County, to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11 exactly 20 years ago.
Eighteen Bucks County residents died as a result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and their family members were quite literally front and center as state and local politicians and religious leaders offered words of remembrance and local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts led symbolic dedications of flowers.
“Twenty years ago, at this very time, we saw both the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. And I think that’s all of our choice of what to remember 9/11 by,” U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick told the crowd.
The committee that organizes the annual Garden of Reflection memorial event is bound forever to that fateful day — and not by choice. Judi Reiss lost her 23-year-old son, Joshua Reiss, when planes struck the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York.
“Today is kind of strange, because when you look up, it’s the same beautiful, clear blue sky of 20 years ago. And some days I know it’s 20 years, and other days I, like, it just happened. It’s still very painful. It’s still almost surreal,” Reiss said in an interview with WHYY News.
A bell tolled to mark the exact moments that the towers were struck, the Pentagon was hit by a third plane, Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and each tower collapsed.
State Sen. Steve Santasiero and Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie read aloud the names of the Pennsylvania and Bucks County victims.
In an interview, Harvie said that he has known Reiss for a long time, and that he would have come to the 20th anniversary memorial even if she hadn’t asked him to read the names.
“It’s certainly one of the biggest honors of my life to be able to do that,” Harvie said.
It was a solemn morning of reflection, with tears flowing as if the wounds were as fresh as they were in 2001.
“We tend to take these round numbers — five years, 10 years, 20 years, 25 years — and we add significance to them. I think, to the families of the people who were lost, I don’t know if there’s any difference for them. The pain is still there,” Harvie said.
The 8:30 a.m. ceremony was to be followed by a larger 6 p.m. Remembrance in Light ceremony at the Garden of Reflection.
It was not by chance that the Garden of Reflection became the official Pennsylvania memorial to the victims of 9/11: Much credit is given to the late Grace Godshalk, who had been a Lower Makefield Township supervisor. She lost her son, William Godshalk, in the attacks.
Ellen Saracini, Fiona Havlish, Tara Bane, and Godshalk, all family members of 9/11 victims, gathered to create a memorial to honor Lower Makefield residents who had passed.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Reiss had a pretty ordinary life. She was a teacher, a mother of five, and a wife who seamlessly balanced her many duties as an active member of her community.
She enjoyed a level of privacy and opted out of the limelight. And then everything changed.
Just 23 years old, Joshua Reiss was the youngest international bonds trader at Cantor Fitzgerald. His family was very proud of him. But Judi Reiss had her worries about his place of work in one of the towers. She even had a discussion with her son a week and a half before the nightmare unfolded.
“I was terrified of him being that high up in any building, and I absolutely was not going up to visit his office. That was not happening. And I mean, he was reassuring me,” Reiss said.
And then, the planes struck.
“I admit, I was a disaster. I was what somebody today would call a hot mess. Losing Josh was … it was viscerally painful. It was not just my head that hurt, but my whole body hurt,” Reiss said.
She couldn’t even leave the comfort of her home without a camera or a microphone being shoved in her face.
Somehow, Godshalk helped Reiss and other local families pick up the pieces. They found a great location for a memorial, pulled together funds, selected an architect, and soon after the Garden of Reflection was born.
“The garden is just a very special, special place. It’s somewhere anyone can come and sit down and find a lot of peace,” Reiss said.
Godshalk was a “definite Yankee Republican,” Reiss said, and she was a “moderate to liberal Democrat.”. Despite their political differences, they grew closer because of 9/11.
In fact, Reiss said, it was Godshalk that got her involved with township politics after Godshalk stepped down from her post. She even encouraged Reiss to take her place.
Now, Reiss is the Bucks County prothonotary. Godshalk passed away back in 2018, leaving Reiss heartbroken, but she is reminded of the bond they had and Godshalk’s legacy every time she steps outside.
“I always say that if you walk in Lower Makefield, everything good you look at should have Grace’s name on it,” Reiss said.
Today, Reiss is 20 years older, as is the rest of her family — with the exception of Josh. She feels as if he’s stuck in time.
“Twenty years is a long time, especially when we consider we have children graduating from college this year that did not know what life was like before. And it was different, much, much different. To me, whether it’s one year or 20 years, there’s not a big difference in the way I feel. I’m going to always miss him,” Reiss said.
Hard to believe two decades have passed
Many attending Saturday’s ceremony said it was stunning to recall that it’s been 20 years since the twin towers fell.
But those who witnessed the aftermath firsthand said they remember the days and weeks that followed like it was yesterday.
Chuck Manziak is a retired airline pilot and naval aviator from Yardley. He flew over ground zero just days after the attack.
“It was still smoldering; there were huge searchlights. And it was surreal. It’s the only way I can describe it. It took every ounce of me not to get emotional. Because well, I had a job to do,” Manziak said.
He said he won’t forget the trauma the country endured. He hasn’t even forgotten when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Manziak was just 9 years old at the time. His son was the same age on 9/11.
“And I remember looking at my son, wondering, `How is he reacting to all this trauma here on 9/11,’ because I almost felt in a way that I was looking at myself when I was a 9-year-old kid in November of 1963,” Manziak said.
Others also pointed to events in history as a way to emphasize the importance of the moment for them. Terrance Sweeney of Bucks County called 9/11 this generation’s Pearl Harbor.
“It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed already. I remember the day it happened. And it’s just hard to believe that 20 years is going by so fast,” Sweeney said.
Usually, Elsie Goss Caldwell of Philadelphia goes to New York to honor her 30-year-old son Kenny Caldwell, who died when the first tower was hit. Because of COVID-19, the 9/11 support group that she is a part of decided to opt for something local.
“I’m missing so much. So, so much,” she said.
Goss Caldwell was present for the very first dedication too. She was shocked to find out that Godshalk had passed.
She brought a picture of her son with her to keep his memory alive. She described him as kind and funny, and able to make anyone feel special no matter who they were.
To Goss Caldwell, every year feels the same — it feels like it just happened.
“We do a lot of different things in his memory. We have kind of given away maybe over 100 scholarships in his name through the Philadelphia Foundation. And then we have one at the high school he attended: Penn Charter,” Goss Caldwell said.
Denise Mullen of Newtown was shaken up after the ceremony as she reflected on her previous job at New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, calling the loved ones of those who had died and breaking the bad news.
For Mullen, it is hard to put into words the importance of 20 years.
“I can’t explain it. It’s a spiritual thing. I’m just feeling it inside. I’m just feeling so much pain and loss and hurt and devastation,” she said.
Solidarity in the moment
Mary Pica of Bensalem said she likes to come to the Bucks memorial as often as she can. There, she finds a sense of togetherness. But when she leaves, she said, the feeling is gone. Nothing has matched the proud feeling of America being together the day after 9/11, and the state of the country today doesn’t even hold a candle to it, she said.
“It feels divided today. And sadly, I wish we had that feeling again. I don’t understand how to capture that again. And I don’t want it to be another tragedy that makes us feel that way again,” Pica said.
First responders present at Saturday’s ceremony mostly stood to the back, away from the podium. That’s where Heidi Krueger, of Abington, was seated alongside her dog.
On 9/11, Krueger was an EMT running a “little local volunteer company,” but her journey to ground zero came alongside members of her church six weeks after the tragedy. That’s where she got her patch to wear in solidarity back home.
“I just think it’s important to not forget events like this and to honor the people that gave their lives, both as a result of the attacks and then going in to rescue people during the attacks,” Krueger said.
Linda Palsky, a member of the Pennsbury School Board, said the annual observance essentially happens right in her backyard. To those who worry about people “forgetting” 9/11 soon, she offered this:
“I’m very proud of what our community has created here. And every year it becomes even better — and the crowds this year are more than I’ve ever seen, because I do attend every year.”
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