The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of many 9/11 memorials, but the county’s top cop and firefighter don’t want anyone to stop thinking of the victims of the attacks 19 years ago as well as the veterans who waged the ensuing war on terrorism.

“Never forget — that’s really the mantra,” said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy. “If people are forgetting we need to remind them.”

Fennessy and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes will be the keynote speakers at a 9/11 memorial at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda Friday. The event is not open to the public and will be livestreamed as library officials prepare for an eventual reopening soon.

OCFA firefighter Scott Townley, who has had a 9/11 memorial around his Fullerton home since the first anniversary had to cancel it this year due to the pandemic. He told City News Service he has big plans for next year’s 20th anniversary.

As they do every year, Orange County firefighters will ring their fire station bells to memorialize the victims at the time the planes slammed into the towers in New York, but they’re not promoting it so as not to draw a crowd when social distancing is stressed to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Fennessy said he understands how even historic attacks on the level of 9/11 can be forgotten over time.

“I have a 19-year-old daughter who was only months old at the time,” Fennessy said. “I sit my daughter down if I can get 5 minutes of her attention… It’s funny when she asks questions and I think, you know, this is ingrained into the brains of all of us who lived through that but not (younger generations).”

Fennessy said he remembers the attacks in New York, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, “like yesterday… It’s like Pearl Harbor for so many of our mothers and fathers and grandfathers.”

Fennessy was working as a fire captain in San Diego on Sept. 11, 2001.

“My job was to get (firefighters from his department) on a transport to New York” for a mutual aid response digging for remains amid the rubble of the twin towers.

“At the same time they were shutting down everything that flew,” so Fennessy was in a hurry to get his fellow firefighters on a plane to Manhattan.

“Nobody was on the road, nobody,” Fennessy said. “It was empty… It was surreal. It was devastating for all of us. We were in tears,” he said.

Fennessy said he has many New York firefighter friends, who are mostly all retired now.

“Some will talk very openly about it,” the fire chief said. “Some don’t want to talk about it.”

Fennessy said he was wrestling with what to say at Friday’s memorial because 2020 has been so strange and momentous.

“We went from a pandemic to wildfires, civil unrest,” Fennesy said. “What a year.”

Climate change has increased wildfires and lengthened the wildfire season, he said. When he started working for the fire service in 1978, he said, the wildfire season was June 1 to Dec. 1, but now, “You could have it start in April and end in January. Mother Nature is all mixed up.”

Fennessy said when he gives talks on 9/11 he likes to just speak from the heart and not from prepared remarks. Most importantly, he said, is expressing gratitude for the veterans who have battled the war on terrorism and to never forget the victims of the attacks and the brave first responders who tried to save them.

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