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 forget about the victims of the attacks 19 years ago nor the veterans who waged the ensuing war on terrorism.

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

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

At the tribute, Fennessy noted how his department’s headquarters in Irvine displays a steel beam from one of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the attacks. He said when he passes it he often “pauses to reach out to touch it” as it reminds him of all of the “firefighters willing to put their lives on the line to save others.”

Fennessy departed from his prepared speech to thank local law enforcement. He said whenever he attends public safety briefings among his peers in law enforcement in the area he “walks out of there feeling so safe, so secure, because they are the reason we are safe today. We continue to be protected because of the efforts of Sheriff Barnes, sheriff’s deputies, police chiefs… My hats off to you… Me and my family are extremely grateful.”

Barnes said Sept. 11, 2011, was a “horrible day etched in the hearts and minds of all Americans.”

The sheriff alluded to the summer of civil unrest, which was touched off by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota in his remarks. He said it stands in contrast to the unity among Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

“This Patriot Day gives us an opportunity to turn away from rancor and look to what united us as Americans,” Barnes said.

“Our history is full of imperfections and there are more than a few examples of where we fell short,” the sheriff said. “The grievances of the past and current day should not be dismissed.”

But, he added, there are many other “more moments we can point to with pride… There are countless stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things because they were part of a country built on innovation and freedom. We have so much to be proud of as Americans.”

OCFA firefighter Scott Townley, who has had a 9/11 memorial around his Fullerton home dating back to the first anniversary canceled 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 rang their fire station bells to memorialize the victims at the time the planes slammed into the towers in New York, but they did not promote it so as to prevent drawing a crowd when social distancing is stressed to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Fennessy told City News Service on Thursday that 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 five 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.”

He 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.”

He 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,” he said. “What a year.”

Climate change has increased wildfires and lengthened the wildfire season, he said, adding that when he started working for the fire service in 1978, 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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