MANCHESTER — For these men, 9/11 wasn’t a story. It was their jobs.
On that day, they knew it meant the lives of fellow New Yorkers and firefighters, and possibly their own.
Manchester’s 9/11 memorial service Saturday morning featured two keynote speakers, who served as firefighters in New York City during the attacks. They told their real-life stories to about 150 listeners gathered at Factory Point Town Green.
Stationed in the Bronx, Ken Stefanak saw on the news that the towers had been hit, and he immediately reported to his firehouse, he said.
Members of his company already responded to the emergency and were missing somewhere near the south tower.
“Our orders were to remain at the firehouse, but a few of us grabbed our equipment. We made our way to the last known location of our companies and sifted through piles of dust and rubble,” Stefanak said.
Stefanak said firefighter Ray Pfeifer joined him in the search on that grim morning. On the second day, Pfeifer decided to not leave for breaks and remained there for days, searching for signs of life and the dead between snatches of sleep.
“I can’t convey the time, effort and stamina that he displayed,” said Stefanak, who retired in 2013 as a battalion chief. “Ray passed away in 2017 after a long and hard-fought battle with 9/11-related cancers,” Stefanak noted, his voice grave.
Tom Grabher, who also served that day and was a battalion chief, shared similar, somber recollections of the massive search operation.
“The rescue mission soon turned into a recovery of the deceased,” he recalled.
He didn’t know it then, but the recovery mission would last for months. “We dug until we reached the absolute lowest point, called the tub, at ground zero.”
The former battalion chiefs said they were comforted that so many community members attended the service on Saturday. Stefanak and Grabher have both joined the Manchester community in the years since the attack.
“I know many of you have a personal connection to that day,” said Grabher, his voice choking. “I ask you and implore you to always remember.”
A Manchester honor guard presented colors to open the somber ceremony, which marked the 20th anniversary of the attacks in New York City.
“9/11 no longer describes a date; it describes an event,” noted Ivan Beattie, the town’s Select Board chairman.
Bagpipers played the hymn “Amazing Grace,” one of many moments of the service that left attendees emotional.
Firefighters from Peru, Winhall, Dorset and other nearby towns were in attendance, and police officers and EMS also gathered.
Officials blocked off parts of Depot Street to make room for the ceremony. Manchester Fire Department’s tower truck suspended a large, billowing American flag above the gathering.
Community members and first responders joined in the national anthem, and the Rev. Rebecca Sommons, of The First Baptist Church of Manchester Center, offered an opening prayer.
“We give thanks for the bravery of those who helped people to safety that day,” the pastor said.
A first responder rang a ceremonial bell 20 times, once for each year since the terrorist attack, and representatives of the public, Fire and Police departments and Northshire Rescue Squad placed wreaths by the commemorative stone to honor the first responders who lost their lives.
The VFW Auxiliary invited the community to a free luncheon after the service; the honor guard led a procession there. All was coordinated by the Manchester Fire Department in conjunction with the Manchester Veterans of Foreign Wars.