By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Mayor Sean Spiller stood in front of the few dozen people gathered at Watchung Plaza Saturday, 20 years to the day after planes hijacked by terrorists felled the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and another crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
“I want to say a few words of reflection,” he said. “I know we all are feeling lots of emotions today, and we are trying to relate the best that we can to those that lost so much. But we can’t truly understand.
“We reflect on our own lives and how [they were] impacted on that day that none of us will ever forget.”
Montclair lost nine people to the Sept. 11, 2021 terrorist attacks; their names remain engraved on a memorial at the plaza, adorned this weekend with flowers from the township and from loved ones. One surviving family member attended this year’s ceremony; some others visited the memorial happening the same morning in New York City. Over the years, several have moved out of the area, Councilman Bob Russo, who’d been mayor at the time of the attacks, has told Montclair Local. And for some, attending is just too painful, he said.
Diana Stewart, wife of Montclair 9/11 victim Michael Stewart, has spoken at several of the township’s ceremonies. Saturday, she thanked Russo and the community overall for the help and support she received after the attacks. Stewart has told Montclair Local of gifts she received from strangers, of community members who’d come to her home and watched her children so she could go into New York seeking greater understanding of what happened to Michael.
“No. 1, I was a witness to glorious behavior and gruesome behavior. I was a witness to my children waiting to hear about remains, and other ones, other people I met, waiting to hear about remains — and what it was like, the difference when there were any kind or remains. And also, when there were none,” she said.
In her speech, Stewart praised first responders from Montclair and across the nation, as well as the soldiers who enlisted after the attacks — some sacrificing their lives in service. She called on those who had relationships to people who served in the armed forces to raise their hands.
She joked that if Russo is still calling her in 20 years to speak at commemorations, “I’m going to say I have a dental appointment.”
But until then, she said, “I am going to embrace this town and the people who work for our benefit, and the friends I’ve made since, and the neighbors that have come and gone.”
Lauren Zoodl, a Montclair resident, was among those who gathered to pay their respects.
“It was a tough day for a lot of people and a lot of people lost loved ones,” Lauren Zoodl said. “It is important to continue remembering those who died and come together as a community.”
Linda Kow, a co-founder of the recently formed Montclair AAPI advocacy organization, was in New York City when the attacks happened. She saw the towers collapsing. Kow had thought her husband’s cousin was inside, but later learned he was able to escape. She said the attacks changed their lives forever.
And Saturday, she said it’s important not only to remember the victims of the attacks, but their aftermath, and the ways they shaped social attitudes. She said she’d recently read about an increase in anti-Muslim violence.
“It is living history and it impacts us even today and it impacts our public policy both here on this soil and internationally,” Kow said. “So it is very important that we don’t forget, to continue the discussion and continue to think about the repercussions for us today.”
The opening prayer was conducted by the Rev. Robert Coles, senior pastor at Petra Baptist Church of Montclair and chaplain to Montclair police. He wished comfort not only for the families that lost loved ones on 9/11, but also for those who helped in the aftermath.
In his prayer, Coles asked God to provide strength for the witnesses who saw the attacks in person, and advocated for justice over violence.
“We also pray for ourselves as we seek your strength and guidance,” Coles said in his prayer. “We have to live in the aftermath of this tragedy and in the shadow of future acts of aggression. We, Lord, stand in need of your assistance. So, enable us, oh blessed one, to put an end to fear by resolving to live lived based on respect to one another, by resolving to abide in a peaceful manner and never settle disagreements in our lives in any violent way again, by resolving not to fail or fall into a trap of blaming entire ethnic groups, races or religions in response to acts of hostility, by resolving that justice, not revenge, prevail in our world.”
Russo, who has organized Montclair’s annual ceremonies, recalled how his wife told him about the attacks while he was waking up.
Russo said in the aftermath of the attacks, he visited the families of those who died. He thanked the first responders, including police officers and firefighters who continue helping the community during times of crisis.
“We have to come together and be united as one,” Russo said. “Tragedies like the flood we had last week, where our police and firefighters in particular were pumping water out of people’s homes and dealing with the crisis that we experienced — those are the true heroes.”
He urged those attending not only to remember those lost on 9/11, but to call their federal representatives and support more funding for the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides health care to first-responders and others affected by the attacks. The program is facing a shortfall, and Congressional Democrats hope to include more funding in a the $3.5 trillion budget resolution.
The ceremony also included an advance of colors by the Montclair Police Honor Guard, a reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance led by Police Chief Todd Conforti, a performance of the national anthem by Frances Duffy, a ringing of the fire bell by Fire Chief John Herrmann, bagpipe performances of “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America” by John Loiacono, a closing prayer by Fire Department chaplain the Rev. Elbert L. Maxwell of the Sword of the Spirit Christian Church and music by the Montclair Community Band.
Essex County officials and others gathered the same morning at the Eagle Rock reservation memorial in West Orange, the site where many people came together the morning of 9/11 to gaze out at the New York City skyline.
This post has been updated to correct wording in quotes of Mayor Sean Spiller and Diana Steward.
Montclair residents lost on 9/11
Michael Collins, 38, was manager with Cantor Fitzgerald. He moved to Montclair in 1997 with his wife Lissa. He was also an avid skier, snowboarder and rock climber.
Caleb Arron Dack, 39, was vice president and director of global sales and alliances, Encompys. He wrote loopy poems and complex business software. Dack was attending a trade show at Windows on the World on 9/11. He lived in Montclair with his wife Abigail and their two children.
Emeric J. Harvey, 56, founder and president of Harvey Young Yurman Inc. His relentless energy made him a natural leader. On Sept. 11, Harvey was at a weekly breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. He lived in Montclair with wife Jennifer.
Scott Johnson, 26, was born and raised in Montclair. He graduated from Montclair Kimberley Academy. In March 2000, he joined the investment banking firm of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. Johnson was adventurous and loved to travel. He is survived by his parents, Ann and Thomas S. Johnson of New York and Montclair.
Howard Kestenbaum, 56, was senior vice president with Aon Corp. Kestenbaum was an avid baseball fan, active at his temple and cared deeply about the homeless. He moved to Montclair in 1985 with his daughter Lauren, and wife, Granvilette.
Robert M. Murach, 45, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. He grew up in Brooklyn and lived in Montclair with wife Laurie and daughters Madison and Hayley. He loved scuba diving and golf.
David Pruim, 53, was a senior vice president for the Aon Corporation. He lived in Montclair with wife Kate and their daughter, Carrington. He was described as the most gentle 6-foot-4 person ever.
Ronald Ruben, 36, worked for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. He loved to fix and build things. Ruben graduated from Montclair High School, but lived in Hoboken.
Michael Stewart, 42, had just started a job as a senior executive at a financial trading firm, Carr Futures on Sept. 11. He had a deep love for rugby and other sports, but his love for his sons was greater.