MICHIGAN CITY — Nearly 18 years later, Michigan City's Becky Simmons still vividly remembers her time serving at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
The Salvation Army deployed the officer to New York City to provide relief to crews sifting through the rubble left behind by the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
For 10 days, Simmons and her team tended to exhausted firefighters and police officers who visited their tent, where they offered warm coffee, snacks and a place to rest.
Simmons said she can still hear some of the stories the tired rescue workers shared. She can still see the worn pews in the empty church near the site where crews would catch a few hours of sleep before returning to work. And she can still recall the giant steel cross the workers unearthed from the rubble, which they placed near the Salvation Army tent.
What she remembers most, though, is the silence that would befall the worksite whenever another fallen victim was found in the ruins. No matter what time of day, everyone would stop what they were doing and stand quietly as rescue workers loaded the body onto an ATV for transport to the morgue.
"It was an honor to stand there and honor those who had given their lives," Simmons said. "That was the least we could do."
Major Simmons shared her memories Wednesday, as she and other Michigan City residents gathered at the Elston YMCA building to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the attacks.
The Salvation Army of Michigan City, the Guardian Riders and Michigan City Fire Department organized the memorial service to honor the nearly 3,000 Americans who died in New York and Washington, D.C. almost 20 years ago.
As part of the ceremony, attendees held a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. (EST) – when the first hijacked airliner struck the north tower at the World Trade Center that morning.
Like so many Americans, Mayor Ron Meer – one of the speakers Wednesday's – still remembers where he was when he learned of the attack.
He was at work when he heard over the radio that a plane had hit one of the towers in New York. He quickly gathered with more than a dozen co-workers to watch the incident unfold on a small TV set in the breakroom.
In that moment – and for weeks to come – Meer and his fellow city employees looked past any prior grudges, united in mourning the carnage inflicted on their nation, he said.
"That happened all across the United States. We were one then," Meer said. "We came together. It didn't matter about race, religion, creed, color or anything like that. We were attacked, and we all came together."
Michigan City Fire Chief Randy Novak was 46 minutes into his shift at the station on Cleveland Avenue when he saw the first plane strike the tower on TV, he said. Though he and others at the firehouse first believed the crash might have been accidental, when they witnessed the second plane collide with the south tower 17 minutes later, the horrible reality began to set in.
In one of America's worst days came some of the nation's bravest acts, as New York City firefighters and other first responders climbed through the burning, falling towers to rescue those trapped inside, Novak said.
To recognize their courage, students with the A.K. Smith Career Center's fire science class joined firefighters in climbing the bleacher stairs inside the Elston YMCA gym. They walked up the equivalent of 110 flights of stairs – or 2,200 steps, the climb NYC first responders made up the twin towers in the aftermath of the attack.
"Through [their] participation, we can ensure that each of the 343 firefighters, 47 Port Authority police officers and 23 New York Police officers are honored, that the world knows we will never forget," Novak said.
After her story, Simmons admitted she has not been back to that part of New York City – she doesn't think she's ready yet.
What she is sure of, though, is that she was blessed to have the opportunity to serve her country during one of its most painful times.
"This is what we need to be as citizens," she said. "We need to be a part of the process, a part of what is happening in our communities. We need to be a part of helping others."