PUNTA GORDA — Memories of Sept. 11, 2001, have not faded for those who had a connection to the tragic events two decades ago.
Viewing artifacts and photographs of 9/11 on Saturday at the Military Heritage Museum, William Gardner recalled the day with clarity.
“I was off that day,” said the former Nassau County, New York sheriff’s deputy who now resides in Punta Gorda. “My friend called and asked what was going on.”
He said he went into his bedroom where there was “a little TV” and saw the events unfold.
At first, he said, his wife thought it was a small plane — a Cessna — that had hit the North Tower.
“’This is a terrorist attack,’ I told her. I told my wife, ‘I’m going,’ — meaning, I’m going to the World Trade Center site.”
She responded, telling him he wasn’t going and reminding him of their 5-year-old son.
“And I told her: ‘I am going.’”
He communicated with fellow first responders and they arranged for a van to take them from Long Island to the World Trade Center site.
“For some reason we wore dungarees and we had our guns.”
But Gardner wasn’t able to ride in the van because there wasn’t enough room for him.
Gardner’s boss told him to go home. His wife had picked up their son from kindergarten.
“And I began preparing,” he said, wanting to spend quality time with his son, thinking that if the nation was under attack, he might not make it home again.
Then he headed off to lower Manhattan and spent three weeks digging for remains.
His voice broke when he said the remains were mostly fragments of human bodies.
There was his first moments when he arrived.
“I threw up,” he said. “I’ll never forget the smell.”
He said there was a crowd of people there — “Fathers looking for sons” — in addition to first responders looking for their comrades.
He recalled the scene at what became known as the pile.
“I saw a spine with some flesh hanging off it; just a spine.”
After three weeks, Gardner returned home.
The first thing he did was look in on his son. Then news began to trickle in.
“I heard my friend in the fire department died,” he said. “Another friend was ‘missing.’ I know what missing meant.”
He also learned that all of the first responders on the van he was to have ridden in had perished.
The effects of September 2001 have stayed with Gardner, both emotionally and physically.
“I have really bad PTSD and took treatment for it. I have lung problems; I’ve had skin cancers; and I had a tumor removed from the side of my head.”
He said he’s also had his “sinus rebuilt because I had a loss of balance, and I have leukemia lurking.”
Wearing a cross made of aluminum around his neck, Gardner said it came from “the outside skirting surrounding the building outside.” It was given to him in gratitude for the work he had done at ground zero.
The Military Heritage Museum on Saturday hosted a one-hour tribute to first responders, fallen heroes and others killed in the terrorist attacks.
The Rev. Monsignor Philip W. Hill, a retired colonel with the U.S. Army, recounted several moments in which his life was spared in the terrorist attacks.
He was due to have a meeting in the Pentagon with Lt. General Timothy Maude. But Maude was late for the meeting, “and I took off,” he said.
Hill ran into then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a chaplain who missed his bus. Then he heard a loud noise, and American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles crashed into the side of the Pentagon where Maude’s office was.
He said he realized, “how much control God has of my life.”
Previously, Hill had asked whether the chaplains could occupy the space where Maude’s office was, but they were denied by U.S. Secretary of the Army Thomas White Jr.
“I asked him (White), why did you refuse us (chaplains), and he said he didn’t have an answer, other than, ‘I just had to say no.’”
Hill said he also escaped a rocket bombing and another attack, both in Iraq, bringing his total of close calls to five, he said.
He ended his talk by attributing his survival to God.
Paul Hibner, of Punta Gorda, somberly looked at artifacts on display at the museum and appeared to be emotional.
Living in Boston at the time, Hibner had a ticket for American Airlines Flight 11, he said. He was scheduled to attend a meeting in Los Angeles, but the meeting was canceled, and his boss said he could remain in Boston.
That flight was the first jet flown into the World Trade Center.
“My one friend from kindergarten was to attend a meeting at the World Trade Center that day, and his boss canceled the meeting. ... Then my other friend since kindergarten, who would have taken a train through the World Trade Center around the time of the attacks, also had his meeting canceled.”
One man who will never forget is Punta Gorda Fire Department Chaplain Carlo Gargiulo, who has donated many of the artifacts on display at the museum.
They include the helmet he wore, his boots and various photos.
On 9/11, Gargiulo, a New York firefighter for 25 years, was working in the FDNY support services division, tasked with rescue and recovery at ground zero.
He told a hushed audience in the museum’s theater, “On Sept. 11, 2001, God had a different plan for my life.”
Gargiulo was in Disney World with his family that day, when he heard the news.
He said that after events unfolded, the park was evacuated as it was feared the Disney parks would be targets.
Back in New York, Gargiulo joined other first responders in looking for remains.
Gargiulo read off statistics:
Total people murdered — 2,977
50,000 and 60,000 worked at the World Trade Center
200,000 passed through each day
Number of people who lost a spouse — 2,200
Number of children who lost a parent — 5,051
Number of missing whose remains were never found — 1,717
NYFD apparatus destroyed — 98
Number of days fires burned — 99 days
Family friends were grieving a relative whose remains were not found, Gargiulo said.
“We took a Ziploc bag and scooped some dust into that bag and brought it to them.”
He said they treated it “as if it were $1 million.”
“I’m glad we gave them some peace.”