For most Americans, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, will live on forever.
Where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and how the horrifying sight of the World Trade Center’s twin towers crumbling to earth left you feeling afterwards will likely never really go away.
The memories linger, and on Sept. 7, at the dedication of Pasco County’s first permanent 9-11 memorial inside the food court area of the Tampa Premium Outlets, hundreds gathered to share their recollections and honor those who died that day.
Retired New York City EMT Stephen Spelman knew many of them.
Spelman says he was standing at the foot of the north tower and being ordered by his lieutenant to search for some nearby vehicles.
“What he did in that moment was actually save my life,” Spelman told the gathered crowd.
As he was returning from that task, Spelman said the north tower collapsed. Because of where he was located, Spelman was able to take off running north on West St. to avoid the falling wreckage.
Many of Spelman’s co-workers, including the lieutenant who gave the order, ran east on Vesey St.
Their bodies were never recovered.
Like so many who were at Ground Zero that fateful day, Spelman hasn’t really recovered, either. He retired from the fire department in 2009, and moved to the Wesley Chapel area in 2010. Years went by as he tried to cope with the psychological burden of losing so many of his friends and co-workers, as well as the lingering health problems associated with what he and so many other surviving first responders endured that day.
In the Spring of 2017, Spelman says he got a call from the Motts Military Museum in Groveport, OH, which asked him to come tell his story.
The event was set for the 16th anniversary of 9/11, but fate and another disaster would prevent the former EMT trainer from attending.
Hurricane Irma tore through central Florida on September 11, 2017, causing billions of dollars of damage and taking the lives of 129 people. Florida officials ordered 6.5 million residents to evacuate. Spelman never made that trip up to Ohio.
A few weeks later, however, he got a package in the mail from the Motts Museum — a piece of the ladder from the Ladder 18 Truck from Battalion 4 in lower Manhattan, the station also known as Fort Pitt.
“At first, I saw it (the piece of the ladder) as a burden, but it wound up being a real gift,” Spelman says.
The ladder awakened something in him, spurring him to try to find the right home for it, where it hopefully would do some good.
“I didn’t want it to be in my house,” he said. ‘’It’s an important piece of history.”
Spelman began approaching different places with the idea to create some kind of memorial around the piece. It became an ongoing endeavor. After being turned down on multiple occasions, Spelman finally found some interest at the mall.
“I finally got the ear of Tampa Premium Outlets and gave them a brief history about me and about the ladder,” Spelman said. “They said they’d see if they could help and gave me a list of things to do. I was looking for sponsors to create the display and it was frustrating. I didn’t think it was ever going to get done.”
Help From An Old Friend
Enter former NYPD officer and Spelman’s FDNY colleague Chris Casella. Casella was trained by and worked with Spelman and also came to Florida in 2002 after retiring from the NYPD. (Casella was already on limited duty due to injury before 9/11.)
As it turns out, Casella, the current president of the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel Noon (which meets Wednesdays at noon at Omari’s Grill inside Lexington Oaks Golf Club; see ad on pg. 38), was already in talks with the outlet mall to launch a Sept. 11 Memorial Run/Walk on Sept. 7.
“From there, it didn’t take much,” Spelman said. “We started the ball rolling and at first we didn’t think people would take interest.” He and Casella would both end up being pleasantly surprised.
“I can’t tell you the amount of emails I got, and phone calls from people wanting to be involved in it,” Casella said. “People were coming out in droves wanting to get involved. It was really uplifting and I believe it helped the community in a big way.”
Hundreds of local residents rallied around the idea of honoring 9/11’s surviving heroes Saturday morning in the presence of dozens of first responders from both Hillsborough and Pasco Counties and beyond.
The kickoff event was the one-mile Fun Run/Walk, where nearly 300 runners and walkers took a lap around the main interior road around the mall.
Casella’s predecessor as Wesley Chapel Noon Rotary president, Eric Johnson, served as master of ceremonies, and Boy Scouts from Troop 149, together with Cub Scouts from Pack 149, were on hand to support the race and to hand out miniature American flags.
“The Wesley Chapel Noon Rotary sponsors both our Cub Scout pack and Boy Scout troop and asked us to come out,” Troop 149 Scoutmaster Kevin Wiatrowski said. “We are delighted to be out here for this special occasion. Mr. Spelman and his son Mathew have been part of our pack for years.”
Jeremiah Loo of Wesley Chapel was the first to cross the finish line as runners and walkers trickled in behind him. Bananas and bottled water were offered up by high schoolers from Cypress Creek Middle/High School, as walkers, runners and spectators from all over the area brought their families out for the event.
Johnson drew the crowd into the food court of the outlet mall where, at exactly 8:46 a.m., the Rotary Club’s bell was rung to commemorate the first plane striking the north tower.
The Main Event
A moment of silence and a flyover by a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office helicopter preceded the bell ringing, which concluded the morning’s outdoor events. Spectators then crowded into the food court for the ribbon cutting of the new memorial.
Pasco County commissioners Mike Moore, Ron Oakley and Jack Mariano all spoke at the podium, as did U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, before giving way to Spelman to tell his story about 9/11 and the heroes who did not live to tell about it.
Spelman mentioned Lieutenant Mario Bastidas, who perished that day. Bastidas’ widow Penelope flew in from New York and gave a brief, but emotional address to the audience before cutting the ceremonial ribbon.
From there, the hallway leading out of the food court to the soda machines and bathrooms was opened and spectators began filing past the new memorial, which incorporated Spelman’s small section of Ladder 18.
“When Chris told me they were going to give me a wall by the bathroom, at first, I didn’t really think that was a great thing,” Spelman said. “But it wound up being that with these soda and gum ball machines down there, these kids (at the mall) are going to ask mom and dad, ‘What is that?,’ and it’s our responsibility to educate them.”
Throngs of local residents dressed in their commemorative red 9/11 shirts lined up to take in the memorial. The Italian Angels Brotherhood of Pasco County showed up in force to commemorate the event.
“Steve (Spelman) is a good friend, I knew him when we both lived in Brooklyn,” Italian Angels of Pasco president Frank Losurdo said.
Retired FDNY Lieutenant Mike Besignano, who now lives in New Tampa, was on hand to take in the memorial and the community support.
“Every year it’s difficult,” Besignano said. “I’m happy to see this (memorial), I’m sad but it makes me happy at the same time and people should never forget the sacrifices that were made and are continuing to be made.”