Every year when the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel is handing out miniature American Flags on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, current club president Chris Casella is moved to tears.
People who lost a brother, sister, loved one or a friend thank Casella and his fellow Rotarians, and share their heartbreaking stories.
“It never fails,” says Casella, who, due to an injury, was on limited duty as a sworn officer with the New York Police Department (NYPD) when the World Trade Center towers crumbled to the ground.
The latest project hatched by Casella and his fellow Board member Troy Stevenson and the Rotary Club is Pasco County’s first permanent 9/11 Memorial, which will be dedicated at the Tampa Premium Outlets on Saturday, September 7, at 8:46 a.m., the time the north tower was struck in 2001.
Stevenson is a 13-year first responder with the National Disaster Medical System and U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services. Casella and Stevenson have received a lot of help from not only their fellow Board members, but especially from Wesley Chapel resident Stephen Spelman, a retired Fire Department of New York (FDNY) emergency medical technician who was at the foot of the north tower when it collapsed.
The dedication of the new memorial will follow a one-mile Memorial Run/Walk at TPO — which will begin at 7:30 a.m.. The run/walk is open to all ages and is $10 per person to participate. All net proceeds will go to fund local scholarships for graduating high school students in Pasco County who intend to pursue careers as first responders.
The centerpiece of the 9/11 Memorial will be a 2-foot piece of the ladder from FDNY Ladder Truck 18 (photo), which will be framed and hung on a 25-foot stretch of wall at TPO’s food court. The wall will have a vinyl wrap depicting images from that day, as well as the names of everyone who perished.
According to Casella, FDNY Ladder Truck 18 was destroyed by falling debris, but the firefighters on the truck were all spared.
“Everybody on that truck survived by jumping under the ladder,” Casella says.
The ladder segment belongs to Spelman, who received it for being a scheduled guest speaker at a ceremony on 9/11/17 at the Motts Military Museum in Ohio, which he was unable to attend, due to Hurricane Irma.
For the past two years, Spelman and Casella have discussed what to do with the piece of ladder. Ideas ranged from donating it to a library or local firehouse to building a memorial, which wasn’t financially feasible.
While organizing the Memorial Run/Walk with TPO, one of the mall’s executives mentioned that he had been approached by a guy looking for help with a possible memorial. Casella asked if the guy’s name happened to be Steve…and it was.
Once TPO agreed to host the 9/11 Memorial by donating the space, plans took off and eventually came to fruition.
Casella also has been active in organizing events to benefit first responders, such as having Rotary Club members serve breakfast at all of the Fire Rescue Stations in Wesley Chapel and the Pasco Sheriff’s District 2 office in Dade City each year on 9/11.
The 9/11 Memorial and run/walk, however, may be his proudest achievement. “It’s emotional for me, and I know it is for Steve as well,” Casella says, his voice cracking. “Memorializing it is a big deal for, I think, everybody. It’s something we’ll never forget.”
Casella says the response to the Memorial Run and 9/11 Memorial has already been “incredible.”
Spelman has been in contact with two women who lost their husbands on that terrible day who also will share their stories at the dedication. Surviving first responder John Berrang also recently emailed Casella to applaud the Rotary Club’s efforts and said he’d like to participate in the one-mile run, despite currently undergoing treatment for stage 3 cancer contracted at the World Trade Center site. It was an email that Casella says was both inspiring and difficult to read, but a reminder that Sept. 11 remains a terrible day with a lot of meaning to many people.
“Thanks again,” Berrang wrote to Casella, “for remembering the heroes we lost on 9/11.”
For more information or to sponsor the Walk/Run, visit WCRotary.com/911-Memorial-Mile, or email Casella at Cdcasella@me.com or Stevenson at Troynyc65@aol.com.