East Baltimore resident Jiri Cruz had just arrived for work in New Jersey around 9 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, when she saw U.S. Airlines Flight 175 crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, a tragedy that would shape the course of her life.
“I remember that day wanting to help,” said Cruz, 49.
That drive prompted her to join the Army National Guard, to serve for six years and deploy to train Albanian troops bound for Afghanistan.
It also led her to a small community garden in South Baltimore on Saturday, 20 years after the attacks, along with dozens of veterans determined to serve in memory of those who lost their lives on American soil that day and overseas in the prolonged war that followed.
Across the Baltimore area, people paused to reflect on that fateful day. At memorial runs, commemorative ceremonies and community service projects, residents honored the sacrifice of first responders, soldiers and everyday Americans. They thought about where they were, what went through their minds and how it changed them.
“Every year, 9/11 is not just another day,” said Cruz, drilling together pieces of wood into shelves that would soon support supplies at the Filbert Street Community Garden in Curtis Bay. “It’s a day to remember and do something.”
Goats and sheep raced by as ducks waddled around the garden, which stretches a city block. The property features raised crop beds, a green house, a pen for the livestock and a coop for the chickens. There’s an orchard and an active apiary, which produces honey for sale. Last year, garden volunteers distributed thousands of eggs into the surrounding community.
The Baltimore “Platoon” of The Mission Continues nonprofit, which connects veterans to “new missions” in underserved communities nationwide, has helped build and maintain the garden at Filbert Street, having started work here about three years ago. Saturday, they were volunteering as part of its project, “Beyond 9/11: Operation Enduring Service.”
About six miles away, in West Baltimore, first responders flowed into the B&O Railroad Museum’s roundhouse. Rays of sun graced a Baltimore Police Department color guard, which carried American and Maryland flags in between historic locomotives as as the Star Spangled Banner played.
“Those almost 3,000 souls lost this day shall forever be remembered in our hearts and minds and in our daily press toward life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Baltimore police Colonel Kevin Jones said from a podium. “To the survivors, to those who valiantly gave their bodies as first responders, to those who served and are serving in our armed services, we salute you.”
Outside, police officers and fire marshals positioned themselves by fire engines and patrol cars, bomb suits and mobile commands.
Ken Blade, an engine driver at the Baltimore County Fire Department’s Station Five in Halethorpe, helped children climb into the cabin for photos. He thought about working on “our old Mac fire engine” at another fire station twenty years ago, 98 Rock blaring in the background. The DJs interrupted, telling listeners to go to their televisions.
The first tower had already been hit. The video was raw and uncut. He watched as a plane smashed into the second, recognizing as a firefighter the “sheer enormous tragedy of the event,” he said.
“You see a house fire, it’s one thing,” Blade said. “That’s a whole different scope. ... just thinking about all those people who aren’t going to make it out.”
He saw planes flying overhead. He wondered if he was going to have to respond to another attack close by.
Back in the garden, Platoon leader Christophe Paul, 48, a 21-year Army veteran gathered the group of volunteers together and barked out instructions. They were to build benches and shelves, clean out the goat pen and paint picnic tables. He thanked them for continuing to serve, led a moment of silence and broke the huddle with the group chanting “Charlie Mike,” continue mission.
“You could be anywhere in the world,” Paul said, ”but you decided to come help us out.”
Twenty years ago, Paul was stationed at the military base in Hohenfels, Germany, where a small TV was tuned to the news. He was shocked and confused when he saw one of the Twin Towers collapse. After the second tower was struck, Paul recognized this moment would change the rest of his life.
“I remember saying out loud ‘We’re going to war,” said Paul, who lives in Glen Burnie. Looking back Saturday, he thought about friends he lost to that conflict. “I don’t spend my days thinking about it, but on a day like today, it all flashes back.”
He knows people process tragedy differently. Service is the way he does it.
“Instead of being in my house, I’m doing this with Mission Continues with other veterans,” Paul said. “It’s their way to remember.”