By Lyra Bordelon
The sixth annual Greenbrier County Parade of Lights came through Fairlea and Lewisburg on the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The parade, honoring those lost in the attacks, and emergency responders across the Greenbrier Valley, brought a huge number of vehicles from throughout the valley to the grounds of the State Fair of West Virginia.
“It’s continued to get bigger and bigger each year and I think it’s fantastic,” said local first responder and pastor James Hylton. “I look around and I see a lot of [the first responders in attendance] weren’t even born in 2001, and I want to thank you for coming out. You may be coming out because you’re part of a fire department or a rescue squad, or you may be out here because a mother or father or maybe a grandparent is a member, or you’re here to pay your respects for that tragic incident 19 years ago.”
The vehicles departed from the fairgrounds and traveled through Fairlea and downtown Lewisburg as the sun set, with the parade coming to a close in the dark of night, the largest source of lights being the vehicles themselves. Afterwards, organizer Jeff Doss opened a post-parade candlelight vigil, opening the ceremony up to several speakers.
“When I was about fourteen … I remember sitting at the dinner table and I was doing my homework,” said Doss. “My father came through and asked me what I was doing, I said I was writing a report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He paused for a moment and said November 22, 1963, it was a Friday. I looked at him astonished and asked ‘how do you do that?’ He said ‘son you don’t forget a day like that.’ Fast forward to 2001 and I know exactly what he meant. At my previous job I probably started around 6, 7 o’clock in the morning. I had been on a forklift until 9, something like that, went in to get coffee, and heard about the plane hitting the world trade center. Like everybody I though ‘well it’s an accident, terrible tragedy.’ Then, obviously, things went on through the day and I realized it wasn’t an accident. Honestly I did what probably most everybody did that day – I prayed. Later that evening I called my father and realized he was right, you don’t forget something like that, and I don’t think we ever will.”
Frankie Jones, president of the Greenbrier County Fire and Emergency Responder’s Association, Doss, and Hylton spoke during the vigil, with Hylton giving a sermon calling on people to come together, support emergency responders, and remember those lost on 9/11.
“I’ve been doing this for 41 years, and I want to thank you for what you do,” said Hylton. “I want to thank you for leaving your family. I want to thank you for coming out and spending the time on that truck or in that cruiser or in that dispatch center or in that correctional facility. Our job is dangerous. But one thing I have learned as a pastor is you’ve got to take care of family. Make sure your family is first. Make sure that you’re there for your spouse. Make sure you’re there for your kids and your grandkids because they grow up once and before you know it, you spend all your time in the firehouse or in the ambulance bay, and your kids have grown up, graduated, they went on college and getting married and you look back and say ‘what happened? What happened is you, being dedicated like you are, spent your time in the firehouse or in the rescue squad. Please take care of your family.”
Acknowledging the 2,997 civilians, 343 firefighters, 23 New York Police Department members, 37 Port Authority responders who perished in the attack, Jones gave a timeline of the events and asked everyone who was alive at the time to remember what they were doing when they heard about the attack.
“I’m gonna put into a little bit of [perspective on those numbers] there,” Jones said. “If that was a call and everybody in your department in Greenbrier County was there, all the department, fire, EMS, on that one call were line of duty deaths. Expand on that a little bit … just about every law enforcement, that would include our local detachment of state police, sheriff’s department, DNR officers, city, all the law enforcement is gone. If you want to expand a little bit more, imagine on that day, in that one instant, Ronceverte and Alderson, the citizens registered in that population center, all the citizens of those two towns are also gone.”
The after effects of the attacks are still felt today, with many responders and civilians still dying due to the airborne debris.
“There’s still people today dying from those attacks, from the leftover lung problems, the ash, the stuff they’re still dealing with,” Jones said.
“Since 9/11, 2000 people have died in 19 years, of respiratory problems, of cancer, of skin disorders,” Hylton said. “Which comes out to one every three days. 37,000 people still suffer this illness related to the attacks.
Although the parade has been held each year for the past five, there was some uncertainly this year due to COVID-19. Acknowledging this, and the virus’ effects on what emergency responders have to do each day as a result, Hylton noted that if you look “back to COVID starting in March, a lot of things have changed for us.” Hylton commemorated those with the illness, and those leading the fight against it, in his closing prayer. As of press time on Monday, September 14, COVID-19 has killed 194,000 people in the United States.
“I ask that you be with those that are hurting tonight. Those that are suffering from this pandemic of COVID-19. I ask that you be with those that are in recovery, I ask that you be with those that have it now, and I ask that you be with the loved ones that have already went on. I ask that you comfort them and I ask that you be with our medical teams that are trying their best to help save these lives.”
Before closing the ceremony out with a prayer, Hylton said that he is seeing ample division between community members, particularly along political party lines. He called on people to be good to each other and on God to watch over the community and those serving it.
“I ask that you watch over our communities here, that we serve,” Hylton said in prayer. “I ask that you continue to be with every firefighter, every law enforcement officer, every first aid personnel, every 911 dispatcher, every correctional officer, everyone on the emergency services management team, and be with our military. I ask that you be with these men and women and I ask that you protect them and be with them and their families [because] these men and women are missing anniversaries, birthdays, and special occasions to serve us.”