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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Two decades later, Connecticut towns still remember

They said never forget, a tough ask for a growing number of Americans too young to remember when tragedy struck.

WETHERSFIELD, Conn. (CN) — Judy Keane walks around the small exhibit in the Wethersfield Historical Society, showing how that town in central Connecticut mourned Sept. 11, 2001, and still remembered that date today.

On the other side of the room, in a glass display case holding relics from the former World Trade Center, a square block of steel taken from the skeleton of the twin towers sits beside a box containing debris from Ground Zero presented by the City of New York to families of the 9/11 victims.

“The box with debris in it, it’s sealed,” Keane said. “My own box is not sealed.”

Wethersfield, sitting along the Connecticut River in the central part of the state, is removed from much of the tragedy of 9/11, unlike the southwestern Connecticut cities and towns within commuting distance of New York City. Nevertheless, three of its residents died on 9/11, one of them Keane’s husband, Richard.

The exhibit shows how the community grieved. There is the art made by school children and newspapers. On the wall hangs quilts.

“Quilting was a big thing at the time,” Keane said. “It was comforting.”

Outside the exhibit hangs a sheet signed by attendees of a vigil on the town green in the aftermath of the attack. About 5,000 people showed up, bringing candles, Keane said.

According to Amy Wittorff, director of the historical society, the exhibit is one of the most important exhibits displayed by the historical society in the town founded in 1632.

It is confronting a growing reality: While Americans of a certain age know where they were on 9/11, more and more Americans are too young to actually remember it.

“I think younger people that didn't live through it, it's not in their general consciousness,” Wittorff said. “I mean, they know what happened, but … they don't have that story of where were you that day.”

The Wethersfield Historical Society displays a square of World Trade Center steel given to one of the families of the victims of 9/11 as part of its Wethersfield Remembers exhibit in 2021. (Daniel Jackson/Courthouse News)

It’s a stark contrast to the people who lived through 9/11 and have a story of how they found themselves, say, watching the television at work. Those are stories Keane said she finds people are compelled to tell.

Now, as the 20th anniversary arrives, a little more than a third of Americans living today were either toddling around in diapers or were not even born when the airplanes were hijacked, according to U.S. census data.

When Pew Research asked in a survey at the end of August if people knew where they were when the twin towers were hit, participants overwhelmingly said yes — if they were over the age 30. For younger Americans, the affirmative responses drop off dramatically.

In central Connecticut, like many places, there are the monuments and remembrances of 9/11 in these communities. Moments in the classroom, a small ceremony held near the anniversary of the event. At least a handful of communities acquired twisted and scarred beams from the World Tade Center, which they erected as remembrances to the attack.

According to Erika Doss, a professor of Americans studies at the University of Notre Dame, many monuments are snapshots in time, enshrining current emotions.

"Monuments do age out,” Doss said. “How many people spend much time looking at a World War I statue of a Doughboy?"

Doss sees the World Trade Center steel used as symbolic terms showing the turmoil, trauma and tragedy of the day, the structural steel acting as a kind of survivor bearing witness to it all.

She often advocates for temporary memorials.

“Do we need more memorials? Or do we need scholarship funds and all sorts of things for those 30% of Americans who weren't even born when 9/11 happened?” Doss said.

In Wethersfield, the town has done a mixture of both. In the weeks following the attack, Keane created a foundation in honor of her husband, a man she says immersed himself in the town through coaching youth sports.


Although she was the one who grew up in Wethersfield, Richard Keane “knew more people in town than I did at the time of his death, because he was very gregarious and outgoing. And if they needed somebody to sign up for something,” Judy Keane said, "his hand was up first."

In fact, Keane said, the other two Wethersfield residents who died that day were members of a baseball team her husband coached.

The Keane Foundation would later create a sports center in the town’s community center because Richard Keane once remarked there weren't enough basketball facilities in the town. Outside sits a twisted beam of World Trade Center steel.

“I very often will see people sitting there and just, you know, meditating or thinking. And I think it's become a favorite haunt of some people,” Keane said.

In nearby Berlin, Connecticut, Jeff Pajor, fire chief of the department serving a section of Berlin called Kensington, finds himself educating the new cadets about the importance of remembering 9/11. He’s found that recent turnover in firefighters has made the field a young person’s game.

New York City's quiet financial district, with One World Trade Center rising behind the landmark transit hub dubbed the Oculus, is pictured on Sunday, May 1, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

In 2010, members of Kensington Fire Department traveled down to New York City to pick up the steel beams at JFK airport — two straight beams and a twisted corkscrew of another.

Though the fire department is unaware of any Berlin resident who died in 9/11, the fire chief at the time wanted to honor the first responders of that day.

“These guys went in, under conditions that were obviously less than ideal,” Pajor said. “People don't realize it's really something that that we all do, whether it was a 90-story building or whether it's a house down the street.”

Nick Pulcini is one of those young firefighters of the Kensington Fire Department. The recent graduate of Berlin High School intends to become a professional firefighter or join the military, and he said 9/11 resonated with him more than his peers.

Pulcini’s aunt and uncle were on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on 9/11.

Pajor said he hopes by having the young firefighters take care of the monument, the pruning for instance, that they’ll realize what the first responders did that day was bigger than them or the department.

And Pulcini said that lesson translates into extra attention in making the monument perfect.

“We never know if one of those sons or daughters or wives of one of those 343 firemen end up driving by one day, they see that memorial, and they see that we did not forget their husband, we didn't forget their father. We didn't forget their brother, their son,” Pulcini said.

Back in Wethersfield, Michael Emmett, superintendent of the school district there, said the school plans to hold a ceremony with elementary school students on Friday. But the anniversary comes at a time when students are just getting back into school after hunkering down because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“For some of our kids, they were returning for the first time in the better part of a year and a half,” Emmett said. And with that comes with some students having fears and anxiety returning to school and contending with learning loss.

Some teachers still plan to hold discussions with students about 9/11. Diane Armstrong, a social studies teacher at Wethersfield High School, remembers searching for a cable cord on 9/11 so she could watch the events unfold from her classroom.

Armstrong said the fact she lived through the event drives her and other teachers to discuss it with their students. Having taught psychology, Armstrong will often discuss the psychological aspects of that day, such as memory.

“Of course, I remember but even my memory becomes fuzzy as to exactly what I saw. I don't remember the images; I remember talking about it with people, processing it with people,” Armstrong said.

These discussions of paradigm-altering historical events between teacher and students seem to fade with time. No teacher from Wethersfield lived through Pearl Harbor and few were living when President John F. Kennedy was killed, Armstrong said.

“I just think people kind of take their own route with how they present the material,” Armstrong said. “I think a lot of them will use personal stories. I mean, that's really how history has always started, was somebody's telling the story.”

A beam of World Trade Center steel stands as a memorial outside the 9/11 Memorial Sports Center in Wethersfield, Connecticut. (Daniel Jackson/Courthouse News)

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