15 years later, 9/11 memories burn strong

Former New Yorker Tony Gioia honors fallen 9/11 heroes by giving back

Michelle Bueler of Bueler Funeral Homes in Camp Verde and Cottonwood installs the phrase ‘Never Forget’ on Cottonwood American Heritage Academy’s Freedom Hall. The Bueler family donated the materials and the installation atop the school’s 9/11 memorial wall. (Photo by Bill Helm)

Michelle Bueler of Bueler Funeral Homes in Camp Verde and Cottonwood installs the phrase ‘Never Forget’ on Cottonwood American Heritage Academy’s Freedom Hall. The Bueler family donated the materials and the installation atop the school’s 9/11 memorial wall. (Photo by Bill Helm)

CAMP VERDE - It was 15 years ago Sunday that four attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda killed close to 3,000 people, injured more than 6,000 others and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Born and raised in New York, Tony Gioia said it still feels like it just happened.

"I think about it a lot, for many reasons," said Gioia, who has lived in Camp Verde for more than 20 years. "Because of the people involved who I know. When it happened, I was in shock, my mouth was agape. Running through my mind, all the people I know who were in the area. I was fearful for, actually, the U.S. and the world. I saw World War III a very clear possibility. We were under attack."

"It doesn't seem like 15 years ago at all."

Just two weeks before the tragic day, Gioia and his family were on a vacation back home to New York City. One of their stops was the World Trade Center.

"We went to the top and viewed the city," said Gioia. "It's just amazing how far you could see from there. Even then, I remember [my daughter] Sarah wanted a souvenir penny. I remember cranking it out for her."

Though the list of casualties was long ago released, the former Camp Verde mayor says he has a "nagging feeling" that the list may not be complete.

"At one point, I read down the list of the dead. I couldn't keep going," Gioia said. "Because I found a couple of people I knew."

One of those friends was a high school buddy, a teammate on the school's football team.

"He was a huge guy, a real sweetheart. Until you put shoulder pads on him," Gioia said. "He was head chef at Windows of the World. He went into work extra early that day. And he didn't make it."

Gift of freedom

For much of his time in the Verde Valley, Gioia has involved himself in local politics, as well as in many nature- and water-related groups.

"We always have to thank those who have sacrificed for us to have these freedoms," Gioia said. "What we do to make life better here is just the follow-through to what they granted us with their sacrifice. Hopefully, we honor them to do our part to follow through."

COTTONWOOD - One side of the Freedom Hall at Cottonwood's American Heritage Academy is adorned with photographs of U.S. presidents both past and present, as well as copies of the nation's greatest historical documents.

Across from that wall is the school's 9/11 Memorial Wall, with three flags, one tattered, one called the Flag of Honor, which lists names of those who perished in the terrorist attacks, and the other called the Flag of Heroes, which lists the names of all emergency service personnel who gave their lives while serving their country that day.

The space above the torn flag in the center of that wall's display had been vacant, until Thursday, when the Bueler family of Camp Verde donated the lettering and the installation of a statement to remind anyone who enters the school about the four attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda that killed close to 3,000 people, injured more than 6,000 others and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Under attack

"I love this school," said Michelle Bueler, who owns and operates Bueler Funeral Homes in Camp Verde and Cottonwood with her husband Ben. "I just love the values and the sense of community. And it's kind of fitting that what we do is honor people who have passed."

Though the Verde Valley is a good 3,000 miles from the terrorist attacks of 15 years ago, Cottonwood American Heritage Academy Principal Eric Evans grew up in New York. Evans, who was a student at Brockport State in Central New York on 9/11, said the events that day were "very real, very scary."

"Most of my dorm mates, the kids in my classes, the kids I hung out with were from there," Evans said. "Everyone around me knew folks from there. The million dollar question the asked was 'Where are they?' And 'Are they safe?' That quickly changed to 'What's next?'"

Evans remembered watching live on TV when the second plane deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center.

"We knew we were under attack," he said.

Never Forget

According to Eric Evans, the vinyl lettering Michelle Bueler installed Thursday at the school's 9/11 Memorial Wall is a promise to never forget.

"I fell the duty a leader of the school, a patriot, a native New Yorker, that we'd teach the younger generation how it changed our lives," Evans said. "Our incoming freshmen are learning about 9/11 as a historical event, they were not alive when it happened. We are a school that focuses on history, heroes, patriotic themes or events, a 9/11 tribute is a perfect fit for who we are as a school."

-- Bill Helm

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