Fifteen years after 9/11, former Oberlin resident Toney Earl can still recall the stench of burning flesh and relatives of the dead holding pictures of their loved ones as he worked at Ground Zero.
Earl, now a county legislator in Rockland, N.Y., was a member of Transport Workers Local 100 and part of the Office of Emergency Management response to the attack. He recalled the day and its aftermath Sunday as veterans gathered for a 15th anniversary commemoration at the Oberlin Recreation Complex.
Earl said the 2011 killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden — shot in Pakistan by Navy SEALs who dumped his body in the ocean — and the opening of 1 World Trade Center in 2014 to replace the destroyed twin towers, are examples of American resilience.
“All of us have risen since that day,” he told the crowd of about 25 people. “Every year until we leave this earth, and join the others we lost on that day, we will remember and rise again.”
Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed when two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, a third into the Pentagon, and a fourth in Shanksville, Pa. The fourth plane was believed to be bound for Congress or the White House, part of al-Qaida’s plot to strike America’s financial, military, and political symbols.
Since the attacks, between 367,000 and 395,000 people, more than 100 times the number killed on 9/11, have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as part in the U.S. response to the attacks, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs.
The dead include 4,411 American soldiers in the Iraq War through Sunday, according to the Defense Department. And the 2,216 soldiers killed in the Afghanistan War, America’s longest war.
The dead also include between 190,000 and 218,000 civilians, many in Iraq, a country not involved in 9/11. The Watson Institute statistics do not include U.S. bombings and drone strikes in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
Nearly none of the dead civilians were involved in 9/11. Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and its largest weapons buyer since 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Nonetheless, Earl said after the ceremony that the wars were necessary and the U.S. isn’t involved in a Mideast quagmire.
“I don’t think they’re endless wars,” said Earl, who praised President Barack Obama for approving the killing of Bin Laden. “We still need to be engaged.”
Bin Laden in 2004 said that the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terrorism were part of a policy of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” Through the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the Iraq War has cost taxpayers $817.8 billion, according to the National Priorities Project, which crunched government numbers. The Afghanistan War cost $714.8 billion through fiscal year 2015.
Earl conceded the wars are costly and it’s impossible to make America completely safe from terrorism, but said the U.S. is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. He said security has to be balanced with the enormous human and financial cost of war.
“You can’t walk away from the situation. It has to be addressed,” Earl said. “Those are questions that the president and his chief advisors are going to have to find the answers to.”
Earl was one of several speakers who recalled the 9/11 attacks and praised the firefighters and police who responded in New York and Washington, D.C.
Oberlin police chief Juan Torres, then an officer in Alexandria, Va., recalled seeing smoke coming from the Pentagon after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it, killing 184 people. He spent two weeks doing perimeter security at the Pentagon in October.
Torres also recalled his cousin, Luis Lopez, a New York City police officer who spent about four months at Ground Zero after the attacks. Torres said Lopez got sick in 2011 and died last year at 50 of a 9/11-related illness.
Lopez was one of dozens of firefighters and police who’ve died from 9/11-related illnesses due to the toxic conditions at the site during the cleanup. In December, Congress approved $8.1 billion to renew funding of a 9/11 health bill after fierce resistance from some Republicans who said it would increase the approximately $534 billion deficit.
“We always forget about those hundreds of first responders who developed cancer through the years through the toxic elements at Ground Zero,” Torres said. “So I really want to thank you for being here today and taking the time to pay tribute to our heroes.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, about 25 people remembered the victims Sunday in a ceremony at the Oberlin Recreation Complex.