Gunnery Sgt. Maurice Bease prayed as the clear notes of taps lingered in the breeze that rustled the palmetto trees in the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
Then he stepped forward.
Something moved him, Bease said later, to ask permission to speak during Wednesday’s annual 9/11 Memorial Ceremony. On Sept. 11, 2011, the Marine Corps sergeant was stationed at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into it.
“Whatever you believe religiously, whatever your fears may be, whatever hiccups you may have about one another, put those aside,” he said. “... We are Americans, the greatest country in the world. If ever you forget where you come from and what brought you here, just remember that.”
Bease said he had shared his story about that day with small groups, but never at a large public forum. He never imagined he would.
But Wednesday, Bease told the crowd of about 100 onlookers that 12 years ago, he had just stepped outside for some air after hearing about the planes striking the World Trade Center in New York. That’s when he heard something that sounded like a flyover, which was odd because coordinating those activities was part of his job and he wasn’t aware of any scheduled that day.
“For a split second, I caught a glimpse of a white airline streaking in our direction,” he said. Bease dove to cover a nearby woman, staying over her until after the crash. They looked up and saw a fireball in the Pentagon.
After accounting for all the Marines, Bease and his fellow service members went to work helping firefighters, police and EMS responders.
“Marines say, ‘One team, one fight,’” he said. “And that day I believe America came together on a much larger scale.”
Bease’s impromptu speech was not the only unanticipated part of the ceremony, which began later than the planned 8:30 a.m. start and proceeded out of order because of a medical emergency — a man missed a step in the park, fell and had to be taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital.
Despite the schedule changes, organizers carried on.
Taps played at the moments hijacked planes struck the towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa. Speakers included Mayor Billy Keyserling, councilwoman and ceremony organizer Donnie Beer, veterans advocate John Woodall, and Ed Kormedi, who did cleanup at residences near the World Trade Center.
The Fellowship Concert Choir of Beaufort performed.
“The impact of that horrible day, I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” Beer said. “I hope I never do. I hope none of us do.”
The event also honored recent heroes.
Ron Voegeli of the Beaufort Chapter of the Exchange Club announced the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, Cpl. Walker Michaud of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and Firefighter of the Year, Capt. John Robinson of the Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Department.
Michaud was recognized for his role as the primary investigator in a joint investigation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which authorities say uncovered a prescription-drug ring and led to 25 federal indictments.
Robinson was honored for his efforts to increase CPR, first aid and other emergency-response education for residents. During the last year, Robinson’s work led to 167 fire and safety events that reached 2,545 adults and 8,495 children, according to his nomination letter by Fire Chief Sammy Negron.
Although a dozen years have passed since the terrorist attacks, the memory of Sept. 11, 2001, and what that day meant for Americans remains poignant for some. Former law enforcement officer Jim Harvey said it’s horrible losing fellow service people.
A look of sorrow clouded his face as taps played throughout the ceremony “It’s kind of final,” he said.