What began as an idea to host a 9/11 Memorial Mile, quickly turned into something bigger because of a chance conversation.
In recent years, the Rotary Club of Wesley Chapel has been honoring the anniversary of Sept. 11 by serving breakfasts to area first responders and by passing out American flags at Tampa Premium Outlets.
This year, the club decided to stage its first run to commemorate Sept. 11.
But, that idea morphed into something bigger during planning stages for that run.
Chris Casella, president of the Rotary Club, recalled that during a discussion, Rhonda Clark, the mall’s director of marketing and business development, mentioned that a guy had dropped by Tampa Premium Outlets recently, wanting to donate a piece of metal from a New York Fire Department truck destroyed in the terror attacks.
Casella asked Clark: “Is his name Steve?”
Clark answered yes.
“That’s my old partner!” Casella exclaimed.
From that point on, the conversation shifted beyond discussing the run.
The mall offered to donate 25 linear feet of wall space inside the food court for the first permanent 9/11 memorial site in Pasco County.
And, the event expanded to include a dedication ceremony for the new memorial.
The memorial commemorates a day that is seared into the nation’s collective memory.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners — resulting in 2,977 deaths in New York City, Washington D.C., and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Remembering the day is deeply personal for Casella.
When terrorists flew into New York’s Twin Towers, Casella was an officer with the New York Police Department.
Because of a work-related injury, he was on limited duty that day, so wasn’t part of the chaos at Ground Zero, he said. He has, however, suffered deep personal losses.
On the day of the attacks, he lost his friend, Brian McDonald, a fellow officer who dressed just three lockers down from him.
Now, 18 years later, he has lost several friends who died from cancer — resulting from exposure to hazardous conditions at Ground Zero.
The permanent display at the mall includes a piece of metal salvaged from the New York Fire Department’s Ladder Truck 18. The truck became known as Fort Pitt because its entire crew survived by diving beneath it during the North Tower’s collapse.
Metal from the truck was donated by Stephen Spelman, whom Casella met during the late 1980s, when they worked as EMTs on an ambulance in New York.
Spelman, now retired, lives in Wesley Chapel.
He narrowly escaped death, when the North Tower began collapsing. He ran one way, while others ran another — and he never saw them again.
Spelman was invited to the Motts Military Museum in Groveport, Ohio, to share his story of survival. But, with Hurricane Irma in the forecast, he wasn’t able to make it.
Even though he didn’t make the appearance, the museum gave him the piece of metal that’s now on display at the mall.
Spelman said he tried for two years to find a permanent home to display the piece, until someone suggested that he approach Tampa Premium Outlets. As a result, he said, what initially felt like a burden, has turned out to be a great gift.
Last weekend’s event began with a memorial run, but there were a great number of walkers, too.
There was a moment of silence before Stephen Spelman’s 10-year-old son, Mathew, rang a bell, at 8:46 a.m., to mark the time when the North Tower was struck.
Another high point of the day was a “Missing Man” flyby maneuver performed by a Pasco Sheriff’s Office helicopter.
Scores of Rotarians, elected leaders and members of the public attended the memorial dedication.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Pasco County commissioners Mike Moore, Jack Mariano and Mike Wells, and other speakers, including Casella, offered remarks.
“As a New York City Police officer, I feel it’s my obligation,” Casella began, before being overcome with emotion. He composed himself, then added, in a softer voice, “to keep their memories live.”
Others were at the event, to pay tribute to the fallen, including several family members of New York City first responders.
Penelope Bastidas, the widow of Lt. Mario Bastidas (a paramedic with the New York Fire Department), flew in from New York to cut the ribbon at the ceremony. Her husband passed away in 2017 from a 9/11-related illness.
Now that the permanent memorial is in place, the Rotary Club plans to create a perpetual wall of heroes, each year honoring a local hero from the community.
Published September 11, 2019