Sept. 11 heroes saluted in Oakland County: 'We should never forget'

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac – Several hundred first-responders, their families and friends turned out Tuesday afternoon for a Sept. 11 "Remembrance Ceremony" at the Michigan Fallen Heroes Memorial outside the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

There were traditional bagpipes and drums, flag-raising, speeches and remembrance of police officers and firefighters who died 17 years ago when terrorists slammed aircraft into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. There were also heartfelt words expressed over local police officers and firefighters who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, left, stands at attention during the playing of Taps during the Michigan Fallen Heroes Memorial Sept. 11  remembrance ceremony at the Michigan Fallen Heroes Memorial in Pontiac on Tuesday.

The Fallen Heroes Memorial – constructed to honor Michigan men and women in public safety who have died in the line of duty -- was a fitting location for the Patriot Day event and a double draw for people like Daryl Repuhn, 68, of Waterford Township, who scanned the engraved names on a wall for that of an uncle, Calvin Coolidge Baxter, who died in a bowling alley fire in October 1956.

Baxter, Keego Harbor’s first police chief, was only 31 and left behind a wife and two children.

“This is really nice but I wish they would make today a national holiday,” said Repuhn, who described himself as a retired house husband. “I wanted to see my uncle’s name on the memorial but like everyone else can remember where I was on Sept. 11, 2001, when my wife told me to turn on a TV.

“Everything came to a standstill – it's like the power went out and everyone froze,” said Repuhn. “We should never forget any of them.”

West Bloomfield Township Police Chief Mike Patton stared at a name of a fellow officer, Patrick John O’Rourke, who was fatally shot on Sept. 19, 2012, when answering a welfare run on a distraught resident. The man, who refused pleas from his family and police to surrender, instead opened fire through a door and wall.

“John was only 39 years old, a father of four – his youngest was eight months old and never got to know his father,” said Patton. “He’s the only one of the township’s officers to ever die in the line of duty. It floored us and people still come into the station and look at his photo and a memorial we have on the wall.”

Oakland County Sheriff's Capt. Doug Molinar was part of a contingent of officers who traveled to New York City the day after Sept. 11. Seventeen years later, what he saw there still affects him.

“I had been to New York just a year before and as part of an FBI Academy was taken on a tour of the World Trade Center and shown all the upgraded security installed after an earlier incident when someone had attempted to blow up the building with a bomb in the underground parking structure,” he recalled. “All the security improvements were done so ‘nothing like that could ever happen again.'"

The day after the planes hit the twin skyscrapers, “It was all nothing but rubble, cinder and ashes,” Molinar recalled. “It was surreal.

“We were on a bucket brigade and there seemed to be no end of it,” he said. “We wore masks but your clothes, your face, everything was coated with ash.

“That day (Sept. 11) was like Pearl Harbor,” Molinar said. “It changed the world forever. These type of ceremonies are the least we can do to give thanks to all the people who died and those who tried to save them and lost their lives.”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said it is always his hope that they don’t need to add another name to the wall, which lists 844 police and firefighters in Michigan who have died in the line of duty.

“It’s a reminder to all the men and women who put on the uniform every day because they care enough to do a dangerous job,” said Bouchard. “It’s a memorial to all of them but it's also painful to their families. An empty hole has been left in their hearts.”

Following 90 minutes of remembrance, a 21-gun salute was fired by the sheriff’s office honor guard, there was a helicopter flyover and deputy James Gregory played “Taps.”

The Metro Detroit Police and Fire Pipes and Drums played “Amazing Grace,” as they have for too many funerals, said one piper, David Wurtz, a retired detective from the sheriff’s office. The group has appeared at two officers’ funerals this summer in Metro Detroit.

“But it's always an honor, especially like today,” said Wurtz.

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