HUNTINGTON - None of the students at Our Lady of Fatima Parish School was alive 18 years ago - and some of the teachers were students themselves - but those facts don't detract from the gravity of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
The school's fourth-grade class field trip to the Healing Field at Spring Hill Cemetery on Wednesday was therefore as much about education as it was a solemn observance. With more than 3,000 flags planted along the hillside - representing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks - the trip helped young students visualize the scale of the lives lost that day.
"Field trips like this are a way to educate our students about our country's history and the great loss our nation has endured," Principal Micah O'Connor said.
Students were also taught to keep in perspective how many of those lives lost were by those who sacrificed themselves in the line of duty that day, and how the nation united around a single cause following the national tragedy. Of the nearly 3,000 victims killed that day, 343 firefighters were among the dead, as well as 72 law enforcement officers.
With those born in the immediate aftermath of the attack now reaching legal adulthood, educating the youth was the framework plea of Tom Bowen's speech during Huntington's Patriot Day celebration later that evening at the cemetery.
Bowen, of Huntington, volunteered as a firefighter at Ground Zero in those first chaotic days, sifting through debris and recovering bodies as they appeared. Bowen has since helped secure the cemetery's Sept. 11 artifact memorial - built from rail lines twisted between the towers - as well as a truckload of other artifacts from the site, including office supplies, warped file cabinets and other documents from the World Trade Center.
Those pieces of history are presented to students as mementos of what happened not so long ago. Bowen stressed that the unity the United States rallied around back then is equally applicable, and necessary, for the present day.
"We can't keep pointing to the things that separate and divide us. We've got to recognize the things that unite us," Bowen said.
But nobody at Wednesday night's ceremony had a Sept. 11 story like Sara Grigsby, a West Virginia native and current resident who was visiting the World Trade Center that morning on a road trip with friends. Then 23 years old and originally scheduled to leave New York on Sept. 10, Grigsby was there when the planes hit and was caught up in the barrage of debris when the first tower collapsed.
"I can tell you that fate is real, and it is life-changing," Grigsby said.
In the cloud of dust, she couldn't hear or feel anything. The only reminder that she was still alive, she explained, was that she was gasping and choking for air. The last thing she remembered before leaving the city was a New York Police officer grabbing her by the shoulder before she blacked out.
Like thousands of others, Grigsby's Sept. 11 story didn't end there. She's since developed several cancers and lung diseases directly related to the collapse, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There's a piece of me still lost in Manhattan, and I don't think I'll ever get her back," Grigsby said.
Nonetheless, she, like Bowen, pleaded for adults to continue teaching children about what happened that day.
The Healing Field at Spring Hill Cemetery has become an annual tradition organized each September by the Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District. The project is not limited to the Sept. 11 attacks, but also recognizes those lost in the 1970 Marshall University plane crash with 75 flags.
The flags that make up the field are purchased for $35 each, with proceeds benefiting the Spring Hill Cemetery Memorial Bell Tower Fund. The Healing Field will remain up through Thursday, Sept. 12.