TAMPA — Lorenzo Maldonado kissed his fingertips, then placed his hand on a steel slab that was once part of the World Trade Center Towers and bowed his head.
“It haunts me at night,” said Maldonado, 55, who was on duty as a parademic in New York City during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I think of all those people in the towers, who had a choice of burning or jumping. To be in a place where you have to make that decision – that haunts me.”
Maldonado and about 100 others gathered Wednesday at the Tampa Firefighters Museum, 720 E. Zack St. in downtown Tampa, for a short, somber ceremony honoring the lives lost 12 years ago.
Maldonado, who is now retired and living in Tampa, said he was sent after the attacks to the north World Trade Center tower, where he tried to evacuate people from the building and did his best to help the injured.
“I saw people on fire,” he said. “It was horrific in terms of the number of people who were injured. There was so little we could do. We were just telling them to run off, run away.”
Then the skyscraper toppled, sending chunks of debris and massive clouds of dust barreling down the streets.
“The tremendous force of that wind knocked me into a subway station,” he said. “I was trapped there and had to walk out at another station.”
Maldonado, who moved to Tampa in January, said he was pleased Tampa had scheduled a 9/11 memorial service.
“So many people have put so much distance between then and now,” he said. “It’s important we keep the memory alive.”
During the 15-minute ceremony at the museum, Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the crowd the country pulled together after the attacks.
“It’s always a difficult day for this city and this country,” Buckhorn said. “But on this day, we have hope. We remember. We remember the 343 New York City firefighters, police officers and transit authority workers who lost their lives. We will always remember.”
Tampa fire Capt. Matthew Rametta rang a silver bell for the people killed that day. The bell, Rametta said, is rung at the beginning of firefighters’ shifts in Tampa, when there’s an emergency and when crews return safely to the station.
On Wednesday, Rametta rang it a total of 12 times. In Tampa, the firefighters’ bell is always rung in three sets of four peals each, he said.
“This is always a solemn ceremony,” Rametta said. “You share a brotherhood with all those firefighters and first responders.”
The ceremony in downtown Tampa was one of several held in the area.
Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 N., hosted its Patriots Day Remembrance ceremony while retired New York firefighters gathered at VFW Post 10209 in Spring Hill.
In Polk County, 50 white doves were released at the sheriff’s office operations center in Winter Haven; in Lutz, members of the GFWC Lutz-Land O’ Lakes Woman’s Club waved flags along U.S. 41.
At the University of South Florida, students planted 2,977 American flags on campus.
Two more events are scheduled in the next few days at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 N. On Friday, a POW/MIA Remembrance Day will be held at the park. On Saturday, the annual AMVETS Remembrance Ride and Patriot Day will be held, featuring a memorial service, live entertainment, vendors and interactive display from the military and first responders.
Tampa fire Lt. Roger Picard said it felt good to know that residents and community groups banded together Wednesday to remember 9/11. Picard, a handler and trainer for the agency’s canine search and rescue teams, was deployed to Ground Zero 12 years ago to search for survivors in the rubble.
Picard was assigned to the south tower, working shifts of 12 hours or longer for seven days. He and his search-and-rescue dogs did not find anyone alive.
“That day was the greatest loss of firefighters and rescue personnel,” Picard said. “We’ll always have a ceremony here. Tampa won’t ever forget.”