Retired New York firefighter Mike Tomko stood atop a 1950 Seagrave firetruck with a cup of beer held high above his head, looking over a crowd of first responders and their families.
“To my brothers who are no longer with us,” he said, leading the group in an Irish toast.
Tomko and other FDNY veterans led a procession of firefighters, police officers, other first responders and their families through the Fremont Street Experience to remember the people who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York.
Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the attacks, and the 13th year Tomko and other firefighters gathered in Downtown Las Vegas to pay tribute to their fallen friends and family. The tradition began in 2003, outside of New York-New York.
“A bunch of us from New York lit a few candles then went out and had a good time, because that was how the boys would want it.”
The main group was trailed by neighbors, family members, and other people holding 403 American flags in memory of the 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters, 37 Port Authority Police Department officers, and 23 officers from the New York City Police Department who died in the aftermath of the attacks.
“The memories are fading for a lot of people who weren’t there, but for the first responders and the people who were there in New York it’s still fresh,” Tomko said. “The week before and the week after, I feel it. My stomach hurts and I just feel sick.”
The procession began at the Main Street stage, and ended at Third Street and Ogden Avenue, where a giant American flag was hung from two cherry pickers. Members of firefighter pipe bands from Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas started the night playing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes and drums, but after the procession they gathered in the street, playing covers of rock songs while children played and danced.
“My problem is not enough people remember what happened that day,” said Pat Miller, another retired FDNY firefighter, “Young people are forgetting.”
People laughed, drank and reminisced together at Triple George and Hogs and Heifers, spilling out of the downtown bars and into the street.
“It’s not that people are forgetting, it’s just that new things are happening,” said Kolton Mecham, a member of the Clark County Fire Department Explorer Program. “You see terrorist attacks everywhere all the time now, but everyone still remembers that day, especially tonight.”
Mecham and other young men stood farther down the street, at the corner, selling T-shirts and collecting donations for the Terry Farrell Firefighter Fund, a group raising money to support injured or fallen firefighters and their families.
“We appreciate it, everyone coming down here to support us,” said Tom Brassil, the current president of the Las Vegas Retired FDNY Veterans Association. “We’re just happy to be alive.”