ELKHART — Chief of Police Chris Snyder drew an unlikely connection between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Elkhart's recent Comic-Con, as local officials and residents gathered at City Hall on Wednesday morning to honor those who lost their lives and those who ran toward the scene instead of away from it.

"When I think about those superheroes, I think about the special powers that many of us knew them to have," Snyder said.

And when thinking about first responders, the word "heroes" also comes to mind for Snyder, but not because they have special powers and gadgets.

"What they do have is heart, and that heart is what takes them towards the evil and towards the danger," he said.

Fire Chief Chad Carey invited the public to visit the central fire station and see the 9/11 memorial built with steel from the World Trade Center in New York. He said it was important to remember those who haven fallen but also those who continue to serve. 

"Our first responders run to danger every day, just as they did on 9/11," Carey said.

One of the four local firefighters who ran toward the scene in 2001 was retired Elkhart Fire Department battalion chief Wayne King.

"There's not much to tell," King said. "We got there and saw how extravagant it was, and all blown up. And we just went to work with the other guys."

He remembered the situation being difficult to take in, he said, because the scene was so big and surreal. The job of firefighters like King, who came from out of town, was to clean out buildings that could then be used by local officials who needed to be on site.

"All the regular firefighters from New York were down on the pile looking for their people. We didn't go down there. We were trying to get other buildings usable for those guys," he said. "It was a bad experience." 

The attacks changed what it was like to be a firefighter, he said.

"I'd been one for so long, you were used to some things happening, but not that big," he said. "It was an experience that you're glad you had, but it would be better if you didn't have it."

King had been with the Elkhart Fire Department for 32 years when he retired in 1999.

Since the 9/11 attacks, King has been back to the scene to see the memorial and the new One World Trade Center, also known as Freedom Tower.

That building opened in 2014 and, as the tallest building in the nation, stands in defiance of those who killed 3,000 people in the attacks.

"Tremendous!" King said.

He wishes the City of Elkhart would have done more and sooner to honor those who fell, and said he had hoped more would have shown up to the City Hall event Wednesday morning.

"I really expected more of a turnout than this, myself," he said.

The event was held just inside the City Hall doors, and people had to stand outside and up the stairway toward the Council Chambers. Mayor Tim Neese estimated about 100 were in attendance and said he was pleased with the turnout.

"I had no idea there would be this many people. I thought there might be maybe 15 in this immediate area, some of which might be good friends of mine, maybe a couple of relatives," Neese told the group. "So this says a lot about not only your commitment and how you think about our first responders but about you as individuals. You could all be somewhere else."

Neese then revealed a plaque memorializing the five police officers and eight firefighters who have died in the line of duty. The plaque was placed on the wall just inside City Hall, next to a plaque honoring those who died in World War II.

"It's as important 18 years later as it is the day it happened, because the devastation still occurred. We had a tremendous loss of life. We weren't prepared for such a tragedy. But I think it exemplified what this country can do, what communities can do when they focus and join together," Neese said.

There are now young adults who weren't alive or aware of the attacks when they happened, and Neese said it's important to tell the new generations about 9/11.

"It's very important to recognize this great country and what it means to live here," he said.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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