Groton — Just 6 years old on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Connor Jackson now only vaguely recalls early dismissal from his first-grade class and being told by his mother that "something really bad had happened in New York."
Eleven years later, with a better understanding of the tragedy and impact the terrorist attacks had on the nation, Jackson gathered Tuesday with fellow students and a host of first responders under the flag pole at the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Vocational Technical High School.
Grasso hosted a ceremony on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, welcoming emergency responders and military personnel from across the region — a remembrance of the fallen and a celebration of the heroics of the living.
"Knowing what I do now, I think it's important we still have these ceremonies ... to honor the people involved," Jackson said.
Grasso science teacher Sandi LaPierre-Jameson has been organizing the event each year since the first anniversary. Her brother, Connecticut National Guard Maj. Jeffrey LaPierre, was deployed to New York City with his unit on the day after the attacks.
"I think it's important the students know how important it is — how dramatic it was for our country," she said. "It's about celebrating the people who helped out and who suffered the greatest losses. Thousands of lives were saved by their selfless acts of heroism."
With the patriotic hum of bagpipes as a backdrop, Mystic Fire Chief Frank Hilbert, State Trooper Gary Butters and LaPierre raised a flag to half staff in honor of those who died in the terrorist attacks, including 343 first responders.
Students held up large cut out 911 numerals implanted with 2,972 small American flags, one for each of the casualties suffered.
Michael Lewis, a 2003 Grasso graduate, Chesterfield firefighter and a U.S. Marine who served a tour in Iraq, stood in uniform and at attention during Tuesday's flag raising. Lewis was a high school junior and recalls the shock and anger when he heard news of the attacks.
"I was already enlisted. For me it became very real — the possibility of the nation going to war. I wanted to leave and be part of the first strike," Lewis said.
Lewis praised Grasso as one of the few places that holds an anniversary ceremony each year.
"The younger generation, they need a reminder of how precious life is. A lot of kids today take it for granted," he said.
Monday's keynote speaker was Capt. Leland Zak of Plainfield, a 12-year veteran of the Connecticut National Guard who was working at the Staples distribution center on Sept. 11, 2001.
After watching the "unimaginable" scenes of destruction unfold on television, Zak traveled to Ground Zero two days after the attacks to deliver supplies for Staples to federal agencies who had set up makeshift offices in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.
"There was still ash in the air. I remember seeing and smelling the destruction," Zak said. "It's something that will be etched in the back of my mind forever.
Attending Monday's event were representatives from Connecticut State Police, city and town police departments from Groton, the governor's foot guard, Lawrence & Memorial paramedic service, Groton Ambulance and firefighters from the Poquonnock Bridge, New London, Groton City, Submarine Base and Mystic fire departments.
LaPierre-Jameson promises an anniversary event every year for as long as she is at Grasso.