LAWRENCEVILLE - The deaths of so many innocents and public servants five years ago cast a shadow where the rising September sun did not Monday, lending a funereal air to Sept. 11 memorial service Monday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.
Thirteen flags flew at half-staff behind 13 engraved stone markers, a backdrop for the somber morning ceremony that was attended by about 80 civilians and county firefighters, police officers and deputies. Gwinnett Fire Chief Steve Rolader was one of the first to speak, heralding the bravery of 343 New York City firefighters who died in the World Trade Center.
"Rest assured they knew going in there was a very real chance they would not go home that day," Rolader said. "They made that choice to value the lives of others ahead of their own."
Honor guards from the Gwinnett County Fire Department and Sheriff's Department held flags aloft as bagpipes played "Amazing Grace" and a bugler played "Taps."
Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister, wearing sunglasses and a dark suit, reminded the crowd "are freedoms are not entirely free - they're bought and paid for."
America's safety after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and aboard United Flight 93 that killed almost 3,000 people was still a source of anxiety for several in the audience. Most visitors seemed to believe that peace was precarious, and that national security was by no means secured.
"We've got to be vigilant," Snellville resident Bob Bruhns said after the ceremony, joining the call of his wife, Ruth, to support President Bush.
"I believe if George Bush doesn't keep doing what he's doing, we could have another attack," Ruth Bruhns said.
Andrew Gabriel and Rosetta Wright stopped to admire the stone markers at the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial site, where the names of soldiers who never returned are engraved. Both had just completed a test to become Gwinnett County Police officers.
Wright was worried national security seemed to be "slacking off," and especially concerned with the recently-thwarted plot to hijack planes from Britain and detonate a bomb using liquid explosives. More than 20 people were arrested last month after the plans were discovered.
"We need more manpower in law enforcement and the medical field, because you never know what is going to happen," Wright said. "I feel there is going to be more attacks. It's still on the mind of people to hurt, harm and kill."
Randy Meaders, a retired battalion chief from the Gwinnett County Fire Department, reflected on a positive effect of Sept. 11's aftermath - the uplifting feeling of countrymen unified in the face of evil. He especially sensed a shift in attitude toward firefighters after that day.
"It changed the whole outlook," Meaders said. "Even the day after it happened it was different, the way citizens perceived us. They were more open to us, more friendly and more aware of the sacrifices we make. It's a shame that had to happen to cause it, but it really did."
Speakers at the ceremony urged attendees to honor the victims of Sept. 11 by putting the needs of others before their own and working to prevent those determined to "tear America down" from prevailing, Bannister said.
"We have a great chore ahead of us," Bannister said. "We need all the help we can get."