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Sept. 11 First Responder to Feature as Speaker at F.C. Festival

THE FESTIVAL DREW A CROWD IN 2019, but had to take a break last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: News-Press)

By Alex Russell

The 45th annual Falls Church Festival is making its return to the City this Saturday, providing the community with fun, family-friendly events while at the same time taking stock of the damage — as well as the cooperation, outreach, and hope — that came about in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Previously called the Falls Church Fall Festival, this yearly outing features food, a beer garden, live music, and a variety of booths set up by local crafters, businesses and civic organizations. A timely addition this year is a Covid-19 vaccination clinic inside the Community Center (223 Little Falls Street), with free general admission to the public.

Scheduled to speak a half-hour into the festival is Steve Holl, former Deputy Chief of Police for Arlington County, who helped oversee the emergency response efforts at the Pentagon.

When asked about what he planned on communicating to the festival audience, Holl said that he wants to “recap the events of that day,” especially to the “young people who were not alive at the time.”

A recap will surely provide some helpful context, as some may not be aware of the crisis management timeframe during the aftermath of the attack. The initial effort was not a matter of a few days or even weeks, but an around-the-clock duty that spanned months as well as different corners of the U.S. law enforcement community.

The response to the Pentagon, in particular, was “very much a regional effort,” says Holl. Federal agencies, in the coming weeks, would reach out to help local law enforcement officers in the course of their work.

Holl touched upon the fact that the kind of work that federal officers are tasked to focus on often carries with it a different set of dynamics and nuances as opposed to the work regional and local officers concentrate on. This blend of experience and perspectives, however, ended up coalescing into an effective exchange that only strengthened the response.

There is undoubtedly a solemn weight present when talking about Sept. 11, particularly when speaking with someone who experienced the immediate violence — as well as the stress of the days that would follow — firsthand. Holl, however, believes that it was also a “learning moment” for the nation. The attacks “shook the entire country,” remarked Holl, “if not much of the world.”

But following the turmoil, Holl described “demonstrations of public support” in the weeks and months after, like when he spotted a “group of people, standing along Arlington Boulevard…waving the flag.”

He reflected how he had never seen anything like that before; various people stepped up and sought to help out in whatever way possible, going “outside of their swim lanes” to lend a hand in a powerful display of empathy and community that arguably still resonates today.

Holl’s presence and remarks will not just provide a first-person perspective on Sept. 11, but in many ways will continue the spirit of remembering and honoring the past while taking care to learn from it and use that knowledge to ultimately build a better, safer future for all Americans.

With this in mind, Holl shared that a 9/11 Pentagon Memorial Visitor Education Center is currently in its early planning stages and, once completed, through the use of exhibits and educational programs, will help connect its visitors to the facts and historical context regarding the attack, as well as the continuing importance of that day.

The proposed Education Center will not only provide a direct educational opportunity for anyone who visits it, but will help carry on the message of personal, regional, and national resilience.

It will be across the street from the Sept. 11 Pentagon Memorial, which is located at 1 N. Rotary Road in Arlington, VA.
The Pentagon Memorial itself is an outdoor series of “Memorial Unit” benches, surrounded by 85 crape myrtle trees. Situated southwest of the Pentagon, the installation memorializes the 184 people who lost their lives both in the portion of the building that was destroyed as well as on American Airlines Flight 77.

The site’s power, both due to the fact that the attack took place only 20 years ago, and to its comprehensive listing of the victims, cannot be denied or understated.

Holl, with a modicum of disbelief, remarked how it is “hard to believe…that it’s been 20 years.”

Underscoring his memory of Sept. 11 and the things he had seen, Holl shared an observation he overheard, comparing the effect and gravity of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, which had taken place over 60 years before.

The fear, emotional shock and anger that were felt by many did not, however, overshadow a basic impulse to assist and protect others. As Holl put it, he — and many other law enforcement officers — felt a deep connection to their community and the conviction that “we’re going to protect [it] to the best of our ability.”

The Sept. 11 attacks were a tragedy that deserves to be remembered, its victims and its heroes honored, but it is also a continuing story of reaffirmed hope, perseverance, change, and of how people from different walks of life brought themselves together to help each other heal.

This reporter would like to thank Steve Holl, as well as his fellow colleagues in the law enforcement and emergency response communities, for their service on and after that day.