9/11 ‘Survivor Tree’ planted at Sheriff’s office in Riverhead

Out of the ruins of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers, through smoke and ash, came an unexpected survivor: a callery pear tree that now lives on in other communities that have suffered tragedy.

On Friday, a seedling from that ‘survivor tree’ was planted at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office in Riverhead during a ceremony remembering the 2,977 lives lost that day.

“The collapse of the Twin Towers nearly destroyed [the tree,]” said Sheriff Errol Toulon, telling the story of how the tree was taken from Ground Zero in October 2001 and rehabilitated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. 

The tree was ultimately replanted near the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan in 2010 and each year since 2013, seedlings are given to three communities.

“We are grateful to be chosen as one of those sites,” Sheriff Toulon said, adding that a plaque will also be installed near the tree as a memorial. “Both the survivor tree in New York City and this tree stand as a symbol of America’s optimism and unbreakable spirit,” he said.

According to Mr. Toulon, approximately 63 corrections officers and 136 deputy sheriffs responded to Ground Zero from Suffolk County along with hundreds more first responders.

“Many of us remember where we were when we first heard that a plane hit the tower,” he said, recalling a flood of emotions. “We all came together as United States citizens during that tumultuous time.”

Friday’s ceremony acknowledged both those who perished during the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. along with the countless other lives lost from 9/11-related illnesses in the nearly two decades since.

Speaking on behalf of the Nesconset-based FealGood Foundation, a group that advocates for first responders, Richard Palmer said the survivor tree represents resiliency, as does Sheriff Toulon.

“You survived cancer more than once, you overcame personal tragedy to find love again, you left the job to find a place where you belong,” Mr. Palmer said. “Hopefully this seedling, when it reaches full growth, is a beacon of strength, courage and love.”

According to Mr. Palmer, the organization’s founder John Feal is currently working with Jon Stewart to advocate for additional legislation for 9/11 responders.

Mr. Feal and Mr. Stewart will also be featured in a 90-minute documentary entitled No Responders Left Behind that chronicles the struggles 9/11 first responders have faced trying to get health benefits.

For Suffolk County Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), the tree represents the power of community service. 

“Every time I think of the folks who ran toward that horrible danger, it is heartbreaking and heartwarming,” she said. “This tree speaks to doing what you can to uplift those around you wherever and however you can,” Ms. Fleming said.

This year’s ceremony took a slightly different tone as officials recognized the ongoing coronavirus has changed everything, much like 9/11 did.

Assemblyman Antohny Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) recalled the way 9/11 impacted all New Yorkers. “We certainly will never forget,” he said. 

“We sit here today with masks, dealing with a crisis and the existential threat of danger. Similar to the aftermath of 9/11, we were dealing with a tremendous amount of emotion,” Mr. Palumbo said. “We showed our New York strength, our American strength and we will get through this.”

Socially-distant and virtual ceremonies were held throughout Suffolk County Friday, including a memorial service at the Suffolk County center in Hauppauge where Suffolk County victims’ names were read aloud and while a bell rang in remembrance.

The H. Lee Dennison building is also expected to be illuminated in blue light Friday evening to commemorate the anniversary.