'Our direct connection': Sherwood Island holds Connecticut's 9/11 ties

Photo of Amanda Cuda

WESTPORT — Looking across Long Island Sound on a clear day can be a breathtaking sight even now — 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, said John Guglielmoni, the parks and recreation supervisor at Sherwood Island state park.

“On a crisp, clear day, the Freedom Tower is very much in focus,” Guglielmoni said, referring to One World Trade Center the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex in New York.

Though Guglielmoni wasn’t working at Sherwood Island when the 9/11 attacks occurred, he’s heard the stories of workers and residents who stood at the state park on that day watching the events from a distance.

“People were there sort of witnessing from afar,” Guglielmoni said. “That’s our line of sight. That’s our direct connection.”

Due to its proximity to New York, Sherwood Island was also identified as a potential staging area in the wake of the terror attacks, though it was never activated.

But in the 20 years since the attacks, Sherwood Island has become a major part of how Connecticut residents honor those who were killed on 9/11, including those who lived here. For almost 20 years, the memorial has been the home of a 9-foot long granite memorial stone, set into a grassed area so visitors face the Manhattan skyline upon viewing it.

It bears an inscription reading, “The citizens of Connecticut dedicate this living memorial to the thousands of innocent lives lost on September 11, 2001 and to the families who loved them.” The memorial is also engraved with the names of those with connections to Connecticut who died.

Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe said the memorial is a profound testament to the impact the terrorist attacks had on Westport and its residents.

“Virtually every Westporter who lived here on September 11, 2001, was directly impacted by the the tragic events that day in lower Manhattan, as well as Washington D.C and Shanksville, Pa.,” he said in a statement this week.

In addition to those who died, “some of us were in the Twin Towers or downtown that day and barely escaped with our lives; riding home on packed Metro-North trains covered with dust and ashes. Others of us witnessed the horrific events from other parts of New York City. And some stood witness where the Sherwood Island memorial is now located and watched the tragedy unfold 50 miles away on that clear, crisp, early autumn day,” Marpe continued.

Due to the effect the tragedy had on the community, Marpe said, having the memorial in town is deeply meaningful.

“Standing at this memorial space at Sherwood Island State Park reminds us of the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 and the heroic reactions of so many first responders,” he said. “But it also reminds us to live each day to the fullest and to conduct our lives in a manner that honors those who left us on that terrible day.”

The memorial — funded through the U.S. Forest Service Living Memorials Project grant program, as well as private donations — was dedicated in September 2002.

Each year around the 9/11 anniversary, a ceremony is held at the memorial, during which the names of the 161 victims with ties to Connecticut are read aloud. This year’s ceremony was planned for Thursday evening.

But Guglielmoni said the memorial isn’t just for the annual ceremony. “People come to pay respects on birthdays, anniversaries and all times of year,” he said.

Over the years, he said, many organizations have worked to maintain the memorial site, including area businesses, high school sports teams and, most notably, the Friends of Sherwood Island. The group, among other things, provides the white roses that are handed out at the annual memorial ceremony.

The group has also worked to maintain the grounds surrounding the memorial, Friends President Liz-Ann Koos said. Koos said she wasn’t around when the memorial was first installed, as she didn’t move to Westport until 2004.

However, she has her own connection to Sept. 11, as she was living in Bronxsville, N.Y., and working for the New York Stock Exchange on the day of the attacks.

Though she wasn’t at the World Trade Center when planes hit the towers that morning, she had colleagues who were, and Koos was evacuated from her office on Wall Street to the trading floor.

“Luckily, (no one I knew) died,” Koos said.

But the morning stayed with her, and was surprised to learn when she moved to Westport, that the town hosts the state’s 9/11 memorial.

“I thought it was a marvelous thing to have,” Koos said. She said she regularly comes to the annual service and always finds it to be a powerful event.

“It’s a really moving experience,” she said.

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, agreed that the memorial is a powerful symbol of an earth-shaking event.

“I still remember my mother taking me to Sherwood Island to watch the devastating events unfold across the Long Island Sound that horrible day,” Haskell said. “In the time since, I have found the Sherwood Island memorial stands to bring us together and remember everything our communities and our country lost that day. It reminds us of the resilience of the American people, with beautiful views of New York City that has rebuilt, and continues to rebuild, from this and other disasters. It’s also a symbol for us to remember the many men and women ripped from our communities too soon and the many people forever changed by their absence.”

He said, even 20 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the memorial’s message is an important one.

“With this weekend’s anniversary fast approaching, I hope the memorial is a reminder of the way people took a terrible situation and were able to grow, recover and find new ways forward in an uncertain world,” Haskell said. “In times like these, it’s a reminder we all need.”