ANGOLA — Three forty-three.
That number, 343, might not mean a lot to many people, but it rings loudly for emergency services personnel, especially firefighters.
That’s the number of firefighters from the New York Fire Department who lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
And it was a number that Bryan Peterson, of the Fort Wayne and Huntertown fire departments, could not help but notice every time he drove by that mile marker on Interstate 69, south of Angola.
“Whenever I drive this interstate, I always seem to notice the mile marker sign labeled 343. Probably not unlike most of you who serve in public safety,” Peterson said early Sept. 11 in front of some 30-40 firefighters and paramedics from Shipshewana to Aboite Township gathered at the Pigeon Creek Welcome Center on I-69.
It became Peterson’s quest to have that mile marker — the only 343 mile marker in Indiana — designated as the Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial Mile in honor of those who gave the supreme sacrifice on 9/11 in New York.
On the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, that designation was officially dedicated at the Pigeon Creek Welcome Center, which is located within mile marker 343.
“... the Welcome Center? Well, that was just an incredible coincidence. In fact, we didn’t even realize initially that it was within mile 343. We were just thinking of ways we could make this day, locally, a retrospective look at the nation’s worst day in our lifetimes,” Peterson said.
The idea of the memorial was pitched to Indiana Department of Transportation officials and local legislators got behind the idea. Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, read a resolution that will be introduced in the Legislature commemorating the Memorial Mile. Toni Mayo, communications director with INDOT, Fort Wayne, and T.R. Hagerty, Angola fire chief, threw their support behind the idea, also.
“It seemed so natural. And they agreed,” Peterson said. “And although the number 343 is reflective of the number of FDNY members killed on Sept. 11, the site is to honor all public safety officers who gave all, including our brothers and sisters in law enforcement and emergency medical services whose losses should never be overshadowed.”
Soon a marble plaque will be installed inside the Welcome Center, which features much history of Steuben County and Indiana on its walls, to honor those firefighters who lost their lives.
On Saturday, before the assembled emergency personnel would head to a parade in New Haven to make the 9/11 anniversary, a photo of the design of the marble plaque was unveiled by Mayo, with the help of young David Rhoden, Hamilton.
Glick was on hand, as were Reps. Denny Zent, R-Angola, and David Abbott, R-Rome City.
All spoke of their connections to firefighters and the events of Sept. 11, which happens to be Zent’s birthday, which was marked indelibly 20 years ago. And for Abbott, he lost a stepson, Nicholas Hartge, who was inspired by 9/11 to join the U.S. Army. He was killed in Iraq in 2007.
“We stand here today to pay tribute to the men and women who lost their lives 20 years ago,” Peterson said. “And we stand here because the number 343 will always remind us of America’s strength in the face of adversity.”