Suzie Helbert, deputy director of the Henry County Department of Public Safety, said she remembers precisely where she was and exactly what she was doing 18 years ago this past Wednesday.
“I was sitting in a cardiac technician class at Public Safety,” Helbert said. “Dale Wagoner was the instructor, and I was still working at Bassett Community Center and volunteering at Bassett Rescue Squad at the time.”
With class already in session, Sept. 11, 2001, seemed like a normal Tuesday – until 8:45 a.m.
News of Flight 11, an American Airlines Boeing 767 airplane, hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City impacted the rest of the United States within minutes.
More than 500 miles away, Wagoner, who now serves as the deputy county administrator for Henry County, broke the news to the class.
“Dale came in and put it on the big screen,” Helbert said. “We watched that second plane hit in class.”
Confused and concerned about what she had just witnessed but not yet knowing the full scope of the tragedy, Helbert said her mind was flooded with questions.
“At that point in time, my mama instinct was all that mattered,” Helbert said. “I just wanted to know, did I need to go pick up my kids? This is huge.”
Following the initial shock and apprehension over her family’s wellbeing, she turned her attention to those desperately trying to flee the scene – and then to those rushing toward the buildings instead of away.
“It wasn’t until later that I even – or any of us, really – realized the impact on the responders, right in the middle and after the fact,” Helbert said. “At that time, you’re just thinking about those poor people in that building. Are they having a hard time getting to them? Do they have enough resources? And then later on, we realized the impact it’s had on providers and their families, long-term.”
With the public’s eye watching in real time, news coverage showed the brave men and women who risked and sacrificed their own lives to save others. The emergency responders ran into the rubble to rescue people they never had met – and many they never again would see.
Honoring and memorializing the sacrifice of the first responders on that infamous September day and also paying tribute to local emergency personnel who help others on a daily basis in Martinsville and Henry County, the Henry County Department of Public Safety will host a dual-purpose parade on Saturday.
“Of course it’s to honor the memory of those people who perished and then those who responded and perished and then those who responded and are still dealing with it,” Helbert said. “Also, all of the lessons that we can learn from that point on – protecting our responders and caring for them, not only when they respond and have the right gear and right protection, but in the aftermath with everything they have to deal with mentally, physically and emotionally, long-term.”
Starting at Stanleytown Elementary School, located at 74 Edgewood Dr. in Stanleytown, the parade will commence at 5 p.m.
Several local agencies will join the procession, including Henry County fire departments Axton, Bassett, Collinsville, Dyer’s Store, Fieldale, Horse Pasture, Patrick Henry and Ridgeway.
Rescue squads including Bassett, Fieldale-Collinsville, Horsepasture, Ridgeway and the Axton Life Saving Crew will participate.
Other emergency groups will join the procession including Henry County Department of Public Safety, AirCare Air Ambulance, Air Methods Air Ambulance, Martinsville Fire and EMS, Providence Transport and LifeCare Ground Transport.
Law enforcement officials from the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, Martinsville Police Department, Martinsville Sheriff’s Office, Virginia State Police and the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Communications Center will participate, too.
The emergency response parade will travel down Virginia Avenue and Memorial Boulevard to the Martinsville Speedway, where air ambulances, fire engines, ambulances and police cars will be parked for citizens to walk around and meet the responders.
Along the parade route, Helbert encouraged bystanders to park and enjoy the procession – and maybe even sign up to be part of the emergency response solution.
“We thought it was the perfect fit with the timing because all of our minds start looking toward the events of September 11 at this time of year,” Helbert said. “We wanted to be able to try to figure out a way that the community could show their support for our responders, but then also see if we can get some interest in recruiting the folks into volunteering.”
Being part of a close community, Helbert said, she suspects that there will be some familiar faces in the procession that bystanders may recognize.
“When they come by in that parade, I have no doubt that a lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh, I know that guy.’ ‘Oh, he’s my neighbor.’ ‘Oh, I’ve met him before.’ And they can realize that they can do that too,” Helbert said. “We need more volunteers. Our system in Henry County is a combination of volunteer and career systems, and it takes both. It takes both to make it run.”
As the vehicles make their way through Collinsville, it won’t be a customary stop-and-go procession – it’ll be fairly quick.
“It’s not a traditional parade where it goes very slow, people throw candy and ride on top of things. It’s not that kind of parade. It’s kind of like the parade we do for race weekend,” Helbert said. “It’ll kind of be a real speed parade through Collinsville.”
While the various vehicles might not go the full 35 mph posted along that stretch of road, they won’t be crawling either.
“People can see the apparatuses,” Helbert said. “We’re hoping people will come up, line the streets, wave at them and then come on over to the Speedway.”
At the Martinsville Speedway, located at 340 Speedway Road in Ridgeway, fire trucks, police cars, rescue squads and helicopters will be on display. The event encourages people to get up close to the emergency vehicles and meet the first responders who care for their neighborhoods.
Mingling with emergency responders outside of emergency situations also helps children experience more comfort in the event of a crisis.
“They can see, feel and touch – see all of this equipment, especially for firefighters and law enforcement,” Helbert said. “They can see them up close and personal and realize this is not some scary person coming into their home in the dark in a fire, in the smoke. We don’t want them to be afraid of the responders. They can see and meet and be familiar with them and learn what’s normal for first responders.”
Meeting with those in emergency response careers could also spark a lifelong interest at a young age.
“You never know. You could pique a little bit of interest in a kid or a middle-schooler or a high-schooler. You could plant that seed,” Helbert said. “Maybe they’ll want to volunteer or make a career of it as well.”
Wrapping up the event, there’s one last special treat.
“As soon as it gets dark, they’re all going to light up all their apparatuses,” Helbert said. “We’re going to light up the night, and that will be the end of it.”