The piercing screams on the streets of Manhattan still haunt Joe Dittmar’s mornings.
The red-orange flames devouring the towers still sear his memory.
His voice still trembles remembering the faces of firefighters, paramedics and police.
Yet the 55-year-old defies survivor’s guilt. He says he didn’t have a choice in the years that have passed since terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and used them as weapons against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. Delivering speeches about what he lived through is his obligation, his responsibility.
Dittmar, an Aurora resident at the time, was in a meeting on the 105th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Only seven of the 54 people in that meeting survived.
“I think the (almost) 3,000 people who lost their voices have a right to be heard, and if I can do that, that’s what I do,” Dittmar said.
The insurance executive who now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., will serve as the keynote speaker at a remembrance ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, at the Sept. 11/Cmdr. Dan Shanower Memorial, behind the Naperville Municipal Center, 400 S. Eagle St. The ceremony is sponsored by the Naperville Exchange Club.
Across DuPage County, residents will be coming together for solemn observances. Some will try to preserve the legacies of their loved ones. Others will honor the spirit of unity in the days after Sept. 11 and commit to community service.
Dittmar, who sat on the commission that developed the Naperville memorial, uses his vacations days to travel the country and share his story, giving as many as 60 speeches this year.
His first audience was thousands of students and teachers at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora to mark the first anniversary. He realized his words could seize their attention.
He bristles at political or religious slants and favors what he calls a human perspective in his speeches. He simply wants to tell what happened.
The sights. The smells. The sounds.
One image he usually relays happened when he fled down the stairs in the south tower. When he reached the 35th floor, he saw, for the first time, people running in the other direction. People who were trying to save other people.
“They had a look in their eyes that told the entire story without them ever having to say a word,” Dittmar says of the first responders.
“They knew that they were going up and never, ever, ever coming back, and we could see that. It was palpable. We could feel it.”
“The wound is as fresh as it was 11 years ago,” he says.
Each Sept. 11, the family of Navy Cmdr. Dan Shanower visits the Naperville memorial bearing his name and inspired by his words in an essay: “Freedom isn’t free.” Shanower, a Naperville native, was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.
His mom, Pat, focuses on her son’s “big smile.” His humor. His writings in his journals from when he was kid to his adult life. His deep patriotism and love for the Navy.
“He accused me of fostering that by papering his bedroom with wallpaper that had boats on it when he was a child,” the retired schoolteacher and Naperville resident said laughing.
She says she honors her son’s life through volunteerism, as a tutor in local literacy programs and as a member of the hunger commission of Community United Methodist Church.
“Dan said everybody must find his own place to serve,” Pat said. “I hope that each young person finds something that they care about as he did about the Navy.”
Each Sept. 11, officials with Giving DuPage organize service projects set up at a specific time and place. But this year, Giving DuPage is shifting toward building long-term relationships between nonprofit agencies and community members.
Giving DuPage is partnering with the Lombard, Darien, Westmont and Downers Grove chambers of commerce for a Sept. 11 Remember by Doing event from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Downers Grove lodge of the Loyal Order of Moose, 1030 Warren Ave.
Officials with nonprofit groups will wear name tags identifying volunteer needs, while community members will wear tags identifying their skills and talents.
“We are hoping that opens the conversation between the two groups to more meaningful connections between volunteers and nonprofits,” said Kathy Blair, Giving DuPage’s executive director.
Needs range from marketing assistance, tech support and transportation to carpentry, cooking and art skills, Blair said.
“We understand that our motivation on this day is to memorialize what happened in the spirit that came out of the tragedy,” Blair said. “We’re hoping that people on 9/11 will make a connection, and then going forward in the coming year, they will live out that commitment they’re making on this 9/11 day.”
Meanwhile, Dittmar will travel to New York on Sept. 29 to see the Sept. 11 memorial for the first time. He vows to continue telling his story, to make sure people, even those who didn’t live it, never forget.
“I’ve been given a purpose,” Dittmar said. “And I live that purpose every day.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.