Matt Jamesson was a student at Glenbard East High School in Lombard on Sept. 11, 2001.
He remembers picking up his friends and driving to school on a late arrival day.
When he first heard something was wrong in New York City, he said, "I thought it was a school shooting," because memories of Columbine were fresh in his mind.
Then he saw the television images of the smoldering World Trade Center and felt the magnitude of the tragedy.
He attended Sacred Heart Church in Lombard that day.
"The church was packed," he said. "the only thing I remember is tears."
Fifteen years later, Jamesson, now associate pastor at St. Teresa Parish in Palatine and a chaplain to the Palatine Fire Department, stood at the Palatine Firefighters Memorial.
There, he spoke before the crowd commemorating Sept. 11 and offering words of hope.
Sunday's gathering was one of many tributes throughout the Northwest suburbs, including in Gurnee, Hoffman Estates and Elk Grove Village.
"Even out of the ashes of that terrible day, we as an American nation, are reminded of the jewels of our life, our liberty and of our pursuit of happiness," he said.
The ceremony took place under a bright blue sky, much like the one in New York City 15 years ago.
Outside Fire Station 85 on Colfax Street, a flag was lowered to half staff around 9 a.m., when firefighters began their march to the memorial. The procession included firefighter Jeb Kaiser, who would perform "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes.
Retired Palatine firefighter Mark Hallett presided over the ceremony, which included honor guards from the Palatine police and fire departments.
A wreath was placed at the memorial, guns were fired in a salute and a ceremonial bell was rung to signify a firefighter's last call of duty.
Among the participating firefighters was Lt. Norman Bemis, who was a Palatine firefighter in 2001.
"It changed the fire service, it changed our country" he said. "For us to remember this every year, it brings back why we do what we do, why we're being steadfast in our jobs."
Ken Hopps of Palatine followed the firefighters to the scene on his bicycle.
"The first responders, I think, are the most important people," he said. "We don't do enough for our policemen and firemen."
Megan Diamond of Lake in the Hills, whose husband, Robert, was one of the firefighters in the honor guard, and who has a son who is nearly 2, said Sept. 11 is "always in the back of your mind. But you have to trust their training and their relationship with each other to have each other's back in things like that."