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Three region natives profoundly affected by 9/11

A photograph taken by DParker shows damage immediate aftermath Sept. 11 2001 attacks New York City.  Parker who was

A photograph taken by Don Parker shows damage in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. Parker, who was Dyer Police Chief at the time of the attacks, drove to New York City to offer aid. | photo provided~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 9, 2011 1:48PM

Eric Graf

Hundreds of small American flags waved in unison to motorists along U.S. 41 in St. John.

Each flag honored a victim of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, citing their name, age, and employer. They flanked a sprawling memorial, created by Eric Graf, his family and friends, now displayed outside the Northwoods restaurant.

A detailed replica of the New York City skyline adorns the 210-feet display, complete with a 20-feet high Statue of Liberty, 30 buildings, and two World Trade Center towers afire from the attacks.

“Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,” boomed the recorded voice of former President George W. Bush from a large speaker within the memorial.

Photos of first responders to the attacks greet visitors. Authentic NYC firefighters’ boots, badges, and helmets are on display. Yellow ribbons host the names of Indiana’s fallen soldiers this past decade. And sections of walls honor military personnel from other wars, too.

“This is my response to terrorists,” said Graf, a 51-year-old police officer whose wife is a firefighter.

The day after the attacks, Graf went to a local Menards, bought cans of red, white, and blue paint, and returned to his Schererville home to paint a flag on his hillside lawn. His instinctive reaction to global terrorism sparked the idea for a larger, more meaningful public display the next year, and the next, and the next.

“Ten years later, I’m still affected by what happened that day,” said Graf, who is co-hosting a memorial service at the display site on Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

Ten years ago, his son, Ryan, was 5, and his daughter, Brianna, was just 2. Graf remembers looking at his baby daughter that day and thinking, “There is an evil in this world that I can’t protect her from. But I can do something in response to it.”

He and his son have toiled on the work-in-progress display every summer leading up to each Sept. 11 anniversary. He wants his children, and hopefully others, to focus on the symbolism of the display when remembering “Sept. 11, 2001” – not the attacks, the deaths, and the destruction.

“I want my daughter to be able to tell HER daughter about the positive memories from this time, and to honor those victims and heroes we never knew,” he said. “This is why I keep working on the memorial.”

The display allows guests to write their own thoughts, feelings and reflections on black walls with colorful markers. On the day I visited the memorial, one guest wrote: “God shed your light on thee. Thank you for the brave heroes of 9/11. We will never forget.”

Don Parker

Don Parker drove alone to New York City just three days after the attacks. Ten years later, the Lowell man still has vivid memories of what he saw during his week-long stay.

Parker was the Dyer police chief at the time, and he knew he had to help relief efforts there in any way possible.

“It was a real kick in the teeth for this country. I was in awe of what happened that day,” said Parker, who left home with his bunker gear and some supplies.

In New York City, Parker stayed with a law enforcement friend of his who helped connect him with police officials near the Ground Zero site. It didn’t matter that he was a police chief from a distant state. It only mattered that he showed up and was willing to help.

“Everyone I met came up to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for coming even though all I did was minor, trivial jobs,” said Parker, who now lives in Lowell.

He unloaded ice bags. He inventoried emergency vehicles. He answered calls at a police station. Dressed in his best uniform, he even attended at least a dozen funerals for NYC police officers, firefighters, and first responders killed in the attack.

He also witnessed images that have never escaped his memory, such as the dozens of refrigerated trucks lining the streets near Ground Zero, used to store all the corpses. And the M.A.S.H.-like triage tents set up to provide medical care to the cadaver dogs who were routinely cut, scraped, and injured while searching for dead bodies in the rubble.

Plus, he reminded me, two thirds of all the rubble and debris at the massive site was removed by hand from the “bucket brigade,” as they were called.

“When the towers went down they destroyed all the infrastructure around the area,” he noted. “The firefighters were pumping water to Ground Zero from New York Harbor… a long way. They had to use two- and three-inch hoses. Those guys did a stellar job.”

On his last day there, he was asked to pose for a photo in front of the attack site. He hesitated, saying it seemed sacrilegious to do such a thing so soon after the attack. But he later relented and he still has that photo displayed in his home office along with other 9/11 items.

“I still get teary-eyed thinking of that time and what I witnessed,” he said.

Wally Johnston

“When the call went out for chaplains to assist at Ground Zero, I didn’t initially plan on going. But the closer it got to the time for our chaplain group to leave, I felt God’s tap on my shoulder. I was going.” - Chaplain Wally Johnston

Wally Johnston, a Gary native and 1972 Hobart High School graduate, arrived in New York City three months after the attacks. But it turned out to be perfect timing for his much-in-demand spiritual services as a law enforcement chaplain.

“Let‘s face it, many people don’t even know public safety chaplains exist, let alone what they do,” said Johnston, who now lives in Beaverton, Ore.

That changed after the 9/11 attack when one of the New York City Fire Department’s beloved chaplains, Father Mychal Judge, became the first recorded death after the towers collapsed. A photo of his body being carried from the rubble has become an iconic image of that day.

Minutes earlier, Judge rushed to the lobby of the north tower to pray for the victims, even administering last rites to some victims lying on the street. When the south tower collapsed, catapulting debris his way, he was reportedly praying out loud, “Jesus, please end this right now!”

“Public safety chaplains are like the public safety people who run into towers while others are rushing out,” said Johnston, who recently completed a book on his experiences, titled, “Sent to Serve: The Chaplains of 9/11” (available at

“They also rush into others’ lives that have been destroyed by tragedy, and they provide comfort and care to the victims and those who assist them.”

With 25 years of experience dealing with emergency-response situations, Johnston counseled countless people during his visit. Surprisingly, cops there were more open to talk than firefighters, who were “shook to the core and tight-lipped” from what they had just been through.

“They were afraid if they opened up too much, they might crack and then not be able to do their job any more,” Johnston explained. “But some of them eventually opened up.”

During a visit to the “Ten House” fire station, located across the street from Ground Zero, one firefighter greeted Johnston at the door with cold apprehension. But after chatting with Johnston, he later asked the chaplain, “Would you like to go on the roof?”

“The roof was sacred ground,” recalled Johnston, who graciously accepted the invite. “The roof had a panoramic view of the pit, what they called the huge crater of World Trade Center rubble. Our host excused himself and left us to view the devastation.”

“I remember calling my wife from that roof and seeing papers floating out of nearby offices,” he added.

Some chaplains there developed what was called the “Ground Zero cough” after breathing in the airborne substances near the clean-up site. Others attended funeral after funeral, often walking beside the victims’ family members.

“They spent time in the respite centers and offered help through words, a look, a touch, and from the Word of God,” Johnston wrote in his book. “Thousands of special 9/11 Memorial Bibles were distributed to eager public safety heroes and many found their faith.”

“Satan, the ultimate terrorist,” as Johnston put it, left his mark on that fateful day. But the chaplain left the city filled with the spirit of God from all the volunteering he witnessed.

“The human spirit prevailed,” he said.

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