As the nation pauses to remember those who served this Veterans Day, many Juneauites may visit the 9/11 memorial in Riverside Rotary Park to reflect on the event that led to the war in Afghanistan and produced a new generation of veterans.
The memorial, unveiled one year after the attack, was among the first in the nation.
Twenty years ago, Juneau resident Debbie Penrose-Fischer and her husband, Brent Fischer, harnessed their grief in the face of the national tragedy to become the driving force behind the creation of the memorial.
“There are markers and age brackets in all our lives and those events capture a moment in time, things like births and weddings,” Penrose-Fischer told the Empire in a September phone interview. “For me, 9/11 was that way. I remember exactly where I was and what I saw. I remember the shock that I felt. I was up early that day and I saw the second plane hit.”
She said that in the days that followed the event, the feeling of national unity touched her.
She recalled watching members of Congress sit together on the steps of the Capitol building and sing “God Bless America.” She described a landscape awash in American flags.
“The patriotism felt very different and amazing in the middle of such a tragedy,” she said.
While watching news coverage, Penrose-Fischer saw people in different cities around the country gathering in public locations to light candles and grieve together.
“I kept bugging my husband about where to put flowers. I told him we need a place where people can express grief,” she said.
Penrose-Fischer explained that while driving down Riverside Drive in the Mendenhall Valley, she spotted Riverside Rotary Park and realized it was the perfect place for a 9/11 memorial.
She shared her idea with her husband, whose childhood friend was aboard the plane that hit the Pentagon.
She explained that her husband went to another room and produced a sketch of a potential memorial in short order.
“He came out with a really neat sketch with a flag memorial and all this symbolism,” she said. “I’m proud of my husband. He thought about his friend and the design just came out.”
Fischer’s design features a distinctive, pentagon-shaped base to represent the plane that flew into the Pentagon. The pentagon is broken into four pieces that are four feet long to represent the four airplanes that came down that day.
Two missing upper sides represent the twin towers of the World Trade Center that collapsed in New York City.
Penrose-Fischer explained that the memorial is constructed from concrete and Pennsylvania marble to represent the heroes of the downed plane in Pennsylvania.
“Forget-me-not flowers adorn the top of the display to symbolize the rebirth of patriotism and our promise to never forget,” Penrose-Fischer said. “The flag represents the unity of our nation and the head of the pentagon is aligned with the North Star, a symbol to all Alaskans.”
Once the design was hashed out, Penrose-Fischer said the project “met green lights all the way,” leading to Juneau constructing the memorial and dedicating it in 2002.
“By the next year, it was up,” she said. “It was the first memorial in the nation to be completed. I love how it’s a story about the community. You can be in a small town and your idea doesn’t get knocked down before it gets off its feet,” she said, reflecting on the speed of the project.
Keeping memories alive
Since the memorial’s dedication, people have gathered at the site to remember the day. Penrose-Fischer said that the crowds have grown over time.
Earlier this year, a robust crowd of a few hundred people—many masked because of COVID-19 concerns— turned out under heavy rain and low clouds to honor the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Volunteers passed out lapel pins to commemorate the occasion. The pins show an American flag and the Rotary memorial connected by the number 20.
Before the event, Rotary members and volunteers added a low, three-sided wall to the site as part of the 20th-anniversary commemoration. In addition, people purchased personalized bricks to be added to the site.
Penrose-Fischer said she’s working on adding an interpretive sign to the site so that people visiting the memorial can learn more about how it came together and the patriotism that inspired it.
“As I sit and look at it all, it’s a pretty majestic spot. I’m very proud of it. I feel very proud of my town that we have this place to gather.”
Fisher said she hopes the memorial helps to inspire people.
“What I hope people take from it is the simple idea that everyone can make a difference,” she said.