A tribute that began after the Sept. 11 terror attacks with a sign and about 20 flags in a Southern California front yard now includes thousands of flags and wooden crosses and other items that have helped a community bond in solemn remembrance.
Scott Townley, an engineer with the Orange County Fire Authority, has displayed the tribute to attack victims and service members killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at his Fullerton home every year since 2001. The display, which requires help from a team of workers and about 14 hours to construct, is one of several ways Southern Californians are remembering victims and honoring their families Thursday to mark 13 years since the attacks.
"This memorial teaches the kids who were not around what happened on 9/11, and how many people were affected by this national tragedy," Townley said.
The tribute also provides a place for former East Coast residents, many of whom might have lived in New York, Washington and other cities in the region, to reconnect with memories of home and their experiences 13 years ago, Townley added. Maria Wells moved to Southern California from New York and visits Townley's home to mourn and remember each year.
Five of her friends, New York firefighters, were killed in the terror attacks. Holding back tears, she recited their names.
"On Sept. 11, this is my home," Wells said Thursday. "I have a place to lay a rose, say a prayer and remember."
Other visitors Thursday morning included an Air Force veteran, high school teacher and neighbors. They took pictures, stood in respectful silence and listened to the sounds of a bagpiper who walked among the crosses and flags.
A candlelight vigil is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, when participants will walk from Hillcrest Park to Townley's house at the corner of Fern Drive and North Woods Avenue. The crosses and flags will be removed Friday morning.
Townley's memorial began with a hand-made sign and about 20 flags in 2001. Now it includes 343 crosses for the firefighters who died helping victims in the attacks, 74 crosses for the Port Authority officers and police officers who died in New York City, and an 8-foot tall wooden cross that bears the names of every victim who was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the downed plane in Pennsylvania.
With a large wooden cross, Townley pays tribute to the first responders who died of cancer and other afflictions they contracted digging through the rubble in the months and years following the attacks.
This year, Townley has added a "military wall" bearing the nearly 13,000 names of the service men and women who have died in the war on terrorism. The names appear in Plexiglas on printed sheets.
The Orange County Fire Authority engineer has planted about 3,500 to 5,000 flags around his yard in total. Victims' family members who have visited the home are given a flag with the name of a loved one. Townley then takes note of the victim's name and replaces the flag on the lawn.
"I want a complete memorial done out of respect and dignity for everyone we lost," said Townley.
He estimated that hundreds of people visit each year. Visitors may also share their feelings with a sign-in book.
"They're touched by it, that touches me," Townley said.
Townley said he has seen people drive by and take photos out of the windows of vehicles. He prefers they stop and spend time at the memorial.
"Get out of your car and look at it," said Townley. "Spend an hour or two -- memorialize the people."