Flags representing the nearly 3,000 lives lost during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks won’t be flying at Tempe Beach Park this year.
Typically, hundreds of volunteers gather at the park early in the morning in the days leading up to the anniversary of the attacks to help put the flags into the ground.
This year, members of the Exchange Club of Tempe, which organizes the event, decided to move the event online due to COVID-19 concerns.
The organization announced the decision on Facebook in late August.
Event chair Nick Bastian said that the club didn’t want to risk the health and safety of members and volunteers with so many people coming together to set up and take down the flags.
“It was a very difficult decision for us to make,” Bastian said. “Having the flags in the field is something we all want, and certainly we’ll never forget what happened.”
Instead, members of the Exchange Club of Tempe will host a virtual ceremony on Friday to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the attacks.
The event will start on Facebook shortly before 5:46 a.m. — the time the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Tempe Mayor Corey Woods and other city officials will join members of the club to read the names of first responders and others whose lives were lost that day.
The organization will share photos, videos and stories throughout the day on its Facebook page and website and is encouraging community members to get involved by sharing their photos and stories using the hashtag #HealingFieldAZ.
Bastian said they will be back at Tempe Beach Park next year to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Members of the Exchange Club of Tempe begin planning the next year’s memorial event shortly after taking down the flags and storing them at a Phoenix-area warehouse, Bastian said.
Planning kicks off in earnest after the start of the year.
When COVID-19 cases first began to spread in Arizona in March, members of the group hoped that they could still host the event.
But in recent weeks, it became clear the event likely wasn’t going to happen.
Current health guidelines banning large gatherings and other protocols in place to reduce the spread of the virus would have made it difficult to safely set up the flags, Bastian said.
It would have been “physically impossible” to make volunteers socially distance while setting up and taking down the flags, he said.
Raising funds to put on the event also became more difficult this year. The organization counts on donations to help pay to rent the field and for security and stage and sound equipment, among other expenses.
Tempe’s Sept. 11 memorial, dubbed the Tempe Healing Field, began in 2004 and is the second-longest running event of its kind. The memorial event first began in Sandy, Utah, on the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Volunteers typically help set up the flags a few days before Sept. 11. Once set up, the area is open to the public and the club usually hosts a vigil and other events before dismantling the memorial.
Each flag has an identification card tied to it with the name, age and biography of a victim.
Bastian first got involved with the Healing Field about 10 or 12 years ago when he was invited to help set up the flags. He volunteered again the following year and learned more about how the group made it happen.
He started donating money, then his time, to the group, and later landed on the planning committee and pretty soon became one of the lead organizers of the event.
To see a field of grass turn into a sea of red, white and blue was “an amazing experience” that kept him coming back, he said.
Bastian said the club has heard from many people who are disappointed that the flags won’t be flying this year, especially at a time when everyone “can really use some healing.”
“We understand that,” he said. “There’s a lot of us that want to make sure that this event always happens and that we don’t ever forget, and it’s been really hard for us to not have those flags flying. But it doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten and it doesn’t mean that we won’t be back next year.”
He encouraged people to get involved to help make next year’s event happen.
Click here to learn more about the Tempe Healing Field.