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Chattanooga area elected officials, service members and first responders gathered early Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

The riverfront event hosted by the city of Chattanooga and Chattanooga Fire Department honored the nearly 3,000 Americans killed during the attacks, including more than 300 first responders.

"It's hard to believe that it's been 20 years. But I want to start off today by not only remembering innocent lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days following, but also remembering with gratitude the first responders who answered the call without hesitation on that fateful day," Chattanooga firefighter Mark Coffman said.

"When we look back on the memories from this day with heavy hearts, there's one memory that we hold on to and cherish as the most lasting: the memory of heroism and selflessness demonstrated by first responders who bravely answered the call without considering the magnitude of the challenge they were responding to," Coffman added. "As years go by, people may forget the lives that were lost and courageous actions performed, but today we're here to remember and honor our country's heroes."

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly echoed Coffman, thanking those who responded on 9/11 and those who serve as first responders.

"We're grateful to every first responder for their service here, and we reflect on that service, in particular, today because we know the risks. 9/11 was perhaps the greatest example of those risks," Kelly said. "So today we take the opportunity to honor all who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep others safe, and we give thanks to those who do that essential work each and every day here in Chattanooga.

"It's your resilience and courage that hold us up, even in our most solemn and difficult moments."

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Chattanooga area leaders on 9/11 anniversary

Despite recalling one of the darkest days in the country's history, speakers focused on the positive, unifying response to the terrorist attacks.

"It saddens me. My heart's heavy to reflect back 20 years ago on what that meant," said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who was a Chattanooga firefighter at the time of the attacks. "But most importantly — what it did to us as a country — it united us, all of us, where we came together."

Coppinger said he remembers that in addition to the heroism of first responders in the time of crisis, the country benefited from community members rallying behind public servants and each other.

"Everybody was together. And I would just leave you with this thought, it would be great when this country can get back to that again," Coppinger said. "It would be great if it doesn't have to take something catastrophic to unite us. But that's what I pray for each and every day."

Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman said the impact of the attacks is still prevalent today and likely always will be.

"This single event changed our country on so many levels, although it occurred nearly 20 years ago. And those effects will last an eternity," Hyman said. "Anniversaries like this are extremely important to make sure that we never forget the ultimate sacrifice our first responders and military personnel made on that day."

"I want to personally thank everyone that came out today to share this important moment in our country's history, and to honor those that have fallen in the line of duty. The courage, bravery and spirit of our nation does live on."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.comor 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.