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Europeans extended condolences on tragic day

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Looking in the Tracy Press files reporting how Tracyites reacted 20 years ago to the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center was the first time I had any real knowledge how the terrorist attack impacted our town.

And that was for a very good reason. I wasn’t in Tracy when the attack occurred. I was on a ferry boat crossing the English Channel from Portsmouth, England to Cherbourg, France.

Although the ferry’s crew seemed to be scurrying around during the trip, they didn’t say anything about why.

When we got off the ferry in Cherbourg, we headed for the ferry terminal to see about hotel options in the town.

Just then, a woman approached us, and with a British accent, she asked if we were Americans.

“Yes,” my wife, Joan, answered, and the woman replied, “I’m so sorry what happened to your country today.”

We asked what she was talking about, and she told us about the two hijacked airliners striking the World Trade Center towers. We were shocked.

When we arrived at our hotel in Cherbourg, we turned on the television set in our room, and started watching French television giving continuous coverage of the World Trade Center attack. Although our French language skills were limited, we knew from the images on the TV screen what had happened.

We had planned to stay in Cherbourg only two days, but we decided to extend our stay to four days. We were glad we did.

On the third day, we rented a car and drove to nearby Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the small Norman town where U.S. paratroopers landed on the night of June 5 and 6, 1944, to begin the D-Day landings.

On arriving there, we saw the dummy of the American paratrooper, Pvt. John Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose parachute had become snagged on the church tell tower as he landed. He dangled there four hours while pretending to be dead before German troops captured him.

Our next stop was at the Airborne Museum, which told the story of the U.S. paratroopers, after receiving wrong directions, landing directly on Sainte-Mere-Eglise while German troops filled the town square.

After a few minutes, the woman who was staffing the museum told us it was closing “because of the ceremony at the town square.”

“What ceremony?” I asked, and she said it was to honor the Americans killed in New York.

We hurried to the town square, where firefighters, wearing dress uniforms and chrome-plated helmets, stood at attention.

The town’s mayor, after welcoming the several hundred people present, asked several U.S. Army veterans of the D-Day parachute landings behind German lines to join him in placing a wreath in front of the monument marking Sainte-Mere-Eglise as the first French town liberated during World War II.

After the wreath was put in place, the public address system played the American national anthem.

Being an American hearing our national anthem in a French town honoring our county on the day it suffered a horrific attack and the loss of thousands of lives was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in my life.

A short time later, I talked with Mayor Marc Lefevre, and he told of his town’s special relationship with the United States.

My wife, Joan, was interviewed by a reporter from the French Bleu radio network, and she told how the ceremony was so special for the Americans there that day.

Yes, I wasn’t in Tracy on 9-11, but images of that emotional memorial program in a French town with special ties to our country will always stay with me.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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