SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. 

Suffolk Fire Chief Mike Barakey was in Las Vegas, training for, of all things, weapons of mass destruction. He had great respect for the gargantuan task facing his New York City colleagues.

“Three hundred and forty-three of our brothers and sisters died serving,” Barakey said. “And it’s not only a tribute to them but it’s a tribute to the many, many other citizens and loved ones and fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters who died in the towers.”

Come Oct. 7, Barakey and others will be able to pay those respects in a more direct, more meaningful way.
The Tunnel to Towers Mobile Exhibit comes to Suffolk for the weekend of the Peanut Festival.

It’s a tractor-trailer that transforms into an 1,100-square-foot exhibit. It features World Trade Center Steel and aluminum, radio transmissions from first responders, and other items found in the rubble. First responders from more than 30 local departments will escort the museum into the festival site. 

The Freedom Flag Foundation is also lending a beam from the 92nd floor of the North Tower to the festival.
Barakey says he has cadets in the fire academy that weren’t even born before 9-11 – and a former fire chief says those are the ones that need to know about it. Now he wants to make sure everyone knows about the sacrifices made that day.

“I think it shows respect to them so I can tell a story about my friends, so I can tell a story to my kids, to my colleagues of the people I know, the people I love and respect who didn’t come home that day, that’s what it would mean to me,” he said.

The exhibit was created by Tunnel to Towers, a nonprofit honoring New York City Firefighter Stephen Siller who was off of duty on the day of the attacks but still responded to the Twin Towers. He died saving others. 

The exhibit has been to nearly all 50 states, and been visited by over 600,000 people, according to Tunnel to Towers. This will mark the first time it’s been to Hampton Roads, a fact not lost on local first responders.

Jim Hoffler, former chief of Portsmouth Fire Department, reached out to area first responders to organize an honor guard to escort the truck into the fair grounds at the Executive Airport. Virginia State Police will escort it from the Maryland state line to Suffolk.

“To their credit, not a single one said no,” he said. “They said ‘yeah tell us when you want us there, what time, and where you want us to park, and we will be there.’ And that repeated itself over 30 times as I called departments from [the] peninsula to Southampton County.”

Six firefighters who were at the World Trade Center after the initial attacks will be available to walk people through the exhibit and give context to the displays. Additionally, any local first responders who worked at Ground Zero or the Pentagon will be able to get exclusive tours for the first hour of operation each day.

“For a lot of people, I think this museum and this beam, it can be one of two things,” Virginia Peanut Festival organizer Tiny Andrews said. “It can be traumatic, or it can be therapeutic, and I hope it’s therapeutic.” 

Prior to the fair, a charity golf competition will be held on Sept. 29 at the Sleepy Hole Golf Course in Suffolk, with funds going to the Tunnels to Towers Foundation.

The Suffolk Peanut Festival will start on Oct. 6. The first two hours of operations free and geared toward children. General admission tickets are $10.