By Harry Minium

When the four-minute video ended, the 34 Old Dominion women's lacrosse players were somber. Some were crying. Others put their heads on their desks.

Coach Heather Holt asked if anyone had anything to say. No one spoke. The emotion was palpable.

For five of the last six years, the team has hosted a dinner at Norfolk Fire Station No. 7, at 43rd Street and Hampton Boulevard, to commemorate the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which claimed the lives of 2,977 people, including 343 New York City firefighters.

This Saturday was the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Many of the players hadn't been born and none was old enough to remember that day.

That was the point of the video. It showed the carnage of planes highjacked by terrorists plowing into New York's twin towers and later, the buildings collapsing. The video was overlayed with the voices of passengers saying goodbye to loved ones and air traffic controllers desperately trying to reach pilots.

"I didn't want our players to think we're just going out to have a fun dinner," Holt said. "I wanted them to know why and think about what happened and how firefighters so often put themselves in harm's way.

"The best man in my wedding was in the Navy and he was on the Enterprise, one of the first ships to go to Afghanistan. This was pretty near and dear to my heart and my husband's heart."

The video was a revelation to Riley Leischner, a senior from Denver, Colorado, who was tasked with putting the dinner together. She said hearing the panicked passengers, most of whom knew they would soon be dead, was haunting.

"I worked on this all week, and I hadn't actually sat down and thought about the importance of what happened," Leischner said. "It took that video to bring that back to me."

Senior Paige Angelus, who worked with Leischner and Amber Stieve to organize the dinner, was a year old on 9/11.

"I was so touched by the video," she said. "We do this every year, but hearing the phone calls made me realize that these were real people this happened to. It made me want to be here even more celebrating with these firefighters."

The lacrosse team began hosting the dinner in 2016 at the behest of then-senior Jessi Deluca, whose father was a New York firefighter. Last year's dinner was canceled because of the pandemic.

Stieve is a senior from Long Island who has a much closer connection to 9/11 than her teammates. Her mother, Denise, was in the city the morning the attacks occurred. Because cell service and the phone systems were down, her father Paul, did not know Denise was safe until late that night, when she finally got home.

"My dad was freaking out," Stieve said. "The only way out of the city was by ferry and you waited hours and hours before you could get on one."

Stieve said her parents have told her how Americans came together in the wake of the attacks, and she hopes this year's 9/11 commemoration can help unify a deeply divided nation.

"The video brought to life everything we talk about, and about how much we really do love this country and how grateful we should be to live here," she said. "People have lost sight of how much we have here, of how lucky we are to be Americans. I hope the 20th anniversary will help people unite."

A thunderstorm Wednesday night forced the dinner to be held inside the firehouse but did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of firefighters and athletes.

More than 150 athletes donated $18 apiece to help pay for dinner - for themselves and for firefighters. More than $2,500 was raised, and much of it will go to fill the summer camp backpacks of youngsters who have been treated in the Sentara Norfolk General Burn Clinic.

Many athletes walked through the rain and showed up dripping wet. They played corn hole and other games with firefighters while they took turns dining on chicken parmesan, pizza and salad, which was catered, and a cake made by Holt.

"We really appreciate this," said Shane Lyle, a lieutenant in his 24th year as a firefighter. "This kind of thing doesn't happen very often."

Chris Fultz, one of three captains at the fire station, said nearly every firefighter has run into a burning building to rescue people, but some of the firefighters in New York ran into the twin towers knowing their chances of survival were long. A longtime member of Federal Emergency Management Agency, he lost friends in the twin towers.

"Everyone coming in from the different boroughs, they could see what was happening," he said. "They knew what they were walking into wasn't good. But they ran into the buildings to do their jobs."

Angelus said she and her teammates are grateful to the Norfolk firefighters, "who are here to make sure that we are all safe."

"That's what I love about ODU lacrosse, about ODU athletics," she added. "We like to get in touch with our community. To sit and talk with them, and not just know that they are firefighters, but to know their faces, to know their names, I loved that."

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