MARYSVILLE, Wash. -- On or around the 11th of every month, Jerry Thornton Sr. makes time for Marysville Cemetery to have a conversation with his son Jeff.
"I try to keep him updated on what the kids are doing," said Thornton, "What our ball club is doing."
Rarely does the conversation drift towards the day Jeff Thornton died.
"Life's too short," Jerry likes to say.
The day Marysville Fire Lt. Jeff Thornton passed away also happened to be one of the darkest days in American history: September 11, 2001.
"There isn't a day that goes by that there isn't some reference to 9/11 or that period of time," said Thornton, "It's never far from our mind."
Lt. Thornton, 43, was known in Marysville as "Fireman Jeff,' popular with his presentations to schools and in the community. He was also a father, husband and lifelong baseball player.
It was a baseball injury that led to the discovery of cancer in his leg in December 2000. By the time surgery took place to isolate the cancer, it was too late. It had spread to his bones and his blood.
In August, Jeff and his wife went to Mexico for homeopathic treatment. On September 10, Thornton's parents were called. He was in critical condition and being moved back to a facility outside San Diego.
Jerry and two of his other sons booked flights for first thing the next morning. When they got to Sea-Tac International Airport, they knew the first plane had hit the World Trade Center.
"We're ready to push back and the captain came on and said, 'there's been a second crash. They were hijacks,'" Thornton recalled.
As the private drama of seeing their son played out, the tragedy of 9/11 was unfolding as well.
"We didn't know the world was going to turn upside down," said Thornton.
Thornton and his sons started driving down to California. They planned to hustle through the night to make it to San Diego in time.
Once they crossed into California, one of the sons got a phone call Jeff had died.
"We're all yelling and crying and all kinds of things because we didn't get there," said Thornton. "We'd done everything that we could to be there for him."
As with ceremonies across the country, Marysville takes time on September 11 to honor victims of the terrorist attacks. But it also sets aside time to remember Lt. Thornton. A miniature baseball field in front of the fire department's headquarters is a fitting memorial.
"He really is still around," said Thornton. "He's talking about us."
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