EAST PEORIA — Nothing can match the raw emotion and anguish that Americans felt in the moments and days following the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Wednesday, propped up by a 15-year cushion of history, came about as close as it can get.

"It's important to us, it's what brought us here today, that we never forget that day. I know we won't," said Capt. Vinnie Doherty of the New York Fire Department on Wednesday morning during a welcoming presentation of a traveling 9/11 exhibit. It's set up in the open semi-tractor trailer parked in the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino parking lot through Monday. "I personally lost 19 of my men from my firehouse that responded on a call and then never returned to the firehouse that night."

The mobile exhibit "Never Forget" was created and funded by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. It is dedicated to the 414 FDNY firefighters and police who sacrificed their lives responding to terrorists' assaults by hijacked planes on the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. In total, 2,606 people died at the towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Filled with panels of information, artifacts and more, the exhibit is open from noon until 7 p.m.

Following a presentation of the colors by members of the East Peoria Fire Department, and a flawless rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Beck, Mayor Dave Mingus addressed the crowd.

"I will never forget that sickening feeling of sadness and anger that anyone could commit such a horrendous act against America, against Americans," Mingus said. "The other overwhelming feeling was that we all wanted to do something to help. Even though New York is far away from East Peoria, it might as well have been a neighboring community."

Doherty, who is traveling with the exhibit and is on hand to answer questions from the public, told the story of two firefighters who met in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center minutes after the first plane hit the tower.

Lifelong friends, "they embraced. Terry gave Timmy a big kiss on his cheek and said, 'Brother, I love you. I don't think I'm going to see you again,'" Doherty said. "And with that they broke off the embrace and (Terry Hannon) went back to his men and said, 'Let's go,' and they went into the nearest staircase. That day we heard reports of 'Mayday! Mayday! We found fire and we have people up here, victims. We need stretchers and we need hose lines.' We never heard from them again. They never made it home to the firehouse that night."

The foundation initially raised money to help families of firefighters and has since morphed into a foundation that also helps injured U.S. veterans.

Doherty urged audience members to tell their families that while sports figures grab the attention and headlines, America's true heroes are those who serve in the military, veterans and first responders.

"In New York City we're hardened. We're deflecting. The next (attack) could be out here. Hopefully not, but it could be right in your backyard. We've got to stay prepared, because just like a soccer goalkeeper it's not the thousands of saves that you make, it's the one ball that gets through that he's remembered for," Doherty said. "(The enemy) is coming. They're coming after us, so we must never forget. I thank you. And God bless."

Scott Hilyard is the Journal Star communities reporter. He can be reached at 686-3244 and shilyard@pjstar.com. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.