Shortly after the anniversary of my 18th year in the fire service I woke up early on that Tuesday morning because I had to go the bank. The branch opened at 8:30am and I was in and out in no time. I drove the mile and a half back to my house and walked in to the television on The Today Show. The image of the burning World Trade Center riveted me. I listened as Katie Couric reported that they believed a small plane had struck the North Tower of the Center. Knowing the scale of the building and seeing the hole extended many floors I was skeptical that is was a small plane and voiced that opinion to my then girlfriend. The whole was too big, something else hit that building, something big I said. That mornings weather was clear with few clouds and I could not imagine a plane of any size accidentally running into that big of a building on a clear day. As I sat transfixed listening to the conversation of the reporter and watching a long shot of the tower burning, what happened next only confirmed my suspicions but shocked me into open-mouthed silence.
My memory of the second plane was seeing it come from the far side of the South Tower and bank to the left just before it hit. That bank to the left put the plane at an angle that sliced through many floors. The fire-ball shooting out of the building was frightening. Going back to my fire training I knew that many of the borough fire companies where going to be responding and going in to get the fire and the people who were being threatened by it.
I was not moving from the couch. When the South Tower collapsed the Today show cut to a ground level shot and I saw a New York Firefighter remove his helmet and throw it to the ground. It was at that moment I knew they many people including firefighters died in that collapse. That simple act of throwing his helmet was a clear sign to me that man knew he lost many brothers. We take good care of our protective equipment and throwing your helmet at an active fire is not something we do. We need that helmet and I would never risk damaging it and not having that equipment. In my head I was screaming. Get everybody out of the North Tower. We know now that they started the evacuation but with the height of the fire scene and the number of firefighters inside that was a futile effort.
My day was spent watching coverage of the attack and hearing of the crash of Flight 93. It was known at the time of the crash that the President had ordered fighter planes into the air to hunt down and potentially shoot down any errant passenger planes that did not land immediately. For a while the thought was that 93 was shot down by our fighters. This thought gave me a chill and a feeling of sorrow for the American service member who might have pulled the trigger on an airplane full of innocents. That most certainly would not be a hash mark on the record of that pilot, but a scar on him or her for life. As the story of flight 93 developed and the heroism of the passengers and crew came to light, I was buoyed by it. That sinking feeling I had all day was leveling off. Just knowing that regular people stood up and fought for their lives was uplifting for me.
I reported to the firehouse that night for work and the mood in the station was vastly different from normal. The jokes were few and the conversation was about the loss of life. I have been involved in a few high-rise fires in my life and lost 3 fellow firefighters in the One Meridian Plaza fire just ten years earlier the sting of the collapse was palpable. One of the firefighters came in on his day off grabbed his gear and said he was going to New York. He never did get to help as they closed the city down and he could not get on the island. But the PA Urban Rescue TF1 was called up to help in the recovery and search. I counted many of those men among my friends and after they returned home, I had the opportunity to talk to one of them one-on-one. We did not talk about the specifics of what was found but my friend made it clear that the destruction from the collapse was total. What he said to me to describe the scene was all I needed to hear. He told me the biggest pice of concrete he touched was no bigger than a small rock. I understood his pain.
The trauma of that day on the nation was clear and the trauma on those who responded and helped in the cleanup of the site is immeasurable. Recently there has been a spate of First Responder suicides and I can tell you first hand that I know what these people have been through. September 11, 2001 was a bad day for the Nation, the Police and Fire Service. We as a nation should never forget the heroism of that day. So many people gave there all, and this includes the people who helped others get out of those towers. We are a nation of heroes.
From the perspective of a career firefighter (not discounting the Port Authority Police and NYPD who perished) the 343 firefighters who died on September 11, 2001 while being paid professionals put themselves in harms was to save others. Each and every one of them knew the danger and ignored it to save as many lives as possible. Pay or no pay there is no higher calling.
For me, September 11, 2001 was not a sign of weakness in this nation. It was the resurrection of the spirit of sacrifice for others that gave birth to this nation. Sadly that spirit slipped out of some people’s minds as time wore on. The defense and protection of this country is the responsibility of each of us. God Bless the United States of America.