“Never Forget” we’ve all grown accustomed to associating that expression with 9/11 and the World Trade Center Attacks. I suppose, to those of us working in the fire service then, it seems like it was yesterday but it’s dawned on me. It’s been 17 years since the attacks. Forget? We’ve got firefighters working now that have no frame of reference to remember that day, those weeks and months that followed. Some of them were only 2 or 3 years old on September 11, 2001. It won’t be long before we’ve got new firefighters who weren’t even born by that date.
This is my tribute, of sorts, to September 11 but it’s more. I hope it will be something which will help the young men and women in the stations, who were children at the time, grasp why the day is so significant to us as firefighters and why they should “Never Forget”.
I walked into, what was then, Cosmo’s Fitness on Shallowford Road in Marietta between 0845 and 0900 on September 11, 2001. P.J. was working the front desk and I always cut up with her. When I slide my card, I looked up at the television. The first tower had already been hit but I was unaware. Black smoke was billowing from the first tower and was obscuring the second tower. Because of that it looked like a single high-rise to me.
“Dog! Somebody has a working high-rise job!” I said. P.J looked at me sideways “That’s the World Trade Center. A jetliner just crashed into it!” Shocked I said “Seriously?! They’ve got their hands full for sure…”
With that little exchange I went on to my workout. I was a few sets into it, glancing up at the televisions to see if the black smoke was turning white yet, it wasn’t. Just as I finished a set P.J. hollered at me from behind the desk
“Another plane just hit the second tower!”
That changed everything in all of our minds. What had been a terribly tragic accident was now an attack on our country and worse. It was an attack on our civilian population.
Looking back, it seems odd, but I just kept working out. My psyche changed and I remember doing a lot of deep thinking about what was going to happen now as I lifted. It’s like a lot of really serious things go though your mind. It takes awhile for your brain to digest them, for the realization to affect your emotions. It was like that. I didn’t really know what all of this was going to mean for our country so, I remained on auto pilot as I pondered it.
I had no idea yet what it was going to mean for the fire service and the lost firefighters we would have that day either.
I kept my eye on the televisions in the gym. I don’t suppose any of us anticipated what would eventually happen to the towers. I mean, it’s FDNY, heroes to the heroes. I kept thinking that, at some point, I’d look up at the screen and see the smoke starting to turn white. Instead I watched the South Tower pancake collapse. I assumed correctly plenty of brothers were still inside. By the end of the day we’d know there were hundreds
The 9/11 Attacks affected the entire country but it hit first responders especially hard. On some level we could all imagine “being there” and, as I said earlier, these were our heroes.
I watched a video the other day from a news site. There was an LPG fire somewhere in New York and FDNY companies were boarding a ferry to go help fight it. Dozens of New York’s Bravest lined up on the dock in various degrees of being bunkered out. Most carried at least a couple of rolls of 2 ½”. Some carried full high-rise packs and some carried extra SCBA bottles. But what makes the rest of us look up to them was their demeanor. They all boarded the ferry like they were headed to a Sunday picnic. And these were the guys that were lost on 9/11.
They say that there are five steps to the grieving process. I’ve learned that each of us grieves differently. Few of us take the steps in order. Some skip steps. Some experience one step more intensely than another step. Some of us think we’re done with one step only to find ourselves repeating it over and over.
Speaking for myself, this is how I remember the steps.
1. Denial and Isolation
Personally, for a least a few days I was in shock. Shock is a word that is used so much that it is cliché. Numb is probably more accurate. Where will our country go from here? Are we going to war? With who? How is FDNY going to recover. Are they going to find anybody alive in the rubble? Should I try to go help? Will our department send anybody?
I think we had so much going through our minds, so many questions, that we didn’t really know how to feel or what to do for several days.
So, we did what Americans always do. We took up money. My first shift back at the station, probably my first few shifts, we passed the boot, literally, for hours. We stood in front of any place that would let us like Home Depot, and WalMart, and Chik-Fil-A and Kroger. Thanks for nothing Publix. We even got permission to pass the boot at a bar in East Cobb which would have been taboo previously. When we had already passed the boot all day one shift, Quick Trip said we could pass it there. So, we loaded up Engine 14 at 2300hrs and went down there until 0100. We’d have probably stood out there all night if it hadn’t gotten too slow to be productive.
Another thing we did was giving blood. The Red Cross had people lined up out the door and down the street and that is no exaggeration…down the street! As a country we were so hopeful that there would be survivors. As firefighters we hoped the same but we all hoped in vain. Eventually the Red Cross even issued as statement, as well as I remember, saying they had all the blood they needed.
That was a softer blow than saying there was nobody alive to give it to.
Depression is a step that is listed too but sadness and grief better describe what I felt. My sadness was short lived but intense.
Several days after the attacks, when the reality started sinking in, I remember laying down one afternoon and trying to relate to what FDNY was going through as a department and what the individual firefighters were going through.
I thought to myself “What if one of the (our department’s )Overlook Buildings had been hit?” and then I started counting up my friends who would have been there. “We’ll let’s see. It was A-Shift so…” and I started listing who was working at Station 5, at Station 4, at Station 19, at 3, at 21, at 20, 14, 7, 2, the command staff that would be responding and be in the Fire Control Room.
With each friend I realized would be lost, brother or sister, the reality and sadness hit closer and closer to home. Can you imagine losing 50 brothers in a single event? I thought of the great cooks they lost, and the practical jokers, and the leaders, and the experience. It eventually overwhelmed me. I cried for those guys up there. I cried one of those cries that is so intense your stomach starts to hurt and your eyes flow heavy, and get red, and puff up.
And then I stopped crying and didn’t cry anymore.
My sadness changed after this. It didn’t change to anger. It changed to rage.
What kind of barbarian crashes jet liners full of civilians into office buildings full of more civilians? What sort of soulless mongrel kills 343 firefighters who are simply trying to save those innocent people? These are the thoughts I ruminated on and it filled me with rage because, to me, there was absolutely no justification. There still isn’t.
For many of us the rage simmered under a film, maybe for some a façade, of patriotism. We had a renewed love for our country. Hard to believe when we look at how much so many hate our country today and how divided it is.
We flew flags behind our trucks and from our houses. The public, already loved firefighters, but we instantly became heroes because of the sacrifice of the guys at FDNY. We deserved it but not to the degree they did and not at the cost it came with.
Rage and patriotism? I remember driving down the road one afternoon when a thunderstorm came up. The rain had just started to come down really hard, in those marble-sized drops that sting a little when they hit you. The sky was dark and the thunder was rumbling.
I passed by a Chevron station with the flag out in the rain. I didn’t need fuel but I made a U-turn and went back to the station. I took the flag down and headed inside.
Honestly, I didn’t think about the possibility of the station being owned or run by middle eastern men until I walked in. The guy behind the counter looked at me a little puzzled. I stood there wet and holding his flag.
“The flag comes in when it starts raining.”
“The flag…the FLAG! When it rains you bring the flag inside!”
Some guy in military fatigues outside thanked me…said that “needed to be said”
I don’t know if it accomplished anything positive but I was venting my rage. I felt better anyway.
Bargaining is one of the first steps listed but the application was different in this situation.
Normally bargaining goes something like this;
DOCTOR: “We’ve found cancer and its extensive, inoperable, and terminal. “I’m sorry.”
PATIENT: “God…please…I’ll do anything if You take this away.”
This was different. There was no bargaining. What was done had been done. It was over. There was no changing it. The question now was; what are we going to do about it?
Keep in mind that, at this point, the country still didn’t know who was responsible for the attack. We knew it was radical Islam but from what country? Would we invade somebody? Would President Bush implement the draft?
At 36 years of age I wouldn’t have to worry about the draft but, if we went on some kind of conventional war, I wanted to know my options for serving. I pondered it and wound up visiting a NAVY recruiter who gave me three options;
Serve as a medic and chase Marines all over the mountains of Afghanistan or some Middle Eastern dessert.
Be a firefighter on a ship or air base
Train firefighters back home
It never got to a point where I had to make that decision. It seems that dropping “Daisey Cutters” was a better option in the 21st Century.
Within a few weeks things started to settle in. Things wouldn’t be “normal” for a long, long time but the numbness, grief and rage began to wear off.
I remember the first sign that this was happening. It was about 0100 and I was at home. A sound that I had grown unaccustomed to woke me up. It was a jetliner flying over the house. I could barley hear it but it had been a long time since I’d heard that sound at all. The FAA had suspended all flights for quite a while.
The following September 11th I was on duty. I showed up at old Cobb Station #14 around 0630. It was still dark. Unfamiliar cars were in the parking lot. I had to wait to get in.
When I did get in I noticed the base of the flag pole. It was covered. Covered with cakes, with flowers, with cards, with brownies and cookies. We, at little old Station 14, were reaping the benefits of the sacrifices that 343 of our brothers gave in New York. We got brownies because they climbed hundreds of steps in full gear, carrying hose, carrying extra bottles and walking sideways so stockbrokers and soccer moms could get past them on the way to safety.
It still doesn’t seem right that they paid the price and we got the brownies.
I wish I could end on a more positive note when I say that things are back to normal now. The shock has worn off. Firefighters are still appreciated but not elevated as much anymore. For a time there we weren’t expendable but, for too many, we are once again. Our politicians fight again and sabotage each other’s plans at the public’s expense again. By and large, the patriotism that those attacks brought is either gone or, unbelievably, has been replaced by disdain for our country.
But you…YOU…can refuse to forget, even if you were too young to remember.
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