10 years. So much happens in your life in 10 years, it’s hard to put it into quantitive terms sometimes. Think about it; what has happened to you? Did you graduate college, get married, start a family? For 343 of my brothers in New York, these things didn’t happen in the last 10 years, because they showed the supreme courage that firefighters all have.
This is my 9/11 story.
In the spirt of full disclosure, what you are about to read is something I’ve never talked about; not with my wife, my family, no one. Public servants are trained that when you see or experience something horrible, you don’t show any emotion; you bottle it up, and deal with it later.
Well, it’s later.
In June of 2001, I decided to become a fireman; my cousin Jon, who had just finished his police academy, talked me into it. I liked the idea of serving my community, and helping people, but wasn’t real big on being shot at. Fire seemed pretty safe; I mean, hell, all that gear, lots of training, no biggie. So I joined Kent City Fire, a small volunteer department in northern Kent county. It’s your typical small town department, with lots of legacy members, lots of tradition, and not a ton of calls.
In deciding that I wanted the best training, mainly because this sounded like a great career choice for me, I enrolled in the fire academy at Lansing Community College. We started the last week of August, 2001, and quickly began to gel as a group. The guys were fun, the training was exciting, and we got to wear some pretty cool uniforms to class. When I woke up on a tuesday morning, September 11th, and headed for our training tower, I had no idea how much different things would be when I got back to my apartment.
Class started at 8am, and by now we were starting to get into the meat of the program; we knew how to use our gear, and knew some basic techniques. Today’s lesson would be ladders; how to use them, where to place them, and how not to fall-pretty simple stuff. Around 9am, we stared hearing a lot of commotion coming from the command office where the battalion chiefs were having their weekly meeting. A plane had just hit the world trade center. Wow. Ok, well, it’s the FDNY, the world’s best. No sweat, class resumes. All of a sudden, people are running from the command center, jumping in their Tahoe’s, and screaming out, lights and sirens running. A second plane hit, and we were officially under attack. We all just kinda stood there for a minute, just going through the motions. We were all trying to process what was happening. Then, the next word from the TV; One World Trade had collapsed; we knew there must have been hundreds of guys inside when it came down; everyone stopped. One of our instructors, Captain Baker, told us we could head home, and told us to pray. What happened next, I believe, is when we became brothers, and when the bond was forged not just with us, but will all the guys in New York.
Gil Torres, a guy in our group, asked everyone if we would join him in prayer. Without a word, we all hit our knees, turnout gear and air packs still on, and joined hands. Gilbert prayed for the guys in New York, for the people on the planes, and for our troops who would soon be fighting this new enemy. We all prayed with him, because at that moment we began to know, began to realize a new, chilling fact.
That could have been us. All of us. Together. Gone.
The next couple of days were a blur, it seemed. We went to class, we continued to train, but with heavy hearts, and a lot on our minds. People looked at us differently on campus; they stepped aside, or just stared. I mean, how crazy were we? We had just watched 343 guys die on the job, and here we were, training to do the exact same thing.
Thursday morning is when it really hit me what had happened. I was heading east on Michigan Ave towards the capitol, and LCC. Stopped at a light, I noticed the bright sunshine just rising over the capitol dome, and there was the American Flag, flying in all it’s glory. As fate would have it, the radio began to play “God Bless the USA”, and it hit me; all the emotion, all the anger, all the sadness. As the light turned green, I tried to pull myself together, and noticed something that was strangely reassuring; the guy in the car next to me was crying too. For that moment, I realized that it was ok, everyone was hurting, scared, and angry. Someone had sucker punched us, but we weren’t going down without a fight.
Since that day, a lot has happened. There have been memorials, parades, and services. Publicly, we remember that day every September, and sadly, that’s the only day I think a lot of folks think about it. For those of us that are part of the brotherhood, we remember them everyday. I think about those guys every time I go into a fire, or respond to a wreck, or a medical call. I remember their courage, and their sacrifice, and sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if more people did as well.