I know I told you last night that I’d be posting about how I regained my status as a man, and I will, but not today. Today, on the eighth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country, I’d like to stop and pay tribute. Most of us can well remember where we were and what we were doing during those tragic moments; it’s the JFK assassination denominator of my generation – “where were you when the attacks occurred / when JFK was shot?”
I was a rookie fireman on duty at Old Fire Station 1 when the terrorists began their murderous rampage. Of all the moments that day, I most clearly remember standing behind one of the beat up old recliners leaning forward to see and hear what was happening on our crappy old television. I remember watching the long lines of firefighters heading up into the buildings and thinking to myself “what a hellacious scene to be walking into”. And, as the towers came crashing down, in that very moment, I remember vividly thinking “all those brothers just died. I just watched them die. Right there”. I was left hollow for a moment, followed by overwhelming sorrow; enough sorrow to feel the tears come down my cheeks, sad at the thought of so many virtual strangers dying right in front of the nations eyes.
I use the word virtual, because there is a common link to firefighters around the world forged in tradition and brotherhood. So, although I personally know none of the twelve thousand-plus members of the FDNY, there is an occupational bond there that is so subtle as to be almost unnoticed by the outside world; the loss of 343 in one day is emotionally staggering, even from thousands of miles away. It’s like you just lost an entire clan of cousins who you don’t really know all that well, you just know you’re related. The sadness was tinged by the knowledge that those guys must have known they were walking into a death trap of a situation. I wasn’t there – I can’t say WHAT they knew; but even if they were aware of the enormity of the situation and the inevitable results, I doubt that any of them would have turned around.
When you accept the responsibility of being a firefighter (or a cop, or a member of the armed forces), you always know what you’re signing up to do. You accept the prospect of dangerous potential, the standards that you’ll be held to, the very trust that is placed in you by the public. You accept these duties because deep down you WANT to help, you WANT to be the guy people turn to when it hits the fan, you WANT to feel the thrill of adrenaline as you kick the door in and the smoke pours out. But what you DON”T want is to die. Nobody but martyrs and freaky zealots seek death in any of our actions. Like the chance of getting hit walking through a crosswalk, you just assume that there’s always a random possibility that it may be your last run when the bells strike. If you dwell on it more than that, you’ll go mad with anxiety over something that has a good chance of never happening. And so another shift is logged in the books.
Except that it wasn’t for these guys, and it wasn’t for the rest of the firefighting world, either. That so many innocent people had to die in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon that day is not lost on anyone. But when I cried with the rest of our nation that day, I was lamenting the lives of so many of the brotherhood snatched away from their families and loved ones. That’s 343 dads, brothers, cousins, and neighbors wiped out by an insane act of cowardice. All these years later it’s no less overwhelming to tally the losses in my head. The tears are long gone, the anger replaced with a sense of routine structure /chaos and another eight years worth of shifts to show for it. But I’ve never forgotten the sadness I felt as so many of my kind perished one fall morning. I have the utmost respect for those true heroes who died on September 11th and even more so for the brave souls who had to report to the FDNY firehouses for the next shift.
Eight years to the day, and here I am again in a fire station. The call load is normal for us here on Truck 2, the guys are busting each others chops over meals, and outside of a History Channel Sept.11th marathon, it’s no different than any other day at the firehouse. That’s as it should be – we all have jobs to do and lives to live. Just the same, today the specter of that day lingers in my mind, in our collective consciousness, and I hope it always does; we should never forget the loss of life nor the spectacular sacrifices made that day. So, if you think of it, take a moment to remember those we’ve lost; that much respect they deserve.