I’ve asked myself that question thousands of times since the attacks on our Nation back in 2001. My dad, Rhett (The FireCritic), Todd “Boots” Harris and myself recently sat down for an interview with Roanoke Times reporter Jorge Valencia. It was a GREAT interview and I hope he realizes what he was able to capture on his recorder.
We sat around a table at The Second Alarm, a bar that Boots and his dad (also retired from Roanoke Fire Department) has owned and operated for over 30 years. As most firemen are, we were slow and hesitant to talk at first but, after we got started; we totally forgot Jorge was even at the table. A lot of what he head was fireman to fireman. Brother to brother and Father to son.
Dad called me that morning in 2001 and said for me to get to our shop asap. We stood together, in horror, attached to our small TV for days. We didn’t talk much … we didn’t have to. We knew what the other was thinking … we were sharing it together. We tried to explain to Jorge that what made it so bad was the fact that we had the “inside scoop”. He knew (or at least had an idea of) what our FDNY Brothers were facing. When the first tower fell, dad simply said in a crackled voice ” we just lost a bunch of firemen “.
It didn’t need spoken, I think he was thinking out loud while his mind was trying to equate what we had just witnessed. I knew all too well what that collapse meant and said a silent prayer that that our brothers had went quick and painless.
I had been to NYC several times. It started with good friend and Brother Captain Todd Stone. We went together for St. Patrick’s Day and had the honor of riding Rescue 4 in Queens. Following that trip, I returned every year. That’s when I got to ride with Rescue 1 in Manhattan and when I met Joey Angelini ( I would later make my stays at 39/16). Joey made a huge impression on me.
Visitors and guest to a firehouse is a “work detail” of sorts. Someone needs to be assigned to show them around … answer the questions etc. In a smaller Department it’s not such a big deal. The FDNY is swamped with visitors, guest and “buffs”. Typically, the fireman on “watch”, the rookie or less senior man would be assigned to a visitor. After I explained that both my father and I were on the job (in the same Department) back in Va, Joey stepped in. He didn’t have to and it wasn’t expected. Joey was the most senior man in the FDNY. He was also the oldest “in company” and he was on the busiest rig in the city … RESCUE 1 … the elite of the ELITE.
I stuck to him like glue for the entire tour. We caught a bunch of runs and made it to 4 fires that day. It was an awesome experience. Joey spoke of his son, Joey Jr. I could see the pride in his face and hear it in his voice. It was then that I realized how my dad must feel. How I hoped he felt anyway. I wondered about Joey Jr and if he was as proud of his father as I was of mine. Back in “The Noke”, my dad was known as one of, if not THE best firemen on the job. At a minimum, he had the reputation of being a good fireman .. a “good Jake”.
Anyway, I knew Brothers on the job in FDNY. Knew their faces and names. After watching the towers collapse, I knew I had to go. I didn’t know what I could / would do but it had to be better than standing there, watching on TV. Dad stopped me. He didn’t tell me not to go, he simply reminded me that we had a job to do here as well. I had just made Captain and was assigned to the busiest house here in our City. He told me to get my crew in order. To make sure they were all ok and “ready” for whatever may come next. We were under attack and had no idea of what (or where) was coming next. He was right. I called up to 39/16 the following day and they told me not to come. They were swamped with firemen and 1st responders. The massive influx of personnel was only adding to the chaos. It was difficult for me to be here and watch as everything unfolded in New York and DC. but I stayed. That was my job.
I’m not sure what Jorge was looking for in his interview. I think he was wondering how the Fire Department (and it’s firemen) has changed since 9/11. It ended up being a “round table” between several good firemen. I’m not so sure he would have wanted my “take” on how we’ve changed. Are we better or worse? That’s the question everyone else is asking.
I think we’ve made some great steps forward but at the same time feel as if we are no better off today then we were on September 10, 2011. In the days, weeks and months following 9/11, the Fire Service as a whole received some much needed validation. For years, we were looked at as overpaid workers who spent all day playing cards, pulling practical jokes and sleeping. Nobody realized what we actually do. Social Media and all these other outlets were unheard of and nobody was there to tell our stories or promote our profession.
On 9/11, we were front page. Firefighters were front page of every newspaper and the lead story of every news cast. The world got a close up, first hand view of why we are on the job and what we do. We lost 343 Brothers from the FDNY that day and as bad as it sounds, it was almost a kind of validation for our job. Firemen across this Country will give their lives to save others…. people we have never meet and don’t even know. Any one of those 343 could have turned and ran. They could have found a reason to “hang back”. THEY DIDN’T ! They kept climbing. They pushed in and up knowing what we all did … this wasn’t going to have a good ending. That’s why we (the Fire Service) say “Well Done” to our fallen…. they’ve done their job and they did it well.
I never understood as a child that every time Dad went to the firehouse that he may not have returned. Not until I got on the job and realized how many times he must have came close to that realization. I don’t think my children ever really knew. I’m not sure they know now.
In my opinion, it all faded too quickly. People aren’t shaking our hands at the grocery store any more. We didn’t have 20 visitors to the station last week. Folks don’t just stop by to say “Thanks”. Today, much like pre-9/11; the Fire Service is faced with budget issues, under staffing, station closures etc. I guess for some, it may be a comfort to know that it only took less than 10 years to forget. For me, it’s heart breaking!
In the last week or so, memories have been awakened. We’ve had visitors, folks wanting to take pictures and conduct interviews. Ceremonies and services have been planned and all the politicians will be there. Arms around firemen or survivors waving the flag of we haven’t forgotten. Where were you last year? How about the year before? Back when we were fighting for that pay raise that we haven’t seen in 4 years? When we warned against and was fighting the closing and consolidation of 2 of the busiest stations in the City? Why were you not looking for photo ops when we were battling staffing cuts? I would be happier had we not received any of the accolades we did following 9/11. I would have much rather kept working and fighting “status quo” . That would have been better than receiving all that we did just to see it taken away years later. It would have been easier to have kept working “without” rather than “loosing” what we had gained ….easier to swallow anyway.
I’m not sure about the public but I do think that our politicians have forgotten. Our Brothers?? Firefighters ??? NEVER! We can / will NEVER FORGET. We live it everyday. I do. Not a day goes by that I don’t think back to September 11, 2001 and the sacrifices made that day. And, despite all the political issues etc. I still stand ready to do my job… willing to lay down my life for yours.
None of this made Jorge’s article. Instead, he focused on another aspect of the conversation …. how we honor and remember the fallen. Rhett and I have been participating in 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs. To date, we have completed 2 climbs ( Baltimore and Atlanta). Tomorrow, we will make our 3rd in Greenbelt, Md !
These climbs are beyond description as far as I’m concerned. I have described it several times as “spiritual” and, for me; it is. Tomorrow’s climb will be so much more. MY DAD WILL BE CLIMBING WITH US! I get emotional just thinking about it …. after 30 years on the job, 6 years retired, my dad (Pop) will climb 110 stories in memory and honor of those 343. As I do with for him, I also think that in part, he’s climbing for me. For those of us left to finish “the climb”. The climb of the Fire Service … of our profession … our calling.
Our climbs benefit the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation. Registration fees and money raised go towards supporting the families of our fallen. Not just those lost on 9/11 but every fireman who was died in the line of duty. It’s the least we can do! If you’ve never attended the Memorial weekend services in Emmitsburg, Md…. YOU SHOULD! Make plans now to attend this October. Visit the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation web site for complete details of stair climbs and the Memorial weekend.
I think the above links are some of the best posts Rhett (FireCritic) and I have ever made. They are heart felt, open and honest. If you haven’t taken the time to read them .. please do. I hope you’ll find in our words what we did in those stairwells.
There are several more things that will make our climb tomorrow special. One is that our families (or part of them anyway) will be there. A firefighters family often times sacrifices as much as the fireman himself. I can’t tell you how many ball games, practices etc that I’ve missed because of the job. My wife … well just let me say that there should be a special place in heaven reserved just for her. To have put up with me, my schedule and this job for 25 yrs is an achievement in it’s self. I love her more than words can say (more than I’ve ever been able to tell or show her) and tomorrow she will share in my climb. She will be there watching…cheering … and I’m sure reflecting on her experiences / losses as a firefighter’s wife. My daughters, Randi-Jo and Reba will also be there along with the Buckaroo. Rhett’s wife and daughter will not be able to make it up but his son, Preston aka “Big P” is making the journey with us! What and HONOR and BLESSING to have such wonderful families.
Another cool thing is that Rhett and I have helped coordinate a special “gift” for the members climbing in Greenbelt tomorrow. Zach Green of FoxFire and MN8 Products has made a limited edition, one time ONLY; commemorative Helmet Band for the climbers. The bands will be numbered 1-343 “of” 343 and will be given to each climber! WOW !!!! What an awesome gift! These bands along with the many other “illuminating” products offered my FoxFire and MN8 are changing the way we fight fire. Their products will SAVE FIREMEN”S LIVES. If you’re not familiar with or have never heard of FoxFire, CLICK THE LINK ABOVE … your life is WORTH it!
I speak with Zach often and in our last conversation last night, he became emotional. He cried. He can’t make the Greenbelt climb but wanted to make sure that everyone there knew that he wanted to be and that he would be with us in spirit. The Helmet Band give donation is him wanting to keep the rest of us safe. He wanted nothing more than to be there in person to hand out the band and shake the hands of those climbing in honor and memory of the 343. He would have then geared up and climbed right beside us! Zach is an AWESOME person. A friend, a Brother and a Fire Service Innovator! Special thanks to Zach Green, the NFFF and everyone involved in the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs across the Country!
So there ys have it …. I still don’t know why I’m here. I guess it’s because I (and we) still have work to do. I will do my duty every day to the best of my ability. When not on the job, I will do my best to help support and promote those before me. Tomorrow, my task will be to honor and remember those who have paved my way. I will do so with my best friend, my father, friends and family. I WILL NOT MISS A SINGLE STEP !