On September 11, 2001, 343 members of the New York City Fire Department were killed while attempting to rescue thousands of office workers trapped in the burning Twin Towers. According to the 911 Commission report, this was "the largest loss of life of any emergency response agency in history."
They were the first boots on the ground in the War on Terror.
The FDNY sent fully half its firefighters- 200 units - to the scene, and they were soon joined by other firefighters who, quite simply, sent themselves:
"By 9:15, the number of FDNY personnel en route to or present at the scene was far greater than the commanding chiefs at the scene had requested...while the second fifth alarm had called for 20 engine and 8 ladder companies, in fact 23 engine and 13 ladder companies were dispatched. Second, several units self-dispatched. Third, because the attacks came so close to the 9:00 shift change, many firefighters just going off duty were given permission by company officers to "ride heavy" and became part of those on-duty teams...Fourth, many off-duty firefighters responded from firehouses separately from the on-duty unit...or from home." (911 Commission Report)
Firefighters began climbing the stairs of the North Tower at 8:57.
According to Division Chief for Lower Manhattan Peter Hayden, "We had a very strong sense we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble, but we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, and we had to try to rescue them."(911 Commission Report)
We civilians take this kind of selfless determination on the part of firefighters for granted. It is our luxury, our security blanket. It's like a vital but invisible piece of lifesaving equipment:
"In ascending stairwell B, firefighters were passing a steady and heavy stream of descending civilians. Firemen were impressed with the composure and total lack of panic shown by almost all civilians. Many civilians were in awe of the firefighters and found their mere presence to be calming."(911 Commission Report)
One of those civilians, John Labriola, snapped this photo:
This firefighter, Mike Kehoe, would surive that day. So did Lieutenant Michael Stein, who later wrote in Time Magazine:
"I think what firefighters have that most people don't see is a calmness. They are calm when there's a catastrophe. Where other people would panic and run, they focus and see what they have to do to make a bad situation better. I was a fireman for 25 years so I saw a lot of destruction — nothing to that degree, but you really try to stay focused on what you've got to do. That's what we did then. We just did our jobs."
Stein was forced to retire from the FDNY in 2002. Like many of the firefighters, EMTs and police who responded to the Twin Towers that day and who stayed on to sift through "the pile" after the Towers collapsed, searching for survivors, Stein developed crippling lung disease.
By January 2002, 300 firefighters would be placed on leave for ailments that came to be called "Trade Center Cough." By January 2006, Mt. Sinai Hospital was treating 1600 patients with lung disease blamed on Trade Center Cough.
Even emerging from those towers in one piece was no guarantee of survival.
For many civilians, 911 was the ultimate- and heartbreaking- confirmation of their image of the firefighter: selfless, determined, brave. No situation too dangerous to approach, no life too small to save:
Yet when they take off their uniforms, they can pass unnoticed in a crowd- proof that extraordinary spirits can exist in ordinary people.
For many adults, adrift in an unstable world, unable to believe in a God or trust their political leaders, the icon of the firefighter is one enduring expression of their childhood's faith. It's one of the few things they are still willing to believe in.
That's nearly as big a gift as the lives those firefighters save.
Let us honor that today.