September 11, 2001, 0845 hrs. It is a day that has forever changed us as a nation. A day that our generation will be able to tell our children and grandchildren exactly what we were doing and where we were when we first heard the news.
I was sitting at my dispatch console sending police officers on routine calls and catching snippets of news in between. A friend called me just as Bryant Gumbel appeared on the screen, his face was unnaturally pale. A plane had struck the World Trade Center.
My boss,a pioneer among women firefighters, who set the stage for women like me to follow, came in and we began discussing the tactics of fighting a fire such as this. We were still discussing it when the second plane struck. It was not long after that, the towers that could not fall, collapsed. As I watched the first one fall, I could only think of how Beth and I had just discussed the fact that FDNY would be staged at the bottom of the towers. They always staged at the bottom, just outside the towers, that like the Titanic, could not fall.
Over 300 firefighters and police officers lost their lives in a matter of seconds, and I was forever changed because of it.
I had to continue with my job, as emergencies do not stop no matter what is happening. But in my heart, I was grieving for my fallen brothers. I wanted to go there and help them. Whether to carry rocks from the pile or just to pat them on the back and hand them some water, I wanted to be there. I knew, realistically, I would never be able to go, but that did not make my "need' to go any less. I am a helper by nature and by profession. I have spent my entire adult life - 17 years - training to help. To not be able to help is simply unfathomable.
Many of my friends went to NYC and have brought a variety of experiences back with them. The past few days, I have finally had the opportunity to speak to them about it.
I sat in an auditorium and listened to members of Ohio Task Force 1, Miami Valley Urban Search and Rescue Team share their experiences in NYC. This unique team of 160 men, women, and dogs was on the scene in about 18 hours post-attack.
They are a specialized team that was sent to help find victims and quickly shifted to the task of recovering bodies. They worked alongside the incredible members of the FDNY as they searched for their fallen brothers amidst the unstable wreckage. Working with no sleep in unsafe conditions, this team forged ahead for 9 days. They stood side-by-side with NYPD and the Port Authority Police members until they dropped from exhaustion.
Task Force 1 returned to Ohio to find emergency vehicles lined up along the interstate, literally at the Ohio border. Firefighters, EMTs, Police, State Patrol, DeputiesÉall lined up outside their vehicles to salute the men, women and dogs of Task Force 1. In Columbus, truckers pulled their rigs off the road and cleared a path for the caravan of vehicles that carried 72 members of Task Force 1 home.
Every bridge they passed had emergency vehicles there to salute them. But it was when they passed under the crossed aerials that the emotional toll finally hit them. Crossed aerials, displaying the American flag, is an honor reserved for the funerals of fallen firefighters. It was an honor that several local agencies bestowed upon Task Force One. For a firefighter, it is the ultimate honor.
Tonight I sat in a room and listened to the words of the members of Task Force 1, their pictures and stories bringing tears to my eyes. As they played a video tribute to the fallen heroes of NYC to the tune of Leigh Greenwood's "God Bless the USA", I found myself watching a man sitting in front of me. He is someone I've known since we were 12 years old. In those 23 years, I've never seen him cry. He was there in NYC in the days following 9-11. It was the first time in 23 years we had shared such an incredible experience.
I sat in a room full of heroes tonight. Some went to NYC to help, others - like me - stayed behind to handle the emergencies that will never stop. I was humbled to be in the presence of these heroes. Humbled, proud, and grateful to call them my brothers and sisters. Tonight, I was counted among them. Tonight, I was counted as a hero.
© Patty Schramm 2002