Twenty two years ago today. I still remember that morning in more detail than all but of a few of the mornings that have come since. The sky was a beautiful blue, the sun was warm, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A typical Central Florida day. My shift, C shift, had just started our 24 hour workday.
I was driving Engine 2 that morning. Dennis was riding in the seat next to me as the Lieutenant, and Justin was the back seat firefighter. Our shift had begun at 7:30 that morning as it always did. We did our morning routine as we always do. At 8:30, we left the station to do annual flow testing of fire hydrants.
By 8:45, we were behind the Winn Dixie and just about to test our first hydrant. Our Battalion Chief called us and told us to return to the station and turn on the TV. I remember jokingly asking Dennis who the guy on the radio was and what they had done to the Chief, since he would never tell us to watch TV during the workday.
We arrived back in the station just in time to see the second plane hit the south tower. I remember watching Fox news and seeing them switch to the DC bureau, where reporters said they could see a column of smoke. Things were happening so fast, I couldn’t figure out what that smoke was coming from. I commented “There is no way that the smoke from NYC is visible in Washington.” It was then that a fellow firefighter told me that the Pentagon had been hit.
The chief called us to disclose the plans for the remainder of the day. While I was on the phone with him, the first tower fell. The chief said to me, “Oh my God. 30,000 people just died.” I remember being stunned that so many people could be in a building.
By noon, we had an armed SWAT officer with an MP-5 riding along with us on all of our calls “for security.”
For weeks, we firefighters were stunned at the loss of 343 firefighters. I felt a sense of awe and respect for the guys who went into that second tower after watching the first tower fall. They went into that building knowing that they would never come out of the second tower. What was going through their minds? I asked myself if I was capable of making the same choice if I knew that I would not come out?
We all wanted to be able to say yes. It isn’t the same thing when you go into an ordinary fire. Firefighters are a cocky, professional bunch. When we run into a burning building, we tell ourselves that we are trained and experienced enough that it will not happen to us. Not so with those guys in the towers. They went in KNOWING that they wouldn’t come out. That is a time that you don’t know what you would do until the moment of truth comes.
I just hoped that I would have the fortitude to make the choice that needed to be made, to have the courage to choose duty and honor over self preservation and the fortune to never be placed in that position. I hoped that I would never have to make that choice.
I spent the majority of my adult life in one uniform or another, dedicated to the protection of American lives and values. I spent six years in the Navy, doing two combat tours in the Persian gulf. I wasn’t a big hero or anything. I, like millions of others, did my job. After that, I spent two decades in a firefighter’s uniform. In that time, I ran into hundreds of burning buildings, jumped into a dozen lakes, thousands of medical scenes, and traveled to 22 natural disasters. I was injured three times in the line of duty. I saw a couple of thousand dead bodies, dozens of shootings and stabbings, and saved more than a few lives.
In 2011, I retired. I had seen enough death, misery, and blood for one lifetime. I thought that the time of risking life and limb for the good of this nation and its people was over. I had given enough. I deserved to be left alone to grow old and enjoy the rest of my life in as much peace as I could manage.
All I want is to be left alone to grow old in peace. The events of the past two and a half years make me believe that this won’t happen. I fear that I may have to make that choice after all.