Like the greatest generation of World War II, young men and women who served and died under our nation’s flag, as well as those who served and sacrificed in Korea and Vietnam, firefighters and first responders across our nation joined them in becoming “ordinary” men and women doing the extraordinary when they put their lives on the line after the unthinkable events of that sunny, Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
When the first plane struck, the very fabric of our civilized society was hit, and first responders across NYC and within the Twin Towers themselves went to work, directing fellow citizens down passable stairways. FDNY and NYPD members reached upper floors of the towers in minutes and led innocent civilians to the safety of the ground below; commanders made gut-wrenching life-or-death decisions; and medics set up triage areas while the United States Coast Guard New York sector organized and directed all available civilian boats to assist in evacuating Lower Manhattan. Although off duty that morning, like every other FDNY member I know, when I saw it on television, I immediately, without hesitation, headed into New York City to do my part.
The late President Harry S. Truman said, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” That morning, so many did the job at hand. In the span of 106 minutes, they conducted the largest search, rescue, and land and sea evacuation ever undertaken on American soil. In total, more than 25,000 civilians were rescued and evacuated from the World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan.
The cost would be unthinkable: 37 Port Authority police officers, 23 New York City police officers, and 343 New York City firefighters would give their lives at the altar of freedom saving their fellow citizens. The unthinkable loss of the human life of innocent civilians just going about their workday left scars, emotions, and sorrow that will never heal.
In the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months after 10:06 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, America mobilized itself in a way perhaps not seen since World War II. Thousands of our countrymen and first responders across every spectrum of our society responded and took part in the rescue and recovery operation.
Day and night, around the clock, during the cold months from fall 2001 through winter 2002, responders, construction workers, engineers, medical professionals, clergy, and so many others worked in the most dangerous and challenging conditions ever undertaken to find their fellow citizens and to bring closure and comfort to so many suffering families.
Thousands of military servicemen and women of every branch of our armed forces responded, both at home and abroad, to confront a new and ever-changing dangerous world of cowards who wished to harm American democracy. We owe our veterans a debt which can never be repaid.
In those days and months during the rescue and recovery operation, few could envision—or care, for that matter—about the ravaging health effects that would face so many in a few short years, with no end in sight. Too many would begin an unwanted journey where they needed to fight for health care for themselves and others afflicted with such horrible medical issues as a result of their service, their dedication, and their incredible human spirit to the rescue and recovery operation. Many would fight for these important issues of 9/11 responder health care until their last dying breath. This is a testament to who they were and equally important to who we are and why we must never forget.
For so many, Sept. 11, 2001, is every day, and no day erases the memory of time. As the 20th anniversary approaches and passes, there will be many tributes to those lost. However, the smallest acts of remembrance are of acknowledging a family member of someone lost that day. Even simply thinking of or calling to check in on a responder, a fallen military service member who gave their lives to the war on terror, a veteran who has served our nation, or a responder who died because of the health effects, may be the simplest gesture and most important act of remembrance.
It will always be there for those families, and these small acts touch the soul and spirit of who we are as Americans.
May God continue to watch over and bless our military, our first responders across our nation, and most of all—we must never forget.